Ant “Tongues”

Isn’t is funny how one thing can lead to another? I reviewed a children’s book about animal tongues recently, which got me thinking about ant mouthparts and more particularly, ant “tongues.”

First of all, do ants even have tongues? They don’t have anything that looks like a vertebrate tongue, but they definitely have a structure that is analogous.

This photo is by Imarsman at Fickr (see link below)

If you examine this photograph closely, you can see the pale tube-like structure under the mandibles (jaws) at the front of the head. It the “tongue” and it isn’t spectacular from our point of view. The outermost part you see is called the glossa of the labium, as well as thin labial palps sticking out below.

In reality, tongue structures of an ant are fairly complex, because an ant mouth has a lot of jobs to do. Ants need to:

  • groom themselves,
  • socially groom others, including the larvae
  • assess food quality,
  • manipulate food,
  • ingest food,
  • give food to others via trophallaxis,
  • beg for food from others,

etc. With all those jobs, it’s no wonder an ant mouth is a veritable Swiss army knife of utensils and parts. There are brushes made of setae; papillae for tasting; thin finger-like palps for tasting, begging and manipulating; and various grooves and filters for moving and processing food. The blade-like mandibles surrounding the mouth are for cutting, carrying, and in some species, catching prey. From what I read, we are still working out the details of how many of these tools function.

An ant keeps its tongue retracted when it is not feeding. Perhaps that’s why the ant tongue remains somewhat of a mystery to us.

Have you seen an ant stick out its tongue?

Edit: You have to run over to Alex Wild’s blog and see his new video of trap door ants. Now there’s a mouth!


Gotwald, W.H, Jr. 1969. Comparative morphological studies of the ants, with particular reference to the mouthparts (Hymenoptera:  Formicidae). Cornell University Agricultural Experiment Station. Memoir 408.

Hansen, L. D., and J. H. Klotz. (2005). Carpenter ants of the United States and Canada. Ithaca, NY: Comstock Publishing Associates. This book has an excellent chapter on ant morphology.

Jürgen Paul, Flavio Roces, Bert Hölldobler. How do ants stick out their tongues?  Journal of Morphology
Volume 254 Issue 1, Pages 39 – 52
Published Online: 31 Jul 2002 (pdf available available at Wiley Science)

J. Paul and F. Roces. Fluid intake rates in ants correlate with their feeding habits. Journal of Insect Physiology
Volume 49, Issue 4, April 2003, Pages 347-357

And for more gorgeous ant photos by Ian Marsman, go to

IMarsman blog

Imarsman Flickr

Regurgitating post shows another view of ant mouthparts.

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