There are over 500 species of shark in our ocean. So, you’re sure to see many sharks with different shapes and sizes.
Hollywood has been on a shark rampage for as long as we can remember. They always portray sharks as animals with super-blown acute blood sensitivity.
We have no doubts about the shark’s ferocious teeth and the matching aggression. But, out of curiosity, you probably wonder: “wait a minute, do sharks have tongues?”
The answer is Yes, Sharks do have a tongue-like structure called a basihyal, but it is not used for taste or speech. Instead, it helps to position food in the mouth for swallowing.
Since the evolution triumphantly nicked bones off shark species, they are now cartilaginous. Hence, the shark has no ribs to shield vital organs.
A crucial organ like the lungs is pointless since their gills serve the same purpose. Since there are no ribs for protection, the shark’s cartilage extends to the mouth to protect its gills.
The last end of this chunk of cartilages is the shark’s tongue called basihyla.
We know that’s a huge revelation–the truth is, there’s more.
So, grab your diving gear, and let’s explore the sea of mysteries a shark’s tongue holds.
Sharks do have a tongue called basihyla.
The shark’s tongue evolved for protection and also plays a role in feeding by helping to tear and move food around in their mouth.
The shark’s tongue is mostly immovable and is not used for tasting, as the papilla lining in their mouth and throat serve that purpose. Only three shark species have a more flexible and active tongue.
What purpose does a shark’s tongue serve?
This question probably seems obvious. What other purpose does a tongue serve, right?
Permit us to break it to you that shark tongue is nothing like a human tongue. Except for the name– oh, right, shark’s tongue has a different name– basihyal.
The human tongue can move in multiple directions; some can even roll their tongues. But sharks don’t have that luxury. Their tongue isn’t ‘muscle material’ so, it can’t move flexibly like humans.
Reading Suggestion: How Do Sharks Die?
The Sharks Tongue Protects Vital organs
Scientists believe that the basihyla evolved for protection. Protection from what precisely?
The tongue protects an organ called the ventral aorta. The ventral aorta is a crucial part of the shark’s anatomy.
It’s cruciality is possibly equivalent to the human hearts’? (Simply trying to describe its vitality). It functions as a carrier of deoxygenated blood from the heart to the gills.
The ventral aorta needs protection because it sits a tad bit too close to the shark’s mouth. You could say it’s practically in the shark’s mouth if you didn’t know better.
Hence, big chunks of food could disrupt its tasks if left unprotected.
And if Hollywood movies are anything to go by, our beloved sharks sure have a thing for huge chunks.
Besides this pivotal use of the shark’s tongue, the other use of this organ varies for different shark species.
Shark Tongues Help With Eating prey
A shark tongue also plays a role in devouring its prey. It’s one of the organs used to tear apart (for some species) and detach chunks of flesh and move it around in their mouth.
The movement of a shark’s tongue could be so subtle that it can be termed non-existent. But it plays a vital role in the whole feeding process.
If you are waiting to see any line remotely similar to sharks tasting with their tongues, it’s going to be a long wait.
Shark Tongues and Taste
Sharks don’t have a taste bud on their tongues. Instead, the tasting task rests on the papilla lining housed in their mouth and throat.
Even with the lining taking over the tasting duties, sharks have a poor sense of taste. More on that later.
Not all shark’s tongues lie almost dormant in their mouths. However, out of over 500 shark species, three shark species have an active basihyal.
They are cookie-cutter shark, bullhead shark, and carpet shark. Are you interested in how these sharks’ tongues perform? There’s a wealth of information on that below.
A vivid description of a shark’s tongue
After answering the question: do sharks have a tongue, the next question is, what’s it like?
For a short answer, it’s nothing like human tongues. It’s not only attached to the base of their mouth but also only slightly movable.
The basihyla is small, short, and stout. But it’s almost useless except in the three species mentioned above.
Core differences between the human tongue and a shark’s tongue
The only similarity between human tongues and a shark’s tongue is that they are both located in the mouth. Even the names are quite different. A shark’s tongue is basihyla, while a human’s tongue is a human’s tongue.
Let’s check out the core differences between the two tongues:
- A shark’s taste bud isn’t on the tongue. On the flip side, a human has about 10,000 taste buds located on the basihyla.
- Sharks have relatively static tongues; while they may move subtly, they lack flexibility in our tongues. After all, it’s entirely cartilage.
- The shark tongue is crooked and incredibly sharp, not to mention that they are short and stout– the human tongue doesn’t hold a candle in comparison. That’s expected, seeing as they don’t spend hunting days melting sundaes on their tongues. Most sharks rip out the flesh from their prey!
Do sharks bite their tongues?
Let’s take a wild guess.
You’ve bitten your own tongue a couple of times while munching on your favorite chocolate or lasagna.
It’s not an unusual accident for the human tongue– and it’s certainly a rather gruesome one depending on the intensity.
With the ferocity at which sharks ravish their prey, it’s impossible not to wonder, do sharks bite their own tongue?
Considering how sharp and huge the shark’s teeth are, it’s hard not to take a plunge into the tongue sometimes. Well, this is a logical assumption, but it’s far from being true. Contrarily, sharks rarely ever bite their tongues while feeding.
Their tongues are mostly immovable with minimal flexibility. And they are fixed to the base of their mouth. Hence, it hardly has run-ins with the teeth regardless of how much enthusiasm goes into feeding.
Their muscle memory spreads out vastly and has nerve endings called proprioceptors. These proprioceptors hold the muscle tension and movement in check and send signals to the brainstem.
With these signals, the brainstem pinpoints the tongue’s position every time.
Consequently, it controls and coordinates any activity around it. This organized coordination prevents the shark’s tongue from becoming its prey– so to speak.
Can sharks stick out their tongues?
Sharks’ tongues are fixed to the floor of their mouth. And since the primary component is cartilage, it has little flexibility; this means they can’t stick out their tongues.
Unlike other animals, usual sharks don’t need their tongues to catch their prey– at least most of them don’t.
Hence, they don’t have the length or placement to get creative with their tongues while hunting. All they need is to create a vacuum to suck in their food.
Do sharks love human blood for real?
The age-long argument of whether shacks love human blood is endless. But the famous school of thought is that human blood signifies party time to sharks.
However, there’s no definitive evidence of that effect. Scientists have scavenged for evidence to end this debate, but nothing seems final. Well, except we consult the sharks themselves– if they could communicate.
Some studies claim sharks prey on smaller fishes and do not care about human blood.
Blood Similar to Seals
Species like mackerel sharks and tiger sharks prey on seals, which happens to be a blood type like human blood. Maybe they’d prefer human blood as well. But this is a mere theory without any backings.
In a bid to dissuade all assumptions that sharks are attracted to human blood, Skylar Thomas of a white shark studio company experimented with his blood. He cut himself while surrounded by blacktip sharks.
The video proved that sharks might have better businesses to tend to rather than following human blood.
Maybe they are not so interested after all. Some critiques have demanded a repeat of this experiment with more aggressive shark species. Well, the disinterest is probably limited to only the blacktip sharks– or not.
Cow Blood VS Fish Blood
Another experiment involved using cow blood (which smells like humans to sharks) and fish blood. Guess what? Sharks went for fish blood.
How then do we explain the shark attacks on humans?
Many theories have also explained the probable reason for the few shark attacks on humans– most of which doesn’t include feeding, except when they erroneously mistake humans for food.
Although we may believe these predators don’t have humans on their scale of preference, we can’t deny the life-threatening shark attacks.
So, do they love human blood? We doubt that.
What do sharks eat, and how often do they consume food
Most sharks are carnivorous, but they could be herbivorous and omnivorous. They feed on other fishes, some prey on the sea lion and other available sea animals.
Since shark has sundry species, their feeding habits differ. Their diet sometimes depends on the food available to them.
Some sharks feed on plankton only. The truth is that sharks adapt to their environment swiftly.
This nature has pushed some into eating garbage or pretty much anything swallowable. Tiger sharks are famous for their ability to consume anything.
However, under normal circumstances, usual sharks are fussy eaters. Again, the species is a vital determinant.
Now, how often do they eat?
Frankly, they can eat from 0.5 to 3.0% of their weight whenever they feed. They can’t chew with teeth. Thus, sharks rely on swallowing.
Unlike humans, their intestines are short and contain spiral valves. So, while they have sharp teeth to tear apart their prey, their stomachs thrive poorly at digesting them.
Consequently, sharks could go days without hunting or eating, leaving allowance for digestion.
Is the shark’s sense of taste non-existent?
As we said, sharks’ taste buds aren’t on their tongues. The Papilla lining helps them sense taste. However, this taste bud isn’t sensitive. It only tells them if a food is edible or fit for consumption.
That’s why they take the first taste and spit out prey if it doesn’t taste like food to them. If the usual diet is rare while hunting, sharks lose all sense of pickiness and devour anything they deem fit.
The three shark species with active tongues!
Shark species determine their appearance, feeding habit, and choice of prey.
In this case, it also influences the tongue’s flexibility and function. Here are the three shark species capable of using their basihyal effectively:
Carpet shark and Bullhead shark tongues
Alternatively called orectolobids and heterodontids, these sharks have a different kind of basihyal. Their basihyal is large, flexible, flattened, and movable.
Although they use their potent pharyngeal muscles to suck on their prey, their tongues can also serve the same purpose.
Hence, their basihyal contributes immensely to their feeding process. Their tongues also lack the presence of taste buds.
They don’t consume their prey immediately after capturing it. They swallow a portion of it first, and once the papilla lining detects edibility, they devour it.
Cookie-cutter shark tongue
Cookie-cutter shark is known as Isistius spp. Their tongues are large- much more powerful than the usual sharks’. The basihyal gleans its strength from the rectus cervicis throat muscles.
This is possible because, unlike other sharks’ basihyal, the cookie-cutter has its tongue attached to the throat muscle. Hence, a cookie-cutter seamlessly detaches cookie-shaped (that explains the name) flesh off its prey.
In this case, it opens up the food using its teeth and sucks out the flesh off the prey with the basihyal.
The cookie-cutter uses oral vacuum feeding to extract flesh from the prey. This shark species primarily feasts on pelagic fishes, cetaceans, and pinnipeds.
How do sharks move food around in their mouth?
Flexible tongues have a significant impact on feeding. So, sharks that don’t have movable basihyal have to get their food down one way or another.
Sharks have long pharynx, and they must slide their food down this pharynx. Hence, they rely on mouth fluid to manipulate the food.
Some shark species like bamboo sharks, pull back their pectoral girdle to suck in their food by creating a suction.
Frequently asked questions
Why can’t sharks stick out their tongues?
Sharks’ tongues aren’t made of muscles that move at will. Cartilages tend to be more static; that’s why sharks can’t stick out their tongues like humans.
Besides, the basihyal is not long enough to stick out of the mouth– maybe because they aren’t meant for such a purpose, except for some rare shark species, the cookie-cutter, carpet, and bullhead sharks.
Do great white sharks have a tongue?
Of course, great white sharks have a basihyal. But like most of the other shark species, the tongue is almost useless. Nonetheless, it’s fixed to the base of their mouths.
So, do sharks have a tongue? Yes, as do other fishes! But we might as well call it a bunch of cartilage tucked away in their mouths!
Summarily, their tongues are called basihyal, and they are nothing like the human tongue. And don’t forget that not all sharks have an almost static basihyal.
We hope you found this enlightening!
British-born Dan has been a scuba instructor and guide in Egypt's Red Sea since 2010.
Dan loves inspiring safe, fun, and environmentally responsible diving and particularly enjoys the opportunity to dive with sharks or investigate local shipwrecks.
When not spending time underwater, Dan can usually be found biking and hiking in Sharm's desert surroundings.