What can go from 0 to 60 in a hundredth of a second? That would be the tongue of the chameleon Rhampholeon spinosus. It's not the world's tiniest chameleon (that would be Brookesia micra, which could easily balance on the tip of your finger), but the species was the smallest one studied in a paper published Monday in Scientific Reports. And the little lizard is surprisingly fierce: Its tongue packed a bigger punch than that of its bigger cousins.
Brown University postdoctoral researcher Christopher Anderson wanted to figure out just how powerful a chameleon's tongue can be. Second only to the tongue of a salamander, a chameleon tongue uses unique elastic tissues to produce an incredible amount of force and acceleration. According to Anderson's analysis of 20 different species of chameleon (which included 55 individuals and 279 individual feeding events recorded at 3,000 frames per second), the acceleration, relative length and relative force of the tongue may actually increase as the chameleon's size decreases.
Rhampholeon spinosus, the smallest species he studied, had a tongue that shot out 2.5 times the length of its body. The tongue raced toward prey at 8,500 feet per second. That's 264 gs, or 264 times the force of gravity at sea level. If the chameleon's tongue was a car, it could go from 0 to 60 in a hundredth of a second — but as it stands, the organ only has to accelerate for a few milliseconds before it hits its delicious insect target.
According to Anderson, it's not surprising that tiny chameleons have the most powerful tongue lashes. The mechanism used to launch the tongue gets proportionally bigger as the lizards get smaller, probably because they need more energy per body weight to survive. When you're just a few inches long, efficiency is key to survival. Having a tongue that's fast and furious helps keep these tiny lizards alive.
Bigger lizards can afford to be lazier when it comes to their body mechanics. Furcifer oustaleti, a two-foot-long species that was the largest one Anderson studied, had peak acceleration rates 18 percent less than Rhampholeon spinosus.