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Lion Tongue Facts: How Coarse Is It?

Lions have exceptionally coarse tongues. They are covered in hairs called papillae and serve many purposes. Tongues help lions stay clean, cool off, drink water, and even lick meat off bones. Lion tongues have the texture of rough sandpaper.

Like other felines, lions have some of the coarsest tongues of any animal. They use them to clean themselves, eat, and drink water.

But why are their tongues so rough? Can a lion’s tongue hurt you, and can they really scrape meat off bones?

In this article, we’ll answer these questions, and check out other facts about the tongue of a lion.

Lion Tongue

A lion’s tongue is different from the tongue of other animals, but the same as other felines’. From a distance, their tongues look normal, but up close you can see they are covered in what looks like small spikes.

Lions, and felines in general, have coarse tongues. If you’ve ever been licked by your pet cat you know that their tongue feels kind of like sandpaper.

Why Are Lion Tongues Coarse?

Lion tongues are coarse because they have many little spike-like hairs on them. The tongue is almost entirely covered in these hairs. These spines or hairs are called papillae.[1]

The Papillae are facing backward, toward the lion’s throat so they “grab” onto whatever they are licking. They are made out of alpha-keratin, the same components that hair, nails, and claws are made out of.

The spines have an overall claw or talon-like shape which makes them better at catching what they touch. They also have a hollow cavity at their tip.

Why Do Lions Need Coarse Tongues?

Lions need coarse tongues to clean themselves, drink water, and get the meat off their prey’s bones. If they didn’t have papillae on their tongues, lions wouldn’t get as much nutrition from their kills and it would be harder for them to clean and cool off.

The coarse tongues that lions and other felines have are adaptations for more efficient survival. A feline with a “normal” tongue would put them at a disadvantage. Their rough tongues help them in many situations:

  1. Cleaning
  2. Thermoregulation
  3. Eating
  4. Drinking

1. Cleaning


One of the main uses of any cat’s tongue is grooming and cleaning. Felines are notorious for licking their fur to pick out dirt, excess hair, and even blood after hunting. Lions are no different.

Without their rough tongues, lions’ grooming wouldn’t be as efficient. They could lick only the surface of their fur. The papillae allow lions’ and other felines’ tongues to clean under the first layer of fur. Their tongues act like thorough grooming brushes.

Cleaning and grooming are part of a lion group’s normal social interactions. Lions that are closely related regularly lick each other.[2]

2. Thermoregulation


What Is Thermoregulation?

Thermoregulation is the ability of an animal to keep its body temperature between certain values. Thermoregulation is important because too much or too little heat can hurt or even be lethal.

In warm or hot environments thermoregulation is even more important. In general,  lions’ habitats are hot and dry so they can easily become dehydrated or overheat. These felines need to carefully maintain their body temperature to stay healthy.

How Lions Thermoregulate

Besides staying in the shade, panting, and drinking water, lions also regulate their temperature by licking themselves and each other. 

Licking wouldn’t help with overheating if their tongues weren’t rough.

The papillae or the spines on the tongue of cats have a unique shape. They have a small cavity around their tip. This cavity absorbs saliva from the lion’s mouth. 

When lions lick themselves or other lions, this saliva ends up on their skin. Thanks to this the feline’s skin cools down as saliva evaporates.[3]

3. Eating


Lions are carnivores and consume enormous amounts of food, 11 to 15 pounds on average. Even though lions are great hunters, they still have to take advantage of every bit of meat they can get. 

The spines on a lion’s tongue help them get as much as they can out of their kills. Their tongues are perfect for picking meat off bones.

Lions tear and eat as much as they can out of prey using their sharp teeth, but this is usually not enough. The backward-facing spines help “catch” small pieces of meat off the bones.

The lion’s tongue also helps with licking the fur or feathers of its prey.

Related article: What Do Lions Eat?

4. Drinking


In the scorching hot heat of the African or Indian sun, lions need to stay hydrated. They drink water whenever they can, even if they can go without it for several days.

Animals drink water in many different ways, but a big part of land mammals use their tongues. Felines also use their tongues, and their roughness helps them drink efficiently.

Unlike dogs which form a scoop with their tongue to grab a drink, felines are much more refined. All cats, including lions, gently brush the surface of the water, curling their tongues backward so only the top of it touches the water.[4]

The main reason why they get enough water in this way is the spines on their tongues. The backward-facing spines simply scoop water into their mouths.

The added surface area from their papillae helps lions pull more water than a smooth tongue would. They simply retract their tongue and a column of water follows. 

Lion Tongue vs Human Tongue

The main differences between the two are their size and the spines that cover a lion’s tongue. Lions have larger heads and tongues than humans, and their tongues are covered in useful spines named papillae.

Here’s a brief overview of human and lion tongues:

LengthAround 2.6 inchesAround 6 inches
AppearanceSmoothTop side is covered in spines (papillae).
UsesSwallowing, chewing, and speaking.Swallowing, grooming, picking meat off bones, drinking water, and helping in thermoregulation.

Can a Lion Lick off Your Skin?

Yes, Lions can lick off your skin if they lick you for a couple of minutes. While their tongues are coarse and feel like rough sandpaper, it would still take them a bit of licking before hurting your skin.


Lion tongues are vastly different from ours. They have spikes called papillae that cover the top of their tongues and help them in many ways. Lions use their tongues and papillae to lick meat off boners, groom themselves, drink water, and even thermoregulate. Their tongues are much larger than human tongues. If a lion licked you continuously for some time, it could “lick off” your skin and make you bleed.

About Codrin Frunzete

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