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Why do snakes stick out their tongues?

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Ever wonder why snakes are always sticking out their tongues? Woodland Park Zoo volunteer, Jordan, asked some of the zoo’s most curious visitors to explain…and their answers were pretty impressive! It's hard to trick the smartest zoo kids in the world.

All snakes have a vomeronasal organ, sometimes referred to as the Jacobson’s organ. This special auxiliary olfactory organ, located on the roof of the snake’s mouth, allows tiny chemical particles to be interpreted by the snake’s brain. A lightning fast exchange, the tongue finds these particles from the air, water or ground and delivers them to the Jacobson’s organ. The organ then supplies this information to the brain which interprets the message and the snake reacts accordingly.

A snake’s vomeronasal organ, or Jacobson’s organ, sits inside the roof of the mouth. A snake’s forked tongue assists in this adaptation by fitting snuggly into the organ, the perfect delivery system for chemical stimuli.

This ball python shows off its forked tongue as it checks out the camera lens. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

While snakes and reptiles flick this chemical stimulus into their mouth, most all mammals have a vomeronasal organ that assists the animals in detecting minute chemical scents. In cats the organ is stimulated when the cat exhibits the Flehmen reaction, sort of a sneer or curling of their lips.

Some studies suggest that humans might use this organ to detect pheromones from other people, potential mates or potential bad dates, but less is known about its function in humans. This function could be the answer to some behavioral preferences in people, but very little is known about its usefulness.

Snakes have a special shape in their lips that allows their tongue to constantly taste the air without having to open their mouth. This reticulated python in the Day Exhibit is a great example. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Next time you visit the zoo, stop by the Day Exhibit and take a close look at the snakes. You’re sure to see this remarkable adaptation in action!

An endangered Aruba Island rattlesnake. A tiny flick of the tongue can tell a snake a whole lot about its environment. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.