Tail, Limb and Skin Autotomy
©2000 Melissa Kaplan
Autotomy (auto = self, tomos = cut) is the self-induced releasing of a specific body part. In certain lizards, it is the tail that autotomizes; in plethodontid salamanders (terrestrial salamanders lacking gills and lungs in the adult form), it is their tails, digits, and portions of their limbs. Lizards do not autotomize their digits or limbs. If your lizard's toes have are falling off, this is a serious medical problem that requires veterinary attention now. In a few lizards, it is pieces of skin that autotomize, a defense strategy known as "fragile skin."
Lizard tails separate at "fracture planes" that are regularly spaced along the length of the tail, either in between vertebrae or in the middle of each vertebrae. Just as tissue and skin grow to fill in a scratch, gouge or excised (surgically removed) tissue, so, too, does it regrow in those lizards who evolved autotomy.
Tail loss is costly: it represents a loss of fat and protein (energy), both that stored in the tail and that which is dedicated towards the regrowth of a new tail. During this time, young lizards especially are at higher risk for being preyed upon (there may be little or nothing else to drop). During the recovery period, they stop growing. If it happens to an adult, their reproductive life goes on hold, with gamete production stopped during this period.
Since color and pattern is so important both in predator evasion and in social communication with conspecifics (other members of the same species), the absence of a tail can affect the lizard's ability to survive and to find mates and reproduce. While autotomy is costly in terms of the overall loss to the lizard, it is apparently quite effective as a survival strategy as this defense strategy is fairly widespread through the lizard families.
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