18. Speaking of Tongues (04/2009)
Our gradual devolution of taste sensibility has been accelerated by modern trends of artificial additives and preservatives in pre-packaged food. Freedom to choose from a full flavour spectrum enhances the quality of life. Understanding the capacity and scope of this faculty in the animal kingdom gives insight into its fundamental influence.
Tongues come in a variety of forms ranging from delicate membranes to muscular models of taste. They function as organs of predation, apprehension, navigation, grooming, communication and recreation. Shape is determined by finely tuned adaptation. A fascinating example is the chameleon whose particularly dramatic organ can fling out twice the length of its body to retrieve prey. Cows curl theirs around tufts of carefully chosen grass, breaking it free with the weight of their heads. The forked tongues of snakes softly lick the air providing information and destiny. A crocodile’s forms a thick throat bung so it can chew under water.
Human tongues can discern the bitter as well as the sweet, sour, salt, and umami. Less simplified when considering our ability to discern over 10 000 odours. Closely linked to the complex perception of what enters our mouths are senses of sight, smell, touch and hearing. Tastes develop with age, appreciation and understanding. Cherished childhood delights mature towards sophisticated culinary distinction. The same is true of animals with their incredible range of tongue twisting manifestations. Some have vastly superior abilities to detect subtle flavours – reflected in their number of taste buds: pigs have 15 000, rabbits 17 000, while we have only 9000. Sharks can detect fish extracts in concentrations lower than one part in 10 billion. Many animals exceed our meagre range of taste sensations.
The laws of desire fire up flirtations of palate in every shrew and gannet. It is not uncommon for cats to crave strange flavours that make little sense, like olives, melons or pearls on a fence, although cocoa is perfectly understandable! Their mindful choice of ingredients can become a tool of manipulation leaving every provider perplexed by the capricious feline appetite. On closer observation, most animals relish variety and carefully select food when given the choice. On occasion dogs would dine at the Ritz; cats canoodle for smoked salmon; pigs root out truffles, horses succumb to sugar cane, and elephants maraud on maroela windfall. Every grain and bug on a hen’s menu is far from random pecking. Gathering select harvest is a squirrel’s prerogative. Finely tuned needs and desires drive dogs to devour bones, ostriches to swallow stones, and injured goats to seek out healing hopes of arnica on mountain slopes. It’s not by chance that animals prefer tastes of foods that grow readily in their natural environments.
In nature nutrition is linked to flavour and wild animals are generally healthy when there is access to essential food. Inherent instinctive knowledge of correct diet seems lacking in humans. Our ideas of scientifically formulated food falls short bought and packaged for ease. When we impose in rows a crop that grows in mono clone and that alone for domesticated herbivores, it is not surprising that health gets compromised.
Variety is the vice of strife to standardise and simplify scientifically formulated food. The form, colour, odour, texture, freshness, temperature, sound, and availability of food have a direct impact on health and vitality in all species.