Weird, extinct amphibian had a rapid-fire ‘slingshot’ tongue

A reconstruction of the bizarre creature’s skull, with a long bone (yellow) that anchored a rapid-fire tongue.

Edward Stanley/Florida Museum of Natural History/VGStudioMax3.4

Step aside, chameleons. There was once another speedy tongue making sticky waves in the animal kingdom. 

A new study, published in Science on Thursday, establishes the now-extinct amphibians known as albanerpetontids (or albies) as the earliest users of a slingshot-style tongue, used to snatch prey from the air by contracting and launching at great speed. 

A set of 99-million-year old albie fossils, discovered in Myanmar, also introduce the world to a new species, Yaksha perettii. Based on the size of the skull, scientists were able to estimate an adult size of approximately two inches long, not including the tail. Don’t let that fool you into thinking they were weak though, as the tiny amphibians were armored and their tongues acted like a deadly, rapid-fire fist.

Edward Stanley, co-author of the study and director of the Florida Museum of Natural History’s Digital Discovery and Dissemination Laboratory, said “this discovery adds a super-cool piece to the puzzle of this obscure group of weird little animals.”

Knowing they had this ballistic tongue gives us a whole new understanding of this entire lineage.”

The discovery of the fossils was almost deemed unremarkable, with a tongue bone garnering the fossils a chameleon classification until Susan Evans, a professor of vertebrate morphology and paleontology at University College London, recognized the tell-tale signs of an albie — namely, the unusual jaw and neck joints as well as forward-looking eyes.

While the discovery of a ballistic-tongued amphibian might sound like it will help us understand the lineages of amphibians like frogs and salamanders, Evans cautions that may not be the case.

“In theory, albies could give us a clue as to what the ancestors of modern amphibians looked like,” she said. “Unfortunately, they’re so specialized and so weird in their own way that they’re not helping us all that much.”

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