it’s all in the tongue

Have you ever wondered how hummingbirds manage to slurp up the nectar in a flower so quickly?  Rarely do they pause at one flower for longer than a second or two before moving on.

ruby-throated-hummingbird-on-cardinal-flower

Female Ruby-throated Hummingbird feeding on Cardinal Flower in my wildflower garden

Occasionally we get a glimpse of a long tongue protruding from their bill when they exit the fake flower on a feeder.

hummingbird-sticky-her-tongue-out-tj-baccari

Female or juvenile Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Photo by TJ Baccari)

But how does that tongue work to enable them to sip so quickly?  Initially, it was thought that the tongue was merely a long capillary tube that drew the nectar up through cohesive action of fluid droplets.  But that is much too slow a process.

High-speed videography by researchers at the University of Connecticut has revealed that a hummingbird’s tongue expands rapidly from a flattened ribbon inside the bill to a forked pair of open tubes as the tongue is protruded into a feeding tube or flower nectary.  The tongue moves in and out of the bill 15 times a second, expanding and compressing as it moves in and out of the bill, and that pumping action is what delivers the nectar to the mouth so rapidly.

hummingbird tongue-1

You can see the expanded tongue segments immersed in the nectar in this screen capture from a high-speed video taken by the University of Connecticut researchers who made this discovery.  Science Daily, August 19,, 2015.

A short video illustrates this much better than I can explain it.

https://static01.nyt.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000003892113

ruby-throated-hummingbird-approaching-cardinal-flower

I never tire of learning about the wonders of nature.

3 thoughts on “it’s all in the tongue

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