Why Do Snakes Have Forked Tongues?

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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 …


It’s the most infamous tongue in the world.

To us, the snake’s forked tongue means danger and deceit.

But to a snake, all that flicking lets it paint a picture of the world around it.


We mostly rely on sight and sound, but snakes live in a world of smell.

Like us, they use their nose for some basic sniffing.

See its nostrils there?

But it’s their tongue that takes their senses to the next level — helping them skirt danger, find a mate and hunt for prey.

This mouse might be quick and quiet, but it can’t help leaving a trail of clues behind … perfect for a hungry snake to follow.

The snake flicks its tongue in a blur of up and down motion, collecting scents from the air and ground.

You might’ve heard that snakes taste the air with their tongue, but that’s not quite right.

Snakes don’t actually have taste buds on their tongues at all

The tongue’s whole job is to collect samples in the saliva and bring them back into the snake’s mouth.

Its forked tongue ends in two delicate tips called tines.

They allow the snake to sweep a wider area and pick up odor molecules from two different spots at the same time.

When it retracts, the forked tongue fits perfectly into this tongue-shaped groove in the roof of the mouth.

Saliva from the tines flows through these two tiny holes, one on each side — up into the vomeronasal organs.

They’re full of sensory cells, ready to pick up the tiniest trace of that appetizing mouse.

The snake’s brain compares cues from the left and right to instantly figure out which side is stronger.

Yup, snakes smell in stereo.

And that’s bad news for the mouse.

Researchers at the University of Connecticut set up high-speed cameras to take a closer look at that forked tongue.

In a single, one-second flick, they captured how a snake waves its tongue up and down, up to 15 times.

Compare that to their lizard cousins that usually just pop their tongues out and down to the ground.

That means the lizards are mostly picking up odors from surfaces.

The researchers set up lasers and found that the snake’s lightning-fast tongue rips through the air, creating vortexes …

… which suck in air and concentrate odor molecules in the saliva.

When a mammal tries to find the source of a scent, it points its nose in the air and sniffs.

That also works to concentrate scents, but the snake can still smell circles around the mouse.

With such a finely tuned sensory system, it isn’t long before that tongue leads the snake right to its prey.

A tongue that tastes dinner is good, but a tongue that finds it for you is even better.

Hey, Laura here.

Did you know some snakes stick out their tongues as a warning?

They flip them straight up and down to show enemies they mean business.

Rattlesnakes add a startling buzz from their backside.

Watch this episode to see how.