Do Fish Have Tongues?

March 31, 2024
David Sunnyside

There are plenty of ocean animals that can make a person wonder, “What the hell?” You can have your pick of slime-swallowing hagfish, big-toothed lizardfish, or tongue-biting isopods. But this one, I think, takes the cake.

It’s one of the craziest, most interesting stories ever uncovered about a fish, and a good reminder that nature can come up with some weird things.

Most fish do not have tongues—or at least, they don’t look like ours. Instead, they have a bony structure called a basihyal on the floor of their mouth that superficially resembles a tongue but doesn’t have the same function as our muscular organ. Mammals also have a tongue that helps them taste and manipulate food. But if a fish loses its tongue, that’s not the end of the world. In fact, it could be just the beginning.

When a fish opens its jaws, the horseshoe-shaped bone in the front of its mouth (called a hyoid) pushes down on the floor of the mouth, expanding it and drawing water over the gills. This process is crucial for fish to take in air and nutrients, as well as suck food into its mouths.

Michel was intrigued by the way that Atlantic mudskippers use their basihyals to manipulate food. He filmed them using high-speed cameras and found that when the fish leaned forward and opened its mouth, a bubble of water rose up from the mouth, covering a small morsel of shrimp. The mudskipper then sucked the shrimp and the water back up with its basihyal, a move that looked very much like a tongue.

David Sunnyside
Co-founder of Urban Splatter • Digital Marketer • Engineer • Meditator
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