The tongue is a muscular organ used by humans and animals for a variety of tasks, including swallowing, breathing, eating, drinking, tasting, speaking, licking, self-cleaning, and more. While its size, length, and shape can range considerably, its appearance, strength, and function can also vary for different reasons.
That said, you may have heard about some of the weirdest or most unique tongues in the world already, like the chameleon tongue -- which is over twice the size of its body (on average), and the Giant Anteaters’ tongue, which is two feet long and vibrates up to 160 times a minute. But have you heard about the really weird tongue stuff?
We took a nice, deep dive and found some of the strangest tongues on the globe to share with you. When you’re ready, come check out our favorite finds:
Amazing Tongues in the Animal Kingdom
Alligator Snapping Turtle
This creepy creature tops our list due to its frightening appearance and lethal techniques. To “hunt”, the alligator snapping turtle basically just sits still with its horrifying face open and a bright pink sliver of “tongue” showing for underwater passersby to see in full view. And see it, they shall! Thinking it’s a tiny, juicy, pink worm, plenty of curious fish will eventually swim in to get a closer look -- and then, snap! It’s curtains for the fish and a nice meal for the turtle. This trick tends to work pretty well, too - the alligator snapping turtle can reach up to a whopping 175 pounds and is the largest freshwater turtle on the planet.
Who doesn’t love to find a hummingbird flitting about their garden or patio flowers, sipping a bit of nectar on a warm summer’s day? These tiny, beautiful, and super-speedy birds are the favorite of many. As they complete their spring migration to the delight of those of us tracking their return to the United States and Canada, it’s worth noting that the hummingbird’s tongue is as unique as they come -- only finally being properly understood through the publication of a 2015 study.
The study, written in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, revealed that hummingbirds developed tongues that acted as micropumps, uniquely suctioning up their nectar. The study described the suction as, “similar to when we drink juice with a straw using our cheeks as a vacuum -- but the difference is, they don’t have a vacuum.”
Note: Many hummingbirds have died in recent years due to improper food being placed in outdoor feeders. Please make sure you follow the right recipe to keep them healthy. Here is a safe hummingbird food recipe from Smithsonian. Also, make sure to keep the right cleaning schedule (check FAQs) to prevent mold growth in the feeders. If you’ve ever seen a picture of a hummingbird’s tongue so covered in fungi that it has actually killed the bird, you know it is just the saddest thing.
Described by Conservationist Dolph C. Volker as “the roughest type of sandpaper with little teeth attached”, cheetah tongues are some of the prickliest you’ll find, and with good reason. They’re designed that way so the big cats can more easily get the flesh off the bones of their prey.
That’s not the only purpose they serve, either. Cheetahs’ rough tongues are great for peeling back the skin of freshly caught prey, grooming and cleaning themselves after meals and otherwise, and lapping up plenty of cool water when thirsty. What’s more? Cats’ tongues also spread around a special kind of deodorizer that helps mask scents, allowing them to more skillfully hide from predators and sneak up on prey.
Since they’re known to be the largest animals ever to have lived on earth, there should be little surprise to find that blue whales also have the largest tongues in the entire animal kingdom. They use their massive tongues, which can weigh up to four tons, primarily for eating, but in a slightly different way than you might expect.
They start off by taking in an enormous amount of water, then use their tongues to push through a brush-like formation of a substance called baleen (sort of like keratin in the human body) to filter out their main source of sustenance, krill. We hope you liked the nice drone footage above of a blue whale finding a large enough patch of krill to open its mouth for, courtesy of Smithsonian.
Commonly found in the natural areas and family yards of New Guinea and Australia, the world’s blue-tongued skinks are in frequent contact with various types of predators. Whenever they feel threatened, the skinks instinctively puff themselves up to look bigger and then open their mouths, hissing, to reveal their bright blue tongues. Scientists believe that the unforeseen flash of an unexpected color throws predators off long enough for the skinks to escape their deadly confrontation.
Have you ever had the opportunity to really look at a giraffe’s tongue? If so, its appearance might’ve shocked you! Since giraffes can grow up to an amazing 18-feet tall (yep, it’s the tallest land mammal on the earth!) with tongues up to 20-inches long, their tendency to have their tongues out all day long while eating from the nearby trees probably comes as no surprise. However, the blue/black color to protect from such frequent contact with the blazing African sunshine is stunning.
Pirarucu, The Bony-Tongued Fish
Stick made from guarana seeds (brown) and dry pirarucu fish tongue, used to grate the guarana and get the guarana powder that is used as an energy drink.
A member of a group called the Osteoglossidae, the pirarucu, also known as the ‘bony-tongued fish,’ indeed do have bony tongues, aka- tongues with teeth. Prevalent in the Amazonian freshwater regions, the carnivorous pirarucu can grow to 10 feet long and/or 485 pounds. Pirarucus crush their prey with the bony (toothed) tongues, and the Amazonian people also use dried pirarucu tongues as seed-graters.
Once considered to be the main protein source for Amazonians dwelling near the water, the numbers of the larger pirarucu have recently decreased due to overfishing. Pirarucu can be seen on this website.
When you need to peck in wood and other hard surfaces as much as woodpeckers do, it pays to have the cushion and design of a woodpecker’s tongue.
For the purposes of adaptation, the woodpecker tongue has developed the following remarkable properties:
Most are significantly longer -- some around three times longer -- than the woodpecker’s beak
Some can be around ⅓ of the length of the bird’s full body
In order to properly fit inside the head, the tongue must wrap around inside the bird’s skull
This wrapping of the bird’s tongue muscles has been revealed to provide insulation from continuous repeated pecks by the woodpecker, which, in turn, protects it from brain injury.
World Records for Human Tongues
For the oddest results of all, we consulted the Guinness Book of World Records, where we found -- you guessed it -- the weirdest human tongue-related records! Aside from the everyday longest tongue record for human males (3.97 inches from tip to closed lip), and females (3.8 inches), the widest tongue or males (3.49 inches), and females (2.89 inches), as well as the most rat traps released on a tongue in one minute (the answer is 13), there were stranger results still to be found!
Here are a few of the most impressive:
Most Cherry Stems Knotted in Mouth by Tongue
A Maine resident working in a bar one night suddenly noticed his indescribable new ability to tie cherry stems together with his tongue inside his mouth.
According to Al Gliniecki, “I was working as a bouncer at The Dock ...” he said. “I saw a guy do it and thought I should try.” So, he did it, he succeeded, and he kept trying as customers kept betting him to do more - and he kept winning. Shortly thereafter, word of Gliniecki’s talent spread, and he appeared on talk shows like Ricki Lake and Montel Williams, as well as ABC’s To Tell the Truth.
Gliniecki currently holds three Guinness World Records for most cherry stems knotted in the mouth by the tongue:
Most in one minute: 14 stems
Most in 3 minutes: 39 stems
and most in 1 hour: 911 stems
Gliniecki’s advice? “Pick a good stem.”
Most Tongue Piercings
Some people love their piercings, getting new ones all over their faces and bodies as often as possible, while others still cringe when they reflect back on getting something as simple as their ears pierced. To each their own, right? But tongue piercings? Who does a lot of that?!
We can tell you who does that! Frank (Francesco) Vacca of Lyndhurst, New Jersey, achieved the Guinness Book of World Records for ‘Most Tongue Piercings’ on January 5, 2017. Having already held the record at 16 piercings initially, Vacca went ahead and got two sets of two more piercings, bringing his own total up to 20 -- once again giving himself the World Record.
Don’t forget, tongue piercings can get infected easily, damage the nerves and muscles of your tongue permanently, and also damage your teeth. So, think hard about the pros and cons before you consider getting even one tongue piercing.
World Record for Stopping the Blades of a Fan with Tongue
Last but not least, if you’re looking for something highly unique in the Guinness Book of World Records, this one just might be the most fascinating we’ve found. Definitely don’t try this one at home!
Turns out an Australian woman named Zoe Ellis attempted to break her own record for the title ‘Most electric fan blades stopped using the tongue in one minute’ - and succeeded - holding the new record of stopping the blades 32 times!
For success with this record, Zoe used two 35W fans, set at the highest speed setting, and held one in each hand, for astounding results. Zoe defended her title beautifully until Ms. Ashrita Fhurman came around with her own record-breaking stops -- up to a whopping 35 times. Zoe still holds several other records though, including ‘Most mouse traps released onto the tongue in one minute’.
Tongue health, in general
We’ve covered some interesting terrain here today, and had some fun looking at wild and wacky tongues -- but on a slightly more serious note, we at Jungle Roots really do want you to have a healthy tongue. We’ve touched on the matter in a previous article on the human tongue (Check it out for even more strange facts!), but to reiterate briefly what that means:
Having a healthy tongue means it will be:
Be pink, but not RED