Science has finally figured out how lizards lose their tails. And it can be of great help to us.

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Spiders that sacrifice their legs; crabs shedding their claws; or slugs that ‘self-decapitate’ themselves to rid themselves of parasites: self-amputation is an eerily popular practice in the animal world when the going gets tough. However, the absolute queen of this type of practice is the lizard. Its ability to drop its tail (still in motion) and throw predators off the scent is legendary, but until now we did not know very well how it worked.


The queue paradox. The issue has fascinated evolutionary scientists for years, but until now it had not been explored beyond its anti-predator potential. In other words, we did not know how it was possible to have a fully functional tail and, from one moment to another, lose it without causing serious problems in the animal. It is what Yong-Ak Song, a biomechanical engineer at New York University in Abu Dhabi, named in the New York Times the queue paradox: “must be simultaneously adherent and separable […] It has to detach its tail quickly in order to survive, but at the same time, it can’t lose its tail too easily.”

This is the island of cobras, the paradisiacal (and terrifying) Brazilian place where you can find a snake every few steps

Remove queues in the laboratory. To find out the mechanisms behind this ability, Yong-Ak Song’s team filmed with a high-speed camera (up to 3,000 frames per second) the process by which the tails of various species of desert lizards separated from the body in a laboratory. They then analyzed those tails under electron microscopy (and returned the lizards to their natural habitats).

mushroom-shaped capillaries. The first thing the researchers discovered is that along the sectioned part there were very few vascular attachment points. There were lots of microcapillaries, but these dense sacs of vessels didn’t touch more than lightly, making amputation quick and painless. The second finding was that these capillaries were shaped like mushrooms: when modeling them in a computer, they discovered that precisely this shape was what allowed them to cushion the blow.

The key here is that this same structure gives solidity in some positions and not in others. They discovered that with certain turning movements it was up to 17 times more likely that the tail would separate from the body and that was precisely the mechanism that the lizards used to self-mutilate in the face of danger.

What lizards can teach our prostheses. Because that is the fundamental question. Beyond the curiosity of how a lizard’s tail works, the researchers believe that it can help us improve how we attach prostheses, skin grafts or bandages. It is that it has nature: that it does not stop teaching us things.

Spiders that sacrifice their legs; crabs shedding their claws; or slugs that ‘self-decapitate’ themselves to rid themselves of parasites: self-amputation…

Spiders that sacrifice their legs; crabs shedding their claws; or slugs that ‘self-decapitate’ themselves to rid themselves of parasites: self-amputation…

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