Why Do Snakes Stick Out Their Tongue?

Snakes are intriguing creatures, to say the least. They engage in various fascinating behaviors, such as sticking out their tongues ever so often, leaving us in awe or bewilderment. So, why do snakes flick their tongues?

Snakes stick out their tongues to pick up scent particles in their environment, allowing them to track down potential prey or mates. Tongue-flicking in snakes is an evolutionary adaptation to compensate for their poor eyesight and auditory perception or hearing. 

This article will discuss everything you need to know about the tongue-flicking behavior in snakes. Read on. 

Do Snakes Smell With Their Tongues?

Snakes have an excellent sense of “smell.” I have put that in quotes since serpents don’t decipher scents the way we do. Why so? After all, snakes also have nostrils, meaning they should be able to sniff around for smells, as most animals do. 

Nonetheless, that’s not the case, as a snake’s nose is used almost primarily for breathing.

Snakes do the majority of their smelling using their tongues. However, they go about it differently. Snakes use chemoreception, which involves picking up odor molecules from the air or ground using their tongue and taking it to Jacobson’s organ for analysis.

While snakes can undoubtedly pick up odors using their noses, their tongues are far better suited for that job.

How Snakes Use Their Tongues To Smell

As mentioned, most snakes have very poor eyesight and are borderline deaf. As such, they had to evolve a way to enhance their chances of survival or risk dying out. 

Consequently, they developed a highly-specialized olfactory system to allow them to follow the scent trails of prey animals and potential mates.

When a snake sticks out its tongue, the organ collects scent molecules in the environment and deposits them on special plates at the bottom of the serpent’s mouth. Upon closing its mouth, the plates come into contact with Jacobson’s organ, an olfactory structure located in the roof of the snake’s mouth that transmits scent particles as chemical signals to the brain.

The brain then deciphers those chemical signals to determine whether the scent is worth pursuing, i.e., if it comes from a potential meal or mate. All this happens within milliseconds, a testament to how highly-evolved a snake’s sense of smell is.

It is also worth noting that a snake’s tongue is forked by design. The forked-tongue design increases the surface area the tongue covers when collecting scent particles. Additionally, it aids the snake in navigation, as one tip might detect molecules the other didn’t, allowing the snake to alter its course.


Snakes use their tongues to collect odor molecules in their environment, allowing them to determine whether those scent particles are from a subject of interest, such as a prey animal or a potential mate.

In a way, you could say snakes smell with their tongues.

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