The Forked Tongue and Edge Detection in Snakes (Crotalus Oreganus): An Experimental Test

J Comp Psychol. 2008 Feb;122(1):35-40. doi: 10.1037/0735-7036.122.1.35.


Many stimulus-detection systems are lateralized to allow for simultaneous comparison of paired stimuli. It has been hypothesized that the deeply forked tongue of snakes and some derived lizards functions as a chemical edge detector where cues gathered by each tine are kept separate to provide two points of lateral odor assessment by the central nervous system via vomeronasal input. While following a chemical trail, one time can be on the trail, the other off, and such differential information prompts the snake to turn back to the trail. The authors tested this hypothesis in rattlesnakes within a predatory context by unilaterally severing the vomeronasal nerves. If edge detection is used by snakes during prey trailing, then unilateral denervation should disrupt trailing ability. The authors found no change in the seven separate trailing parameters measured. Therefore, they found no support for the edge detection hypothesis as it applies to prey trailing behavior. Instead, the deeply forked tongue may represent a chemosensory specialization to increase odor-sampling area, with snakes and derived lizards detecting only the concentration of chemical trails.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Crotalus
  • Functional Laterality / physiology
  • Signal Detection, Psychological*
  • Space Perception*
  • Tongue / anatomy & histology*