We Now Know How Tiny Lizards Defy Gravity With Their Gargantuan Tongues

A certain pygmy chameleon can achieve one of the most explosive movements in the animal kingdom, and now scientists know the secret to its power.

The endangered rosette-nosed chameleon, or Rhampholeon spinosus, is capable of flinging its tongue 2.5 times the length of its own body and from zero to 60 miles per hour in a hundredth of a second — that’s 300 times faster than a 2015 Chevrolet Corvette accelerates.

This tiny lizard species, which is found only in the Usambara Mountains of Tanzania, measures just a couple of inches in length. But a new study published in the journal Scientific Reports on Monday reveals exactly how the small creature makes up in powerful tongue speed what it lacks in size.

For the study, Brown University biologist Christopher Anderson and his team surveyed 20 chameleon species of varying sizes in an attempt to find the upper limit of chameleon tongue performance.

Research shows that a chameleon’s secret weapon is its ability to “pre-load” large amounts of energy into the tongue’s elastic tissue, and this stored energy augments the muscle power used to fling the tongue. And while all chameleons have the same catapult-like apparatus for launching the tongue, smaller chameleons have ones that are larger proportional to their size.

“Smaller species have higher performance than larger species,” Anderson said in a statement.

He compared the smaller species to “little sports cars with relatively powerful engines.”

The researchers concluded that it’s an evolutionary trait that can be explained by a smaller animal’s need to “consume more energy per body weight” in order to survive. Just check out the Trioceros hoehnelii — one of the chameleon species used in the study — below.