5 of Nature’s Weirdest Tongues

Michael Jordan liked to stick his out, Miley Cyrus loves to show hers off, and Gene Simmons’s may be the most famous among humans.

Yet these tongues have nothing on those of the animal world when it comes to waggle and weirdness. Get a taste of these:


How can a walking artichoke be so dang cute? We don’t know, but kittens and hedgehogs better watch out, because the pangolin is blowing the adorable curve for everyone. (Watch a video of a pangolin using its tongue.)

A picture of a Cape Pangolin drinks water.
The cape pangolin of Africa drinks water. Photograph by Des & Jen Bartlett, National Geographic

They’re covered with scales made of keratin (which is also in our hair and nails); roll up in a ball to protect themselves; and have a crazily long, conical tongue.

In her in-depth Nat Geo blog post on pangolins, Rhishja Cota-Larson writes: “The tongue, which attaches to their pelvis, is longer than their body and is used to lap up their diet of termites and ants.”

Check out this orphaned pangolin displaying his tongue in his adopted owner’s selfie. Conical and comical.


With their color-changing camouflage, there’s no arguing that chameleons are cool (watch a video of one morphing hues).

picture of a Parson's Chameleon licking tongue to catch grasshopper at private reserve near Andasibe-Mantadia National Park.
A captive Parson’s chameleon grabs a grasshopper near Madagascar’s Andasibe-Mantadia National Park in 2013. Photograph by Paul Souders, Corbis

Their most fascinating feature, however, is probably their incredible tongue, which is likely the most famous in the animal kingdom. A chameleon’s tongue, which can be up to 1.5 times the animal’s body length, acts like a sticky lasso. Its mucusy tip attaches to whatever prey the reptile aims at and pulls the victim back in at lightning speed.

You’d never guess how fast their tongues can be from watching their slow walk. (Watch video: “World’s Deadliest: Craft Chameleon.”)

Blue Whale

Since it’s the largest animal known to have ever inhabited the Earth, it makes sense that the blue whale has a pretty formidable tongue. The organ can weigh about 2.7 tons—that’s heavier than an Asian elephant, according to WWF. (See blue whale pictures.)

They also use this giant tongue to eat, but not quite the same way we do. The marine mammals take in massive amounts of water, which their tongues then push through plates of baleen, a material made out of keratin (like the pangolin’s plates) to filter out tiny crustaceans called krill, their main food source.

Giant Anteater

A giant anteater‘s body stretches about 5 to 7 feet (1.5 to 2.1 meters) in length, and their tongues are about 2 feet (0.6 meter) long—which means that those appendages can be a third or more of their body length, according to the Smithsonian National Zoo.

picture of a Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla) profile with extended tongue, native to South America.
A giant anteater with its tongue extended. Photograph by Minden Pictures, Corbis

Without teeth, the giant anteater’s tongue does double duty—it’s spiny, which helps it grab insect prey, and its sticky saliva traps its victims against the roof of the mouth, where they’re crushed before being swallowed, according to the University of Edinburgh.

And if you think you know some fast talkers consider this: The anteater can flick its tongue 160 times a minute.

“Tongue Biter”

This last and strangest animal on the list doesn’t have the weirdest tongue… It is the weirdest tongue.

Saddleback anemonefish, Amphiprion polymnus, and tongue biter isopod parasite, Cymothoa exigua, Lembeh Strait, Bitung, Manado
A saddleback anemonefish carrying a “tongue biter parasite” in Manado, Indonesia. Photograph by Alamy

A fish parasite, Cymothoa exigua, is a crustacean that swims in through a fish’s gills and latches onto its tongue, cutting off the blood supply so that the organ eventually degenerates and the parasite replaces it. (Also see “Tongue Parasites to People of Earth: Thank You For Your Overfishing.”)

We can’t blame a man in Belfast for freaking out a little last year when he bought a fish that had one of these little hitchhikers inside its head; though marine biologist Melissa Beata Martin wrote on the Australian Museum blog that fish with tongue biters are actually safe for humans to eat.

Even so, I’m thinking the phrase “just remove the parasite before cooking” isn’t what you’d call an appetizer.

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Liz Langley is the award-winning author of Crazy Little Thing: Why Love and Sex Drive Us Mad and has written for many publications including Salon, Details and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @LizLangley and at www.lizlangley.com