Birds have evolved many ingenious ways to make a living on the Earth, and one group, the Woodpeckers, has taken these adaptations to some pretty amazing levels. Although less obvious than some of their other characteristic features, the Woodpecker’s tongue is a highly specialized and unique organ.
In this article, we’ll dive into Woodpecker tongue anatomy and function. Read along with us to learn about one of the most specialized tongues in the animal kingdom!
Woodpeckers have incredibly long tongues that can be as much as a third of their total body length! They have evolved barbed and saliva-coated tongues that can spear, hook, or trap their insect prey in sticky saliva before extracting it from wood or underground tunnels.
You might be wondering where Woodpeckers store such a long tongue, and the answer is truly intriguing. These birds have a specially developed structure known as the hyoid apparatus that wraps around the back of their skull, from the top of their bill all the way around to the opening of their mouth.
The hyoid apparatus connects with the tongue and controls its movement through muscles and the hyoid bone. With the help of muscles around their skull, Woodpeckers push the hyoid apparatus toward the bill and push the attached tongue far out of the bird’s mouth.
A Red-bellied Woodpecker. Woodpeckers have incredibly long tongues that can be as much as a third of their total body length!
So why do Woodpeckers have such long and unique tongues? The answer lies in their feeding technique.
Many Woodpeckers specialize in eating insects like ants and beetle larvae that live within wood. They pound away with their bills to open up insect colonies, tunnels, and chambers and then insert their long tongues to extract their prize.
Pecking at hard surfaces thousands of times each day is a pretty extreme way to make a living. The Woodpecker’s tongue wraps around its skull and may even provide some support against the stress, although we still don’t know exactly how these birds avoid getting headaches!
A Great Spotted Woodpecker. Many Woodpeckers specialize in eating insects like ants and beetle larvae that live within wood
Bird tongues come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes to suit their bill shape and feeding techniques. Some look similar to our own, but some are extremely specialized.
Goose tongues, for example, feature spiny projections called conical papillae that help them tear off plant material. Penguins have scary tongues too, but their bristles are used for gripping slippery prey before swallowing. Woodpeckers aren’t the only birds with extremely long tongues. Hummingbirds use their extendable tongues to access nectar from flowers and hummingbird feeders.
Check out this fascinating guide to learn more about bird tongue types.
Woodpecker tongues are such unusual structures that it can be challenging to picture just how they could have evolved in the first place. Of course, the process of evolution doesn’t happen overnight but rather in a very gradual and incremental process.
In theory, early Woodpeckers with longer tongues would have had better access to food and, therefore, a better chance of surviving, feeding their young, and passing on their ‘longer-tongued’ genes to the next generation. This form of natural selection may have shaped several unique traits in Woodpeckers, including their zygodactyl feet and stiff tail feathers.
Bird tongues secrete saliva for various reasons, including to help them swallow, assist in digestion, and even build their nests. Woodpeckers have another clever use for saliva. These birds use sticky saliva to help them extract insects and their larvae from their tunnels. This is especially important for species like Northern Flickers and Green Woodpeckers that specialize in ants.
Grey-headed Woodpecker foraging
So, we know that woodpeckers have some pretty remarkable adaptations to catch their prey, but how does it all come together? Let’s take a look at how Woodpeckers use their tongues.
There are over 200 known species of Woodpeckers, each with a slightly different biology. However, the typical Woodpecker finds its food by searching under bark or in dead branches and wood for signs of insects and their larvae living within.
Woodpeckers can peck at a precise area at speeds of around 15 miles per hour (25km/h) and may land about 20 blows per second in pursuit of their prize. The forces involved would kill or severely injure a human, and yet these birds may strike at wood more than ten thousand times each day!
Once it’s opened up a large enough hole, the Woodpecker can insert its bill, extend its tongue to spear or hook their prey, and then pull their meal back to be swallowed. Typical targets include a nest of ants or a juicy carpenter bee grub in a tunnel in the wood.
Woodpeckers are common birds across much of the world, including the United States and Britain. Despite their unique adaptations, many species are under increasing pressure from habitat loss and other environmental problems in the modern world.
Sadly, some species have already been lost, including the iconic Ivory-billed Woodpecker of the American South. By studying Woodpecker anatomy, ecology, and behavior, we can better understand their needs and take action to protect the species that need it most.
The Northern Flicker is one Woodpecker species with an exceptionally long tongue
Woodpecker tongues vary in length depending on their species. Large species, like the Pileated Woodpecker, can have tongues about 5 inches long!
Woodpecker tongues can vary in length and shape depending on their diet and foraging behavior. Sapsuckers, for example, don’t need long tongues because they feed on sap that wells up at the surface of tree trunks. Flickers need very long tongues to catch ants in their nests underground, and their sticky saliva acts just like the glue on a fly trap.
Many birds have tastebuds on their tongues, including Woodpeckers. Interestingly, these birds can detect sugary tastes. A study led by the Max Planck Institute for Biological Intelligence in Germany concluded that Woodpeckers can taste sugars and amino acids.
Who would’ve thought something as obscure as a Woodpecker’s tongue could be so fascinating? It just goes to show how much there is for us to appreciate in the natural world and why we should all do our part to safeguard life on the planet.
Next time you hear a Woodpecker tap-tapping away, take a moment to consider the remarkable adaptations these birds have evolved to survive!
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