Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Risking Limb for Life? (A Guest Post)

By Matthew Whitley

Imagine you are walking alone in parking lot, when suddenly somebody grabs you by the arm and flashes a knife, demanding your money. Do you A) scream for help, B) try to wrestle the knife away, or C) remove your arm from your shoulder and make a break for it? Disarming your assailant may seem preferable to dis-arming yourself, but for a lizard option C is a likely response.

A lizard tail left behind. Image by Metatron at Wikimedia Commons.

You likely have heard before that many lizards can break off their tail when trying to make an escape. This ability is called caudal autotomy; autotomy meaning the ability to shed a limb, and caudal simply being a fancy word for tail. Of course, losing a limb is no simple procedure, and lizards possess many specialized features to make caudal autotomy possible.

There are two main kinds of caudal autotomy in lizards: intervertebral and intravertebral. Intervertebral refers to when the tail breaks between vertebrae, and is considered the simpler and more primitive form. Intravertebral, on the other hand, involves some more complex features. The word intravertebral refers to fracture planes found in the middle of each vertebra in the middle of the lizard’s tail. At these fracture planes, the bone can easily snap in half. This snapping of bone is performed by the lizard itself—when its tail is caught, muscles surrounding the bone just above where its tail is held squeeze tight until the bone breaks. After the bone breaks, the rest of the tail follows: the skin stretches and breaks, muscles detach, any remaining tissue divides, and—POP—the tail falls off!

After snapping your arm off to run from an attacker, you would probably just bleed out in your retreat, but lizards have that covered. In their tails, lizards have sphincters (rings of muscle) along their arteries—vessels that normally carry blood to the tail. When the tail is detached, these sphincters tighten to prevent blood from gushing out. Additionally, their veins, which normally bring blood back from the tail, have valves that prevent blood from flowing backwards, similar to the valves in your heart. And while the lizard makes its escape, the dislocated tail jerks and twitches, which distracts the lizard’s assailant. The tail owes its spastic actions to fast, glycolytic muscles, a variety of muscle that can act quickly and with a lot of force, but wears out quickly.

After our reptilian friend has made its daring escape, it has a new problem—it has no tail. A lizard without its tail is at a disadvantage, just as you would be without your arm. Lizards rely on their tails for several functions, including movement, nutrient storage, and social and sexual behaviors. Fortunately, lizards that exercise caudal autotomy can actually re-grow their tails, a process which itself is highly complex. In lieu of a lengthy explanation of another amazing phenomenon, I’ll share this tidbit: to regain lost nutrients and help recover, some lizards have been known to go back and eat their lost tail! So when you tear off your arm to escape a mugger, don’t forget to return to the scene of the crime to self-cannibalize…or maybe just buy some pepper spray beforehand.

Here you can see that the lizard is caught by the tail, pops it off and runs away, and the tail is left twitching.

Works Cited

Bateman, P., & Fleming, P. (2009). To cut a long tail short: a review of lizard caudal autotomy studies carried out over the last 20 years Journal of Zoology, 277 (1), 1-14 DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.2008.00484.x

Clause, A., & Capaldi, E. (2006). Caudal autotomy and regeneration in lizards Journal of Experimental Zoology Part A: Comparative Experimental Biology, 305A (12), 965-973 DOI: 10.1002/jez.a.346

Gilbert, E., Payne, S., & Vickaryous, M. (2013). The Anatomy and Histology of Caudal Autotomy and Regeneration in Lizards Physiological and Biochemical Zoology, 86 (6), 631-644 DOI: 10.1086/673889


  1. This was very interesting tor to read and to watch! I will say it's amazing how they can still live when losing their tail. I know if humans lose a limb we can still live but it also depends. Its fascinating how the body works and how those sphincters work to where their blood doesnt gush out. If only that worked for humans! Do you think the lizard feels pain when they have lost their tail?
    Humans and the lizards do relate in the sense that we both need our limbs for daily functions, but however we can make do without them, although their might be challenges.
    The way the lizards grow their tails, is they have 326 genes that they turn on in specific regions that help regenerate the tail. It always usually takes them about 60 days to regrow their tail, since they have a unique pattern of tissue growth.
    Lizards are cooler animals than I thought!

  2. This is so interesting to me a lizard can rid their tail when they are in danger. It is weird to me that animals most animals are made to protect them selves from predators. For instance, snake's skin has different designs to camouflage them from the environment. But yet humans have to learn different self defense techniques and use weapons to protect themselves.
    I wonder if lizards have feeling in their tail? You wouldn't think they would or at least not at the point of detachment.
    It is awesome that they have sphincters that tighten to protect them from bleeding out.
    In Argentina a lizard that lost its tail when in danger grew 6 tails back. I wonder if their is a limit to how many times a lizard can lose its tail or is like finger nails on a human where they non stop grow.
    I am very interested in this topic.

  3. I have always been intrigued by the way lizards can lose and regrow their tails so effortlessly, like it's no big deal to them. Has it been shown that they feel the "phantom limb" sensation in their missing tail? Do they know that it isnt there/can they still feel their tail? Or is their a sort of nerve disconnect that allows them to do this more easily?

  4. Ew, I have always hated and am scared of lizards. This video did not make me like them or be less disgusted by them in any way but nice post!