Watch a chameleon snatch its prey in super slow motion

Chameleons have to work fast to snag a cricket for their next meal. Fortunately, these little reptiles have some of the fastest and most powerful tongues of any kind of vertebrate -- and new research and super slow motion video sheds light on just how fast and powerful they really are.

Brown University biologist Christopher Anderson and colleagues surveyed individuals of 20 chameleon species of varying sizes to test the upper limit of their tongue performance. He set them up one by one and tempted the tongue to spring into action with a cricket dangling in the distance.

Anderson measured the distance the tongue went, the elapsed time, and the speed and acceleration at any given time using a camera that shoots 3,000 frames a second.

He found that ballistic tongue projection in a chameleon so small that it would fit on your thumb can go from 0 to 60 mph in a hundredth of a second. The total power output of the tiny Rhampholeon spinosus chameleon's tongue was 14,040 watts per kilogram.

This fascinating detail has been overlooked in past research because the smallest species of chameleons had not been measured.

"Smaller species have higher performance than larger species," Anderson said in a statement. "What this study shows is that by using smaller species, we may be able to elucidate these higher performance values."

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Anderson's analysis showed that the smaller the chameleon, the higher the peak acceleration, relative power, and distance of tongue extension relative to body size. Little Rhampholeon spinosus (just 4.7 cm, or 1.8 inches long) stuck out its tongue to 2.5 times its body length, whereas the larger Furcifer oustaleti managed a peak acceleration less than 18 percent of the champ, Rhamp.

rhampholeonspinosuschameleon.jpg
The tiny Rhampholeon spinosus chameleon can stick out its tongue with a peak acceleration 264 times greater than the acceleration due to gravity.
Christopher Anderson

Chameleons' fast and furious tongue action is made possible by preloading energy into the elastic tissues in the tongue. When energy is released, the recoil of those tissues increases tongue performance.

Anderson believes that smaller chameleons can snag their prey faster because they need to consume more energy relative to their body weight to survive.

Anderson also believes that researchers should look to the little guys when studying physical performance.

"What this study shows is that by using smaller species, we may be able to elucidate these higher performance values," he said in a statement.