My family and I ultimately love our pet snake. Our ball python is a gorgeous creature, and he (although we still argue about whether he is a he or a she) has a glossy reddish-pink tongue that flicks all over.
We often wonder just why our python flicks its tongue. Is it smelling, tasting, or simply hungry? Why do snakes flick their tongues?
I decided that all the musings and theories had to finally be proven, so I decided to go find out from the experts, and this is what I discovered:
Wow, this was amazing!
Our little ball python’s pink tongue had a purpose that we had never guessed at. But the whole process was a little strange though, and how was I going to explain it to my much younger kids?
Was there a way to show my children exactly how a snake’s tongue worked, why it flicked its tongue, and what could happen if a snake no longer had a tongue?
Why Do Snakes Flick Their Tongue?
Snakes flick their tongues so they can draw the scent particles to their mouths and make them come into contact with the Jacobson’s organ at the roof of their mouth. This is the scent processing center where chemical samples turn into electro-chemical impulses or nerve pulses that relay the scent information to the brain.
Why Snakes Flick Their Tongue Instead of Licking
I was curious why our python didn’t lick its lips. My friends have geckos, but they don’t flick their tongues and instead, they lick their lips.
Why do snakes flick instead of lick?
The answer was most interesting. The snake’s tongue doesn’t stir the scent markers it gathers around in the mouth.
Instead, by flicking, it gathers more markers, and these are then scraped off by the closed lips of the snake, depositing the scent particles on the Jacobson’s organ.
Once the scent payload has been delivered, it then flicks back out to sweep up some more scents.
How a Snake’s Tongue Works
A snake’s tongue doesn’t work the same as a human tongue does. For starters, a snake doesn’t need their tongue to swallow food.
Unlike dogs, a snake doesn’t lick with its tongue. Instead, their tongue has only one purpose: gathering scent markers from the outside world and transporting these into the mouth where they can be processed by Jacobson’s organ.
The forked tongue of a snake helps it gather information, and it does so by sweeping through the air like a broom, drawing in as many scent markers as it can.
If you have watched a snake up close, like my family and I have, then you will have noticed their tongue sweeps up and down, as well as flick sometimes.
These two distinct tongue movements help the snake gather even more scent particles. The flicking movement creates a mini vortex of air, drawing scent from further away than the snake’s path to help it follow a trail.
This helps a snake hunt.
Remember, all snakes are carnivores, and they need to hunt prey or they will starve and die.
So that busy tongue of theirs is essential to helping them follow the prey they have bitten and that’s gotten away, or hunt for prey they have only just scented.
Since a snake has very poor eyesight, it relies on scent particles to create a kind of 3D map of where it is going.
They can smell anything, creating a better picture of the world around them.
So, while a snake does have a regular nose, this nose is only there as a watchman, telling the tongue to wake up and explore.
A snake will smell something with its nose, then this will trigger the tongue flicking behavior, and soon, the snake will begin hunting.
I found it especially interesting that the reason a snake has a forked tongue is that this increases the surface area where scent particles can be gathered.
It also helps inform the snake of scents from its left and right, helping it navigate its world. This is why a snake can “see” in complete darkness.
What a Snake Does if it Doesn’t Have a Tongue
My mind suddenly wondered what would happen to a snake that had no tongue. What if it got injured in a fight or while swallowing a meal, and its tongue no longer worked as it should?
Before modern science, where ethics are applied, a scientist did research on just this question. He cut off the forked part of a few snakes’ tongues, then observed them interacting in a controlled environment.
These snakes could no longer flick their tongues. While they were unable to gather scent from the outside world, they could open their mouths and smell what they could gasp into their mouths.
These snakes could “see” straight ahead of them based on the scents they could gulp. However, when it came to hunting, they had become “blind.”
These snakes couldn’t smell where their prey went if the prey suddenly turned sharply to the side. Without a flicking tongue, a snake is effectively like a blinkered horse that can only “see” straight ahead.
In the wild, such a snake would soon starve and die.
Frequently Asked Questions about Why Snakes Flick Their Tongue
Do snakes sense with their tongues?
The snake’s tongue gathers scent markers for the Jacobson’s organ, where they smell their world in such detail that it is akin to seeing with scent.
What’s a snake tongue’s purpose?
A snake’s tongue collects information in the form of scents that are processed in the mouth, and these tell your snake where they are going, where their prey is, and what they should do to catch prey.
What smell do snakes hate?
Snakes dislike any sharp and potent chemical scent as it interferes with their tongue’s ability to gather unique scents that can be interpreted. By spraying ammonia around your home, it is like spraying someone’s car windows with milk. In the case of a snake, it is a matter of not being able to smell where they are going.
The Last Flicked Tongue
Snakes have been adapted to really see their world in chemical terms, and their forked tongue is ideal for this.
It tells them about what is ahead of them and what is to the sides. This unique mechanism has made the snake an efficient hunter that can literally smell better than it can see.