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Researcher Finds Tailless Lizards Lose Agility

Posted by Miqe on February 16, 2009

When in a predator’s grips, many lizards drop their tails to escape. But what price do they pay for freedom? A team led by biology professor Gary Gillis of Mount Holyoke College found the lizards were compromised: They could no longer jump without tumbling backwards, making it difficult to land safely when jumping between branches.

Among nature’s more interesting wonders is the ability of many lizard species to escape their predators. When caught in a vulnerable position, they simply drop their tails, leaving the twitching body part to distract the predator as they scamper to safety.

But, says Gary Gillis, a biology professor at Mount Holyoke College, the lizards lose significant mobility and agility in return for this life-saving natural escape mechanism.

Up to 50 percent of some lizard populations seem to have traded part of their tails in exchange for escape, according to Gillis. While the tails typically grow back in three to six months, Gillis wondered how the loss might impact a branch-hopping, tree-dwelling lizard’s mobility and ability to survive in the interim. Teaming up with undergraduate student Lauren Bonvini, he began recording lizard leaps to observe how well the reptiles coped without their tails. The results are being published February 13 in The Journal of Experimental Biology (http://jeb.biologists.org/). Constructing a jumping arena from boxes and fine sandpaper, Gillis and Bonvini gently encouraged arboreal Anolis carolinensis (anole) lizards to launch themselves from an 11-centimeter-high platform while filming the animals’ jumps. The lizards performed well, launching themselves by pushing off with their back feet and landing gracefully, covering distances ranging from 14.9 to 29.9 centimeters. But how well would the animals perform without their tails? After holding the lizards’ tails to encourage them to drop them, just as they would with a predator, Bonvini then persuaded the tailless reptiles to jump while Gillis filmed them. As soon as the first animal took to the air, Gillis knew something was different. “It looked weird,” he said. “The animals became blurred as they jumped.” Replaying the animal’s jump in slow motion, the team could see that it was tumbling backwards, out of control, as its tail stump flailed. Filming other tailless anoles, four backflipped out of control, although two others seemed to manage their trajectories better. Teaming up with Duncan Irschick of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, to analyze the reptiles’ leaps, Gillis could see that everything about the tailless lizards’ take-off was exactly the same as it had been before they lost the appendage – until they left the jump stage. The lizards then began flipping backwards by more than 30 degrees; some tumbled so far that they landed on their backs. The team also realized that when the lizards with whole tails took off, they raised the base of their tails as the rest of the appendage trailed along the ground, as if it was somehow stabilizing the take-off. “If jumping and landing are important for lizards, they are clearly compromised after losing their tails. Coordinated landing on a branch is out of the question when spinning backwards,” said Gillis. Escaping lizards pay a significant ecological cost for their life-saving quick-release system, he concluded. So how do the lizards use their tails to ensure a safe touchdown? Gillis isn’t sure whether they push down with their tails at take-off to prevent themselves from spinning, or whether the trailing tail passively stabilizes the animal’s departure. He is continuing his research to determine how lizards adjust to life without their tails, with differential degrees of tail loss, and after the tails have grown back.

Related Links:

http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/misc/profile/ggillis.shtml

http://jeb.biologists.org

Research video is available.

IF REPORTING ON THIS STORY, PLEASE MENTION THE JOURNAL OF EXPERIMENTAL BIOLOGY AS THE SOURCE AND, IF REPORTING ONLINE, PLEASE CARRY A LINK TO: http://jeb.biologists.org

Full text of the article is available ON REQUEST. To obtain a copy contact Kathryn Knight, The Journal Of Experimental Biology, Cambridge, UK. Tel: +44 (0)1223 425525, or email kathryn@biologists.com

From innovations report

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5 Responses to “Researcher Finds Tailless Lizards Lose Agility”

  1. [...] Researcher Finds Tailless Lizards Lose Agility: here. [...]

  2. This isn’t actually a revolutionary discovery. Almost all lizard caresheets warn you that they lose their agility and balance when they drop their tails.

  3. Miqe said

    Pet Lizard:

    I know that, but it´s interesting that someone actually did research on it, don´t you think..?

  4. @Miqe – Sure it is. Was just noting that I was under the assumption that this had already been researched.

  5. Today, I went to the beachfront with my kids. I found a sea shell and gave it to my 4 year old daughter and said “You can hear the ocean if you put this to your ear.” She put the shell to her ear and screamed.
    There was a hermit crab inside and it pinched her ear.
    She never wants to go back! LoL I know this is totally off topic but I had
    to tell someone!

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