It's only a couple of inches long, just about big enough to perch comfortably on your thumb, but the rosette-nosed chameleon proves fast things come in small packages. The little lizard is the proud owner of a super-speedy tongue. If you think of its tongue as a muscle car, it would go from 0 to 60 miles per hour in just a hundredth of a second.

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The rosette-nosed chameleon (Rhampholeon spinosus) hunts prey with its super-speedy tongue in the forests of Tanzania's Usambara mountain range. Image: Shutterstock

Chameleons are famous for their long, ballistic tongues, which can shoot out and snatch prey faster than your eye can follow. But Christopher Anderson, a researcher from Brown University, wanted to know just how fast is fast. 

To test the upper limits of chameleon tongue skills, he grabbed a high-speed camera that shoots 3,000 frames a second, gathered up representatives from 20 different chameleon species (big and small), and then headed for the lab. To get his test subjects to perform, he dangled crickets within a tantalising distance and waited for the infamous strike.

Here's Trioceros hoehneliione of the species that was part of the study, doing its thing:

So how did the chameleons fare? It was the smaller subjects that packed the most powerful punch. "Smaller species have higher performance than larger species,” says Anderson in a press release. The smaller the chameleon, he found, the more powerful and speedy the strike and the greater the distance the tongue could extend relative to body size. 

In the case of the rosette-nosed chameleon (Rhampholeon spinosus), a species native to the forests of Tanzania's Usambara Mountains, the tongue shoots out 2.5 times the lizard's body length. Getting lunch? All it needs is 20 milliseconds. 

The study's bigger species, like the two-foot Malagasy giant chameleon (Furcifer oustaleti)were like a stately Bentley to their smaller cousins' 911 Turbo. 

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Image: The Rhampholeon spinosus chameleon was the study's tiny champion. Image: Christopher Anderson

All of this makes perfect evolutionary sense, of course. When you don't have size on your side, a lethally efficient tongue is a lifesaver. Relative to body size, smaller animals need more energy to survive, and a tongue that shoots out faster and farther ensures even tiny chameleons get all the tasty crickets they need to stay alive. 

Anderson's findings were published this week in Scientific Reports


Top header image: Aftab Uzzaman, Filckr