The Twisted Truth About Snake Tongues | Deep Look

From Deep Look.

To us, a snake’s forked tongue evokes danger and deceit. But the tongue’s two sensitive tips, called tines, actually help the snake smell in stereo. That’s bad news if you’re a mouse …

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DEEP LOOK is an ultra-HD (4K) short video series created by KQED San Francisco and presented by PBS Digital Studios. See the unseen at the very edge of our visible world. Explore big scientific mysteries by going incredibly small.

It’s the most infamous tongue in the world. But for snakes, that flicking tongue is the way they experience the world around them.

“In snakes, the tongue has been so reduced to this little skinny, highly protrusive organ,” says the University of Connecticut’s Kurt Schwenk, who studies the unique ways snakes and lizards use their tongues.

Like us, snakes have nostrils to breathe in air and sense odor. But snakes have a whole second system to help them track down prey, find mates and avoid predators. In a single second-long flick, a snake might wave its tongue up and down as many as 15 times to collect odor molecules.

As the snake retracts its tongue, it will often drag the forked tips on the ground. “Back inside the mouth, each of the tongue tips fits into a separate groove once it comes into the mouth,” says Schwenk. “Those two grooves go back separately to the opening of the vomeronasal organs.”

The two vomeronasal organs, which act like a second odor-collecting system, allow the snake to pick up tiny concentrations of scents. By having two vomeronasal organs, one each? on the right and left side, the snake can smell in stereo.

— How do snakes move?
Snakes don’t have limbs, so they use their long, flexible bodies to crawl on surfaces. Undulating waves of muscular contractions create forward momentum, and scales on their bellies help snakes get traction on the ground to push forward.

— Why do snakes shed their skin?
As snakes grow, their skin doesn’t stretch, so they periodically shed it. The process of shedding, called ecdysis, also allows snakes to replace worn or damaged scales and get rid of parasites on the skin’s surface.

— Why do snakes hiss?
Snakes hiss as a warning to predators and other threats. To make the hiss sound, a snake will force air through its glottis, an organ it uses to breathe.

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Kurt Schwenk at the University of Connecticut studies how snakes and lizards use their tongues to feed and sense the world around them.

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