Twice, quarterback Patrick Mahomes has led the Kansas City Chiefs to victory in the Super Bowl, the pinnacle of U.S. football. Although most fans have their eyes on the ball as Mahomes prepares to throw, his tongue does something just as interesting. Just as basketball star Michael Jordan did as he went up for a dunk, and dart players often do as they take aim for a bull’s-eye, Mahomes prepares to pass by sticking out his tongue. That may be more than a silly quirk, some scientists say. Those tongue protrusions may improve the accuracy of his hand movements.
A small but growing group of researchers is fascinated by an organ we often take for granted. We rarely think about how agile our own tongue needs to be to form words or avoid being bitten while helping us taste and swallow food. But that’s just the start of the tongue’s versatility across the animal kingdom. Without tongues, few if any terrestrial vertebrates could exist. The first of their ancestors to slither out of the water some 400 million years ago found a buffet stocked with new types of foods, but it took a tongue to sample them. The range of foods available to these pioneers broadened as tongues diversified into new, specialized forms—and ultimately took on functions beyond eating.
“The incredible variation in vertebrate tongue form is replete with astonishing examples of almost unbelievable adaptation,” says Kurt Schwenk, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Connecticut. Salamanders whipping out sticky tongues longer than their bodies to snag insects; snakes “smelling” their environment with their forked tongue tips; hummingbirds slurping nectar from deep inside flowers; bats clicking their tongues to echolocate—all show how tongues have enabled vertebrates to exploit every terrestrial nook and cranny. In humans, still more functions crowded aboard the tongue. “I am amazed by everything we do with our tongue: eat, talk, kiss. It’s a central part of what it is to be a human,” says Jessica Mark Welch, a microbial ecologist at the Forsyth Institute.