The anteater, giraffe, okapi, sun bear, and chameleon all have one thing in common – their unbelievably long tongues! But why do these animals have such lengthy lickers?
From stripping leaves off treetop branches, to snaking out ants and termites from tight nooks and crannies, these incredible appendages are all about scooping up a quick meal!
The giant anteater grows up to eight feet long, and its lengthy tongue adds another two feet when fully extended. Amazingly, this ninety-pound mammal subsists on insects alone – primarily ants and termites – consuming around 30,000 of them daily.
The largest of the anteater species, the giant anteater has a structurally unique tongue that connects to the sternum rather than the throat. This tongue-sternum connection means the anteater's tongue can flick as fast as a hundred and fifty times a minute.
The giant anteater can sniff out a termite mound or ant hill using its keen sense of smell, and its four-inch-long claws can quickly tear down an anthill. From here, it is all down to that turbo tongue! Backward-pointing spines on the tongue coated with sticky saliva make the perfect “spoon” for scooping insects out of hard-to-reach places.
The eighteen-foot-tall giraffe is known for having a six-foot-long neck, but do you know it also has a twenty-inch-long tongue? This herbivore weighs up to 4,200 pounds and survives on a diet of twigs and leaves that it strips from the treetops with its blue-black colored tongue.
The giraffe’s dark-colored tongue is colored to protect it from sun exposure – imagine getting a sunburned tongue! The giraffe’s tongue is a prehensile appendage because it has such fine muscular control that it can hold things using its tongue alone.
The giraffe harvests the best leaves and branches by sweeping the tops of the trees, but with one lick, it claims just a few leaves at a time. Since this tall savanna dweller needs up to seventy-five pounds of vegetation daily, a giraffe can spend seventy-five percent of the day harvesting leaves and branches!
The okapi is native to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and is often called a “forest giraffe.” Although this unique creature looks more like a zebra-deer hybrid, it is the giraffe's only living relative. As a fellow member of the Giraffidae family, it is no surprise that the okapi also has a record-breaking tongue!
Although the okapi’s tongue does not reach a similar twenty-inches-long, it still measures an impressive fourteen inches. Like the giraffe, the okapi can easily strip leaves from vegetation with its dark prehensile tongue.
This unusual mammal uses its tongue for more than gathering vegetation, it also licks its eyelids, cleans its ears, and uses it as a fly swatter in the African heat!
Native to Southeast Asia, the sun bear is the smallest bear in the world, but there is nothing small about this bear’s tongue! Although far from the two-foot-long tongue of the giant anteater, the sun bear still has an impressive ten-inch-long tongue that it uses in much the same way!
Sun bears are omnivorous and feed on birds, insects, fruits, and rodents they find in the tropical rainforest. While a good tool for harvesting vegetation, the sun bear primarily uses its long tongue to fish insects out of tight crevices and gorge themselves on figs! Also known as the “honey bear,” this sweet-loving bear also uses its tongue to slurp honey out of beehives.
The sun bear has the longest tongue of any bear species and puts that tongue to good use as it slurps up approximately ten pounds of various foods daily.
A list of animals with long tongues would not be complete without mention of the chameleon. Although not as long as the giant anteater’s, the chameleon has a larger tongue-to-body length ratio with a tongue that is twice as long as its body! If a human had the same tongue-to-body ratio, our tongues would be approximately ten to twelve feet long!
Not only is the length of the chameleon’s tongue impressive, but it can also go from zero to sixty in one-hundredth of a second! To shoot out at this speed, the chameleon relies on a muscle that squeezes down on the bone at the center of the tongue. This incredible speed is helpful when snatching insects out of the air.
The chameleon’s long tongue is attached to the back of the throat and folds around a spike of cartilage inside the mouth. Since the chameleon has very elastic tissue in its tongue, when retracted into the mouth, it is not nearly as long as when extended.