Functional implications of supercontracting muscle in the chameleon tongue retractors

Anthony Herrel, Jay J. Meyers, Peter Aerts, Kiisa C. Nishikawa

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

31 Scopus citations


Chameleons capture prey items using a ballistic tongue projection mechanism that is unique among lizards. During prey capture, the tongue can be projected up to two full body lengths and may extend up to 600 % of its resting length. Being ambush predators, chameleons eat infrequently and take relatively large prey. The extreme tongue elongation (sixfold) and the need to be able to retract fairly heavy prey at any given distance from the mouth are likely to place constraints on the tongue retractor muscles. The data examined here show that in vivo retractor force production is almost constant for a wide range of projection distances. An examination of muscle physiology and of the ultrastructure of the tongue retractor muscle shows that this is the result (i) of active hyoid retraction, (ii) of large muscle filament overlap at maximal tongue extension and (iii) of the supercontractile properties of the tongue retractor muscles. We suggest that the chameleon tongue retractor muscles may have evolved supercontractile properties to enable a substantial force to be produced over a wide range of tongue projection distances. This enables chameleons successfully to retract even large prey from a variety of distances in their complex three-dimensional habitat.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3621-3627
Number of pages7
JournalJournal of Experimental Biology
Issue number21
StatePublished - 2001


  • Chamaeleo oustaleti
  • Chameleonidae
  • Force
  • Prey capture
  • Super-contracting striated muscle
  • Tongue retractor
  • Ultrastructure

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Physiology
  • Aquatic Science
  • Animal Science and Zoology
  • Molecular Biology
  • Insect Science


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