Step aside, chameleons. Once upon a time there was another fast tongue that made 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 early adopters of a slingshot-style tongue, used to snatch prey from the air by contracting and launching at great speed.
A series of 99-million-year-old albie fossils discovered in Myanmar also introduces a new species to the world, Yaksha perettii. Based on the size of the skull, the scientists were able to estimate an adult size of about two inches in length, not including the tail. Don’t be fooled into thinking they were weak, as the tiny amphibians were armored and their tongues acted like a deadly, swift punch.
Edward Stanley, study co-author 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 language gives us a whole new understanding of this entire lineage. “
The discovery of the fossils was almost considered insignificant, with one tongue bone collecting the fossils a chameleon classification until Susan Evans, professor of vertebrate morphology and paleontology at University College London, recognized the telltale signs of a albie – that is, the unusual joints of the jaw and neck and eyes that look forward.
While the discovery of a ballistic-tongued amphibian might appear to help us understand the lineages of amphibians such as frogs and salamanders, Evans warns that that may not be the case.
“In theory, the albies could give us a clue as to what the ancestors of modern amphibians were like,” he said. “Unfortunately, they are so specialized and so weird in their own way that they aren’t helping us that much.”