For quite some time, biologists have puzzled over why a chameleon’s tongue is not affected by the temperature. After all, chameleons are cold-blooded. In other words, they cannot regulate their internal body temperature. As a result, their internal body temperature changes with the temperature of their surroundings. The colder the surroundings get, the colder the internal temperature of a chameleon gets.
Well, the colder the temperature, the slower the chemical reactions that power an animal’s muscles. Because of this, cold-blooded animals show a significant reduction in muscle action the colder the surroundings become. However, a chameleon’s tongue shows no significant reduction in action, even when the temperature dips almost to the freezing point of water! This is strange, because the tongue is a muscle, and all the chameleon’s other muscles are affected by temperature. Why not the tongue? Biologists now know the answer to that question, and it is remarkable.
Science News recently reported1 that researcher from the University of South Florida in Tampa found that a chameleon’s tongue contains a sheath of elastic collagen. When the chameleon retracts its tongue, the muscles work hard, because they are compressing the collagen. This stores energy, much like the compression of a spring.
When the chameleon wants to shoot its tongue out of its mouth to nab its prey, it doesn’t rely as much on its muscles. Instead, it relies on all that stored energy in the elastic collagen that is in its tongue. So the elastic collagen stores up a lot of energy as it is being compressed, and then when it is released, the energy stretches out the collagen, and the tongue along with it. As the author of the Science News article states:
Using elastic collagen instead of muscle power to shoot its tongue at prey lets a chameleon catch breakfast even when its muscles are stiff from the cold…
Of course, this is just what you would expect from a Master Designer. God knows that the chameleon needs a fast tongue to catch its prey. It doesn’t need to retract its tongue quickly. After all, once the prey is caught, a few more seconds to “reel it in” won’t matter. However, even a fraction of a second too slow when it comes to shooting out its tongue, and the prey is never caught. As a result, God designed a system that allows the muscles to work on retraction, but not so much when it comes to shooting the tongue out of the mouth. We live in an amazingly-engineered world!
1. Sid Perkins, “How Chameleons Hunt with a Snap,” Science News, April 10, 2010, p. 14.
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