A team of physicists and biologists recently discovered that the secret to the chameleon’s success is its saliva. The chameleon uses a tiny bit of its incredibly sticky spit at the tip of its tongue to capture prey. It’s about 400 times stickier than human saliva, and thicker than honey. The sticky saliva grabs on to prey and slows it down, says Damman.
Before making this discovery, Damman had never studied chameleons or done any research on animals. He spends most of his time on physics problems involving how soft, squishy objects like plastic ribbons move. One day, a biologist came by his lab to ask for his thoughts on the chameleon conundrum, and Damman was suddenly hooked.
Because chameleons use such a small amount of saliva for hunting, it was impossible to collect large amounts of it for testing. Instead, the scientists measured just a little bit of it, then used mathematical models to understand its sticky force. “Without math, you can’t solve anything,” says Damman.
Chameleons may have been Damman’s first foray into animal research, but it’s not his last. He’s now investigating how bees are able to capture a flower’s nectar.