Describe the Tongue of the Woodpecker
Leonardo da Vinci was famously curious. His notebooks ran thousands of pages and were filled with all sorts of interesting thoughts and questions. One notation in particular is interesting: “describe the tongue of the woodpecker.” Why would he want to do that?
It turns out that the tongue of the woodpecker is fascinating. From the book Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson:
The tongue of a woodpecker can extend more than three times the length of its bill. When not in use, it retracts into the skull and its cartilage-like structure continues past the jaw to wrap around the bird’s head and then curve down to its nostril. In addition to digging out grubs from a tree, the long tongue protects the woodpecker’s brain. When the bird smashes its beak repeatedly into tree bark, the force exerted on its head is ten times what would kill a human. But its bizarre tongue and supporting structure act as a cushion, shielding the brain from shock.
A Few Interesting Tidbits About the Human Tongue
The human tongue is pretty amazing. it can move in all sorts of directions, widen, narrow, flatten, curl, extend, etc. It is key to our manipulation of food and is necessary for speech. The average adult human tongue length is 3.1 inches for women and 3.3 inches for men.
The tongue is made of eight muscles, and unlike pretty much every other muscle in the body the eight tongue muscles are not attached between structures of bone. “Rather, they intertwine to create a flexible matrix, forming what is called a muscular hydrostat; this structure is similar to an octopus’s tentacles or an elephant’s trunk.” Source. Four of the muscles just attach to each other and the other four attach at their bases to bones in the neck and skull.
Two common myths that are wrong:
Is the Tongue the Strongest Muscle in the Body? No. The tongue is not the strongest muscle in the body whether judged as individual muscles or together. It’s not even close. Depending on how you would judge the strongest muscle it would likely be the muscles of the jaw, the glutes or the heart. What the tongue does have is a lot of endurance. It is rare for your tongue to get tired even when doing a lot of talking. Source.
Do different parts of the tongue taste different things? No. “It is a myth that different parts of the tongue taste different things. While it is true that different receptors taste different flavors, these various receptors are bunched in four places on the tongue. Most of the taste receptors are found on the tip of the tongue.” Source.