Why Snakes Have Forked Tongues

Science  18 Mar 1994:
Vol. 263, Issue 5153, pp. 1573-1577
DOI: 10.1126/science.263.5153.1573


The serpent's forked tongue has intrigued humankind for millennia, but its function has remained obscure. Theory, anatomy, neural circuitry, function, and behavior now support a hypothesis of the forked tongue as a chemosensory edge detector used to follow pheromone trails of prey and conspecifics. The ability to sample simultaneously two points along a chemical gradient provides the basis for instantaneous assessment of trail location. Forked tongues have evolved at least twice, possibly four times, among squamate reptiles, and at higher taxonomic levels, forked tongues are always associated with a wide searching mode of foraging. The evolutionary success of advanced snakes might be due, in part, to perfection of this mechanism and its role in reproduction.