(Phys.org)—A small team of mathematicians with Oxford University and an engineer with Tufts University has together proposed a model to explain the dynamics of the chameleon tongue. In their paper published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A, the team describes their study of chameleon tongues, their findings and a description of the math used to model the sequence of events that lead up to a very fast tongue strike.
The chameleon tongue strike is well documented, most people have seen examples of it in action in nature documentaries—generally in slow motion. What sets it apart is its speed—a chameleon can push its tongue out at a target at speeds up to 100 kilometers per hour. But how it does so, has not been well understood. In this new effort, the researchers have found that in order to reach such incredible speeds so quickly, the chameleon relies on three main parts: the sticky pad that is situated on the end of its tongue which adheres to prey, coils of acceleration muscles and retractor muscles that pull prey back in before they have a chance to escape. They also note that both types of muscles coil around a tiny bone in the mouth—the hyoid. In order for a chameleon to catch prey, all of its systems must work in near perfect unison.
It all starts, the researchers report, with the accelerator muscles contracting, which squeezes tube shaped segments inside of the tongue, pushing them to the far end in what they team calls a loaded position. As the accelerator muscles contract, the tongue is forced outward while at the same time, the tube shaped segments are pushed outwards telescopically, like an old fashioned car radio antenna. The sheets are made of collagen which is of course very elastic, which means they are stretched out as the tongue is pushed away from the mouth, but then naturally recoil once the target has been reached. Retraction is assisted by retractor muscles.
The researchers have put all these actions into a mathematical model which allows them to manipulate various factors, such as how big around the sheets can be. They noted that such changes to the system could be destructive—if the radius of the inner sheath was more than 1.4 millimeters, they found, the tongue would rip loose from its base as it was launched causing the loss of the tongue.
Explore further: Why chameleon tongues work in the cold (w/ Video)
More information: Derek E. Moulton et al. The elastic secrets of the chameleon tongue, Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Science (2016). DOI: 10.1098/rspa.2016.0030
The ballistic projection of the chameleon tongue is an extreme example of quick energy release in the animal kingdom. It relies on a complicated physiological structure and an elaborate balance between tissue elasticity, collagen fibre anisotropy, active muscular contraction, stress release and geometry. A general biophysical model for the dynamics of the chameleon tongue based on large deformation elasticity is proposed. The model involves three distinct coupled subsystems: the energetics of the intralingual sheaths, the mechanics of the activating accelerator muscle and the dynamics of tongue extension. Together, these three systems elucidate the key physical principles of prey-catching among chameleonides.