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Yet only recently has its true function has been tracked down, a trail followed by Lyall Watson in Jacobson's Organ And The Remarkable Nature of Smell (Penguin, pounds 12.
The Jacobson's organ and the sense of smell it provides are indispensable for snakes in relating to their environment.
Upon retraction, the tips touch a structure called the Jacobson's organ in the roof of the mouth, and the chemical information from the outside world is transferred to the snake.