The Mechanism of Chemical Delivery to the Vomeronasal Organs in Squamate Reptiles: A Comparative Morphological Approach

J Exp Zool A Ecol Genet Physiol. 2009 Jan 1;311(1):20-34. doi: 10.1002/jez.492.


Vomeronasal chemoreception, an important chemical sense in squamate reptiles (lizards and snakes), is mediated by paired vomeronasal organs (VNOs), which are only accessible via ducts opening through the palate anteriorly. We comparatively examined the morphology of the oral cavity in lizards with unforked tongues to elucidate the mechanism of stage I delivery (transport of chemical-laden fluid from the tongue tips to the VNO fenestrae) and to test the generality of the Gillingham and Clark (1981. Can J Zool 59:1651-1657) hypothesis (based on derived snakes), which suggests that the sublingual plicae act as the direct conveyors of chemicals to the VNOs. At rest, the foretongue lies within a chamber formed by the sublingual plicae ventrally and the palate dorsally, with little or no space around the anterior foretongue when the mouth is closed. There is a remarkable conformity between the shape of this chamber and the shape of the foretongue. We propose a hydraulic mechanism for stage I chemical transport in squamates: during mouth closure, the compliant tongue is compressed within this cavity and the floor of the mouth is elevated, expressing fluid from the sublingual glands within the plicae. Chemical-laden fluid covering the tongue tips is forced dorsally and posteriorly toward the VNO fenestrae. In effect, the tongue acts as a piston, pressurizing the fluid surrounding the foretongue so that chemical transport to the VNO ducts is effected almost instantaneously. Our findings falsify the Gillingham and Clark (1981. Can J Zool 59:1651-1657) hypothesis for lizards lacking forked, retractile tongues.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Anatomy, Comparative
  • Animals
  • Biological Transport
  • Biomechanical Phenomena
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / physiology
  • Chemoreceptor Cells / ultrastructure*
  • Lizards / anatomy & histology*
  • Lizards / physiology*
  • Microscopy, Electron, Scanning
  • Mouth / anatomy & histology*
  • Mouth / physiology
  • Phylogeny
  • Tongue / anatomy & histology*
  • Tongue / physiology
  • Vomeronasal Organ / physiology*