How do sharks manage to swallow without tongues?

Science writer Stuart Blackman discusses the unique swallowing techniques of sharks.

Epaulette shark

Sharks shrug their shoulders to create the suction required to swallow their prey © Michel Jozon / Getty


Tongues have many functions – making sounds, tasting and manipulating food, and swallowing. Sharks are unusual among vertebrates in that they completely lack these handy organs.

Sharks can slosh water around in their mouths to manipulate food to some extent, but swallowing is another matter. They may compensate by using the muscles of their pectoral girdle – the equivalent of our shoulders – that supports and powers the anterior ns during swimming.

Research on white-spotted bamboo sharks has shown that a backwards shrug of the shoulders creates the suction required to draw food down into the digestive tract. 


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