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Why Do Snakes Stick Out Their Tongues?

closeup of snake against blue sky with tongue sticking out
Sandra Standbridge/Shutterstock

Looking at or even holding snakes can be a thrilling experience for some people. But if you’re not familiar with this particular reptile, you might just feel threatened when one flicks its tongue in your general direction! There’s actually no cause for worry, though.

Snakes and Their Senses

Every creature has unique senses that are adapted for its survival. Some possess superior sight, hearing, taste, touch, or—like the snake—smell. Did you realize that snakes stick out their tongues in order to enhance their sense of smell?

Yes, snakes frequently use their tongues to compensate for their poor sight and hearing. Now, this doesn’t mean that the snakes’ noses don’t work; however, their sense of taste is directly linked to their sense of smell, and thus works in combination with what’s called the “Jacobson’s organ,” a patch of sensory cells. Since their tongues only possess a few select tastebuds, this special organ proves to be quite useful to them.

In order to better understand how this all works, it helps to imagine everything in a series of steps.

  1. First, the snake sticks out its tongue, flicking it in the air and picking up small particles, which all contain various smells.
  2. Next, once the snake has “tasted” the air, it then retracts its particle-covered tongue. Saliva pushes the particles into the Jacobson’s organ.
  3. Finally, the snake uses the organ to determine whether there’s danger, food, or romance in the air.

By the way, the Jacobson’s organ isn’t just found inside of snakes. Also known as the vomeronasal organ, it also serves as part of the olfactory system in some other reptiles, and even for some mammals and amphibians as well.

Humans vs. Snakes (Sense of Smell)

Humans can sniff out molecules in the air too. Sadly, though, our sense of smell isn’t quite equal to that of the snake. For example, it’s unlikely that you could get a whiff of that delicious cake—sitting on a counter two houses away—from the comfort of your front porch. However, the snake can, in fact, smell prey from that distance. Impressive, isn’t it?

However, our sense of smell is still quite strong. Did you know that when we sniff the air, the molecules we pick up stimulate the olfactory cells in our sinuses, which then transmit information to our brains so that they can determine the origin of the scent?

This is precisely what the snake’s vomeronasal organ does, except that its flicking tongue starts the process. Once the chemicals picked up find their way into the organ, images are sent to the snake’s brain telling it what those particular smells are.

Now you know that the next time a snake sticks out its tongue at you, it’s not necessarily thinking of eating you. And, even if it does bite you, it’s more likely done out of fear than hunger (unless it’s very, very hungry).

Yvonne Glasgow Yvonne Glasgow
Yvonne Glasgow has been a professional writer for almost two decades. Yvonne has worked for nutritionists, start-ups, dating companies, SEO firms, newspapers, board game companies, and much more as a writer and editor. She's also a published poet and a short story writer. Read Full Bio »