Contributed by Marielle Grenade-Willis
The tongue is one of the strongest muscles in the human body and host to thousands of taste buds responsible for flavor discernment. But what if your tongue was a liquid-trapping, passive appendage you could flick more than 18 times per second versus a slimy conglomeration of muscles? Researchers have discovered how energetically ergonomic a hummingbird’s tongue really is by creating artificial flowers and training these vibrant birds to feed at them. What they found out is astounding: “As the bird sticks its tongue out, it uses its beak to compress the two tubes at the tip, squeezing them flat. They momentarily stay compressed because the residual nectar inside them glues them in place. But when the tongue hits nectar, the liquid around it overwhelms whatever’s already inside. The tubes spring back to their original shape and nectar rushes into them.” Not only do the tubes widen again, but they also separate with side flaps unfurling to allow in more nectar. As the tongue retracts from the flower, these tubes join back together again and compress allowing the hummingbird to swallow. The most amazing part: this process is entirely passive and the researchers found both live and dead birds to have this response. In many ways, the hummingbird’s tongue mimics the flower structure it is feeding from. Human imitation and application of such a dynamic structure could yield many exciting biomimicry results.