Today’s guest and author of Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, Mary Roach in Popular Science:
Taste is a sort of chemical touch. Taste cells are specialized skin cells. If you have hands for picking up foods and putting them in your mouth, it makes sense for taste cells to be on your tongue. But if, like flies, you don’t, it may be more expedient to have them on your feet. “They land on something and go, ‘Ooh, sugar!’ ’’ Rawson does her best impersonation of a housefly. “And the proboscis automatically comes out to suck the fluids.” Rawson has a colleague who studies crayfish and lobsters, which taste with their antennae. “I was always jealous of people who study lobsters. They examine the antennae, and then they have a lobster dinner.”
The study animal of choice for taste researchers is the catfish, simply because it has so many receptors. They are all over its skin. “They’re basically swimming tongues,” says Rawson. It is a useful adaptation for a limbless creature that locates food by brushing up against it; many catfish species feed by scavenging debris on the bottom of rivers.
I try to imagine what life would be like if humans tasted things by rubbing them on their skin. Hey, try this salted caramel gelato—it’s amazing.
Image by Emily Cavalier