CaliforniaHerps.com

A Guide to the Amphibians
and Reptiles of California






Lizard Behavior and Life History - Tail Loss (Caudal Autotomy)

 









observation link

 

Caudal Autotomy - Tail Loss as a Survival Strategy


Many species of lizards release their tail when they want to escape from a predator. The tail then continues to wriggle like a living creature, which distracts the predator away from the lizard's vulnerable body, allowing it to escape while the predator is left holding or trying to catch the expendable tail. That's one strategy. A study of lizards in Greece concluded that the lizards there drop their tails when bitten on the tail by venomous snakes. That way the venom does not reach the lizard's body. This tail dropping is called "Caudal Autotomy." Losing the tail does not seriously harm the lizard, and may save its life, but the loss of a tail might have a negative effect on the lizard's ability to run quickly, its attractiveness to the opposite sex, and its social standing. Dropped tails do grow back, but these regenerated tails are often not as long or as perfect as the original. It is not uncommon to find lizards in the wild with no tail or with a partially regenerated tail, so tail autotomy apparenty works. None of the detached tails seen below were broken off intentionally. All were either released by a lizard stressed by being captured or they were accidents of handling. These are examples of the harm that can be done to a lizard even from careful handling and serve as a warning to be careful when picking up a lizard.

Desert Night Lizard Desert Night Lizard Desert Night Lizard
San Diego Alligator Lizard
This video shows the detached tail of a Desert Night Lizard as it wriggles on the ground. (Everything is shown at normal speed. The video has been edited to show the wriggling tail as it slows down over about 4 minutes.)

This adult Desert Night Lizard dropped its tail as a defesive measure. (You can see the tail wriggling after it was dropped off in the video to the left.) This San Diego Alligator Lizard was found missing most of tail
California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard California Alligator Lizard
As we were photographing a California Alligator Lizard, my herping companion picked it up to get a better pose. The lizard had already been handled for 5 to 10 minutes and seemed to tolerate it, but this time it decided to drop its tail. We felt terrible to be responsible for the loss of such a nice unbroken tail. Sometimes when you pick up a lizard too close to the tail, or push the tail against a hard sufrace, you can accidentally cause it to detach, but that wasn't the case here. I put the writhing tail on the ground where it danced around for about 4 minutes until it stopped, shooting some video of it, then set it back next to the lizard to get these photos.The lizard was then put back under his log unharmed, but unable now to use a detached tail as a decoy until it grows another one. A California Alligator Lizard's tail, released from the body, thrashes around wildly on the ground in this video. This is the same tail shown to the left.
Northern Alligator Lizard Northern Alligator Lizard Northern Alligator Lizard Western Red-tailed Skink
A Northern Alligator Lizard with a freshly dropped tail.
A Western Red-tailed Skink dropped its tail to distract me from trying to catch it. The trick worked - I filmed the tail and its writhing distracting motion, some of which you can see in this short video.
lizard tail Sierra Night Lizard A Texas Banded Gecko with a partially regenerated tail. This Ground Skink lost its tail to a house cat, but survived.
This Cape Giant Whiptail has a partially-regenerated tail. © Mauricio Correa A Sierra Night Lizard with a partially regenerated tail. A Texas Banded Gecko with a partially regenerated tail. This Ground Skink lost its tail to a house cat, but survived.
In this short video, the detached tail of a California legless lizard  wriggles rapidly, looking like a living creature, until it gradually slows down. This illustrates how a lizard can drop its tail to distract a predator then crawl away to safety while the predator chases the tail. The lizard and tail parts are seen to the right. Adult, with detached tail, Riverside County  (This tail was not removed intentionally, it was unexpectedly dropped by the lizard when it was stressed from being handled. My sincere apologies to the lizard...)  The body end of the detached tail - Left The detached tail - Right The body end of the detached tail - Left The detached tail - Right
In this short video, the detached tail of a Southern California Legless Lizard wriggles rapidly, looking like a living creature, until it gradually slows down. This illustrates how a lizard can drop its tail to distract a predator then crawl away to safety while the predator chases the tail. The lizard and tail parts are seen to the right.
Adult Southern California Legless Lizard , with detached tail.

(This tail was not removed intentionally, it was unexpectedly dropped by the lizard when it was stressed from being handled.)
The body end of the detached tail - Left
The detached tail - Right
These California Alligator Lizards both have partially regenerated tails These California Alligator Lizards both have partially regenerated tails In this video, a juvenile Skilton's Skink loses its blue tail, which writhes around on the ground. This is a defensive measure used to distract the predator which caused the tail to become detached from the rest of the lizard as it tries to escape.  In this video you can see how the blue tail on a juvenile skink stands out when the lizard moves, especially when it uses its stripes to blend into the vegetation. A predator is more likely to go for the tail, which can detach without hurting the lizard.
These California Alligator Lizards both have partially-regenerated tails In this video, a juvenile Skilton's Skink loses its blue tail, which writhes around on the ground. This is a defensive measure used to distract the predator which caused the tail to become detached from the rest of the lizard as it tries to escape.

In this video you can see how the blue tail on a juvenile skink stands out when the lizard moves, especially when it uses its stripes to blend into the vegetation. A predator is more likely to go for the tail, which can detach without hurting the lizard.
lizard lizard Gilbert's Skink Gilbert's Skink
This Australian Unbanded Delma, a legless lizard, was found stuck to a highway at night after its tail had been crushed by a passing vehicle and mashed into the tarmac. Fortunately, the tail can be detached without harming the lizard, so this one survived and crawled away after we separated it from the damaged part of its tail.
Sub-adult Western Red-tailed Skink with tail, and after dropping its tail.
Gilbert's Skink Western Zebra-tailed Lizard texas greater earless lizard  
Tail parts shortly after being released: part attached to lizard on left,
dropped part on right.
When running, Western Zebra-tailed Lizards raise up and wave their tail to show the zebra-like black and white bars on the bottom of the tail. This draws the predator's attention to the more expendable tail and away from the vulnerable body. This Texas Greater Earless Lizard waves its barred tail to show its underside in order to distract a pursuer. It it is grabbed by a predator, the tail is less vulnerable than the rest of the body.  
       
Bifurcated or Forked Tails
Sometimes after a tail is broken off, two tails grow back from the break point.
San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard San Diego Alligator Lizard Great Basin Whiptail
Adult San Diego Alligator Lizard, Placer County, with  a forked re-generated tail. © Sara Walhovd Adult San Diego Alligator Lizard, Los Angeles County with a large forked tail.
© Joshua Nyhus
This Great Basin Whiptail from Riverside County has an abnormal forked tail, probably resulting from an injury.
© Dan Schroeter
       

Home Site Map About Us Identification Lists Maps Photos More Lists CA Snakes CA Lizards CA Turtles CA Salamanders CA Frogs
Contact Us Usage Resources Rattlesnakes Sounds Videos FieldHerping Yard Herps Behavior Herp Fun CA Regulations
Beyond CA All Herps


Return to the Top

 © 2000 -