Chameleon Catapult

Chameleon Catapult

Chameleons are among the slowest moving reptiles. But their protruding eyes swivel independently for a 360 degree range, so they can look for prey in different directions at the same time. When a hapless insect victim is detected, both eyes focus on it to judge range and distance with superb accuracy. 

Ballistic Brilliance! The chameleon then launches its tongue, which is 1.5 times its body length, at speeds of 26 body lengths per second. That works out to 13.4 miles per hour or 6 meters per second . The initial acceleration is enormous: 500 m s−2 or 51g. For comparison, the space shuttle launches at 3g and humans pass out at accelerations approaching 10g. It takes less than a tenth of a second for the chameleon to snag its prey!

Corkscrew Collagen: This impressive performance exceeds the capability of any muscle in biology by an order of magnitude. So what’s the secret behind the ballistics? The chameleon’s tongue has energy stored in concentric layers of a springy fiber, called collagen, wrapped around a stiff cartilage core. The powerful tongue muscle initially primes the spring by compressing it, to the same effect as a bow being pulled taut. When the tongue is launched, the spring uncoils explosively, slipping off the cartilage core. Once the sticky end snares the prey, the muscles work more slowly to reel it back in. This gives chameleons a competitive edge over lizards and other reptiles. Watch ▶

Breakfast at Dawn: Another advantage to this strategy is that the chameleon can catch its prey even at chilly temperatures when its muscles slow down drastically: unlike birds and mammals, reptiles are cold blooded and at the mercy of their ambient temperature. Watch how only the retraction of the tongue is slowed at low temperatures ▶


Slo Mo ▶

H/T to Panah Rad for the gif ▶


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108 Responses to Chameleon Catapult

  1. Panah Rad says:

    Rajini Rao oh I remember this. Awesome information 🙂

  2. Poor little fella tries to grab and hold on so hard.

  3. Ragle Gumm says:

    wow … this is so amazing!

  4. Rajini Rao says:

    Thanks to you, Panah Rad , I went off and dug out the info 🙂

  5. Panah Rad says:

    Rajini Rao you are super awesome 😀

  6. Rajini Rao says:

    Video links not for the squeamish 🙂

    Hope you guys have had your lunch/dinner!

  7. Rajini Rao

    I’m just munching lunch as I stare, ever so fascinated

  8. Rajini Rao says:

    Oops, bon appétit Terry Hallett 🙂

  9. I’m with Terry Hallett – perfect meal show 🙂

  10. Rajini Rao says:

    Oh no, Roelf Renkema , I wonder if the tongue has any regenerative capacity! 

  11. I would challenge the claim humans pass out at 10g any more than chameleons do.

    A good karate master would reach higher accelerations with parts of their body.

    And a chameleon as a whole could probably be squashed at 10g.

  12. Rajini Rao says:

    Oleg Mihailik , that’s your interpretation of my statement, tsk 😉

    I was providing factual comparison to the acceleration of the chameleon tongue. 

  13. I know, I know, Rajini Rao technically you were correct.

    Although technically I didn’t say anything about your statement, so you are as much interpreting my objection as I was your statement 🙂

  14. Rajini Rao says:

    Apparently, chameleons do not regenerate body parts, but lizards can grow back another tail. But that’s a tale for another day 🙂

  15. Apparently, according to dumb internet search engines, the maximum acceleration of a karate fist is about 3,500m/s2. Which is crazy 350g, so humans seem to beat chameleons easily here 🙂

  16. Rajini Rao says:

    Oleg Mihailik , depends on the source of that number (was it self reported?) 🙂

    According to this review article in Science :

    “But there are limitations to how fast muscles can contract. To achieve speeds beyond these limitations, for example, the legs of a jumping kangaroo rat act like levers, which turn slow but forceful muscle contractions into much faster movements. Long levers, however, require enormous forces, which the muscles are required to deliver quickly for the animal to escape. Limited by its muscle power, a jumping kangaroo rat reaches an acceleration of a mere 19g (humans tend to faint at accelerations above 10g) (2). To reach even higher speeds and accelerations, animals have developed catapults to increase their power output. A catapult enables muscles to slowly load an elastic energy store. The catapult then releases this energy very quickly, providing much higher speeds than could be delivered by the muscle directly. Froghoppers (also known as spittlebugs) hold the current record, accelerating at 408g when they catapult themselves into the air (3).”

    Behind a pay wall, sorry: Science 9 April 2004:

    Vol. 304 no. 5668 pp. 217-219

    DOI: 10.1126/science.1097894

  17. You’re right, that 3,500 is rather anecdotal, although repeated often. I couldn’t find any more reliable number.

    The karate kick is clearly a subject to those levers and catapults rather than raw muscle acceleration. It only works properly when a correct technique is applied, which medically means correct alignment of muscles, bones and ligaments.

  18. BTW, there is another very common catapult-like movement many of us can do: a click of fingers. It’s probably in lower tens of g, but certainly indiscernible for an eye.

  19. Rajini Rao says:

    Good point about the lever action in the karate kick..the acceleration must come from the technique, not the muscle speed per se. As for muscle speed, apparently, the fast moving muscles are those that move vocal cords during bird song!

  20. Fascinating! I would have thought such fast and short movements would be more about modulated mechanic resonance (like tremolo on a flute) than actual nervous impulses. But there seems to be no room for doubt here.

  21. Roelf Renkema acceleration already accounts for distance, doesn’t it? That’s why it is meters per second squared.

  22. Rajini Rao says:

    The larger muscles would generate more power, which could increase acceleration, I think..

    Also, according to the googles, the fastest muscle in the human body powers the eyelids. Not what I would have guessed.

  23. Larger body parts have larger mass, which is harder to accelerate. It works both way.

    Generally, the limiting factor is oxygenation. Small animals have less distance for oxygen to travel, and less bulkier organs to infuse, which allows faster metabolism in general and faster movements in particular.

  24. Sounds quite a bit like myself! Yup that’s what they used. Call me in school chemelion, get it I’m C Amelian?

  25. Rajini Rao says:

    Haha, now you know that was a compliment Carol Ann Amelian !

  26. Jim Carver says:

    Interesting discussion if it wasn’t for the bad use of syntax. g = grams, G is gravity and acceleration is m/s^2.

  27. Every cycle, I hear a tiny, plaintive scream.

  28. Rajini Rao says:

    Jim Carver According to Wiki, “g” should not be confused with “G”, which is the standard symbol for the gravitational constant; see

    As a unit of acceleration, g is often but not always italicized. Given how much of a pain it is to italicize on G+, I didn’t.

    Acceleration in m/s^2 is the same as m s-2. G+ doesn’t support superscripts, unfortunately.

  29. Jim Carver says:

    Since the Discussion was unlikely to lead anywhere near the gravitational constant, G, then I consider it more appropriate to use that term for gravitational acceleration at or near the earth’s surface and since g is the SI unit for grams it would seem more convenient to save g for mass.

  30. I guess the question is now: under normal Gs, how many gs should one apply to a g-spot? Big question!

  31. Jim Carver says:

    Okay, it was just my two bits. You know why “g” is not an SI unit of course. It’s imprecise. It varies according to location and elevation/altitude. Even large mountain ranges can deflect a plumb bob ever so slightly.

  32. Very interesting information. Thanks Rajini Rao

    P.S. I also first read “g” as “grams”, thus I prefer to use G for “times force of gravity” even if technically incorrect. G as the gravitational constant is less used, thus less easily confused. In any event, that’s why it’s better defining an abbreviation before using it for the first time. 😉

  33. back, and to the left… back.. and to the left…

  34. Tom Zeiler says:

    See also:  ze frank ‘s True Facts about the Chameleon

  35. Rajini Rao says:

    Peter Lindelauf , lol!

    Tom Zeiler , that is a fantastically funny video, thanks 🙂 What beautiful creatures. 

    Jeff Brown , the predator becomes the prey, right? 

  36. Thomas Kang says:

    I’m seeing this post on the heels of Peter’s chameleon post. I also enjoyed the link in the first comment there. The only way the GIF could have been better is if the bug was just at the point of devouring its own prey, and the tongue came to save the day.

    Of course, to get really cinematic, the tongue could sweep in a second time for dessert, just as the besieged prey was about to walk away.

  37. Rajini Rao says:

    You have a devious mind, Thomas Kang 🙂

    The inverse of “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum”?

  38. Thomas Kang says:

    ad infinitum >>> ad excitum


    Incidentally, I loved reading the kinetic analyses here, while pretending to myself that I understood all the physics, given that I once did used to get straight A’s in math, which was my easiest subject until I reached college. I was shaking my head on the inside, going, “Uh huh, right, uh huh, got it!” and walked off into the sunset with my shoulders held up high.

    Once my brain returned to its private, proverbial home, however, it faced up to its deficiencies with the standard defense mechanism it often employs in situations like this by remarking to itself, “Wow, there are minds that are even more anal-retentive than my own!”

    I should add, incidentally, that that is one of the highest compliments that my brain extends to other brains. You guys are brainiacs!

  39. Thomas Kang says:

    Cool GIFs for me are what laser pens are to cats are what instant replay is to sports fans.

  40. Thomas Kang says:

    I am a basket case the art form!

    I SING the Body electric eclectic;

    The armies of those I love engirth me, and I engirth them;  

    They will not let me off till I go with them, respond to them,

    And discorrupt them, and charge them full with the charge of the Soul.

  41. Thomas Kang says:

    Incidentally, I hope this post never gets translated into Korean. Collagen treatments are very popular here, and I don’t want to witness chameleon genocide for the sake of springier eyelids and fuller lips, or whatever.

  42. Thomas Kang says:

    I bet some older Korean males will also go for chameleon tongue sushi to beef up their virility. Quoth Yoda: Weirdos, they are.

  43. Rajini Rao says:

    All this engirthing and g spotting g-iffing combined with ballistic acrobatics is getting racy, Thomas Kang ! Of course it must be Feisal Kamil ‘s fault 🙂

  44. Thomas Kang says:

    The IAFF thing always goes without saying, and I actually refrained deliberately from saying “to buttress their virility.”

    Earlier on, I was also going to mention how the coding for the g+ platform is done in g-strings, but refrained. Thus, I’m rather taken aback by your suggestion that I have anything to do with whatever raciness you attribute to the comments here.

  45. Thomas Kang says:

    Melikes, Feisal, Melikes. I take back the IAFF remark in my last comment.

  46. Rajini Rao says:

    ROFL, IAFF cannot be unsaid Thomas Kang. Buttress away with collagen if need be. Feisal Kamil , good Sunday morning. 

  47. Thomas Kang says:

    Just to be clear, I don’t take that back forever. It’s not even a lease-with-a-purchase-option-at-the-end kind of thing because it doesn’t belong to me; as you surely understand, IAFF is part of the public domain.

  48. Thomas Kang says:

    Incidentally, I followed this link from the article on songbirds:

    Salamander Tongue Is World’s Most Explosive Muscle

    The greatest burst of power from any animal muscle comes from the tongue of a tropical salamander, scientists have announced.

    The giant palm salamander of Central America (Bolitoglossa dofleini) captures fast-moving bugs with an explosive tongue thrust that releases over 18,000 watts of power per kilogram of muscle.

    That shatters the previous record of 9,600 watts per kilogram, held by the Colorado River toad.

    [. . . .]

  49. Rajini Rao says:

    Yes! I did see that too, very cool indeed. Explosive tongue thrusts, lol. 

  50. Thomas Kang says:

    That’s who I was giving it to.

  51. sorprendente imagen

    amazing picture

  52. I wonder what the height  was, in other words what is the length from the tongue to the insect? 

  53. Amazing.  Thanks Rajni.

  54. Deepu Ks says:

    “Get over here”- Scorpion,Mortal Kombat

  55. nice, I cant feel to bad for the preying mantis he was looking to do the same thing only to smaller prey

  56. wish to have same lethal accuracy….

  57. Oh, no! It ate my favorite bug. I used to keep them as pets. The Mantis is incredible.

  58. Lynn Clarke says:

    Fascinating! Nature is so miraculous!!!

  59. Susan LaDuke says:

    I knew there were many other reasons why I always liked these bizarre reptiles. They’re also so strangely ugly that they’re cute.

  60. EmPe Ah says:

    “Corkscrew collagen”

    The (so far) well kept secret of Michael Jordan and Usain Bolt…

  61. Brian Dujon says:

    that’s spectacular what sort of creature is it?

  62. EmPe Ah says:

    The first two sentences of her post say:

    Chameleon Catapult

    Chameleons are among the slowest moving reptiles…”

    Brian Dujon asks

    “…what sort of creature is it?”

    Much to learn this young troll has. Troll, or not troll, there is no try!

  63. Hayden Hain says:

    that look awesome i always wanted a chameleon

  64. that mantis deserved it, they’re mean.

  65. Brian Dujon says:

    Hmmm!! not sure what to make of it – Interesting I suppose!!

  66. Rajini Rao says:

    What’s there to suppose? It’s a fantastic piece of biological engineering. Don’t be put off by the grossness, that’s just Nature doing its thing 🙂

  67. Brian Dujon says:

    Ok you’ve convinced me it’s nature at is most capivating

  68. Rajini Rao says:

    That was too easy, I was hoping for an argument 😉

  69. Brian Dujon says:

    Ok well here goes – without the benefit your scientific knowledge, but with the bar set so high with the incredible footage of wildlife I think this is interesting but really no great shakes. I’m afraid you’ll have to do a little better than that to impress me Rajini

  70.  Hi..Rajni rao, I am a student of commerece , thanks for  you have provide very interesting n important information …..

  71. Rajini Rao says:

    prashant gedamkar , I’m glad you enjoyed it. If my posts become too technical, let me know. I try to have something for everyone. 

  72. Rajini Rao says:

    Brian Dujon , I see what you mean, sure! Wild life footage is indeed quite spectacular these days and while I’ve become jaded too with lions hunting down antelope or wildebeest thundering across the African plains, this capture of the mantis is still quite unusual. The hapless insect actually seems to be clinging on until the last fraction of a second and watching the dew (or nectar) shaking off the flower gives an unusual perspective too 🙂

  73. Brian Dujon says:

    Ok I’ll give you the ‘unusual’ perspective and as you know I was being provocative as requested. In truth this footage is a visual delight. 

  74. very nice so sweet , ssuuuuppperrrr

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