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A trick of the tail!

When we look at an organism, we see a host of different adaptations which have evolved to improve or enhance the fitness and survival of that species. One such trait is the detachable tail of lizards. In a life or death moment, many lizards are able to shed all or part of their tail. The tail usually continues to wiggle, a behavioural adaptation which is thought to attract the attention of the predator and allow the tailless, would-be prey item to make a hasty escape.

Such interactions between predator and prey are often fleeting and in some cases rarely witnessed. Evolution proceeds by means of such encounters. Winners and losers are determined in a flash of an eye. The ability to lose a tail – there are special zones of weakness that allow it to be shed, or self-amputated – is an adaptation which provides the lizard with an edge. A trick which provides it with a way of getting out of an extreme situation. A costly, but life saving measure that must have evolved at some point, perhaps more than once, in long phylogenetic history of these animals. Since then, this adaptation must have saved the lives of countless millions (billions?) of lizards, and confused an equal number of predators.

The story starts with a hungry bird: a female oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) in this case. She is seen here surveying the scene, one evening , in Thailand.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) female on branch

Somewhere down there is a lizard, also out looking for its supper! Suddenly, the magpie-robin swoops down and pounces.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) female attacking a lizard

The battle commences as the bird has the lizard in its mouth.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) female with lizard in beak

The bird still has the lizard in its mouth; the reptile is struggling for its life.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) female with lizard in beak

Suddenly the lizard is gone and the bird is seen holding only the tail. The lizard has sacrificed its tail to save its life. A costly loss, but one it can recover from.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) female clutching lizard tail

It’s impossible to know how the bird felt about the loss of the rest of the lizard, but she was grappling with the still wriggling tail for some time. Perhaps it confused her, because the tail continued to flap about like a living organism.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) female clutching detached lizard tail.

In the next photograph in the sequence, the bird has dropped the tail, which can be seen lying on the ground (in circle).

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) female looking at lizard tail on the ground

The bird quickly picked up the tail again however, and continued to hold it in her beak before eventually flying off with it.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) female holding detached tail of lizard

The pictures here are not great as I only had a camera with a 200 mm macro lens with me, but they do illustrate an interaction which I thought was worth sharing.

Finally, here’s a picture of the male for comparison.

Oriental magpie-robin (Copsychus saularis) male.

rcannon992 View All

I am a retired entomologist with a background in quarantine pests and invasive invertebrates. I studied zoology at Imperial College (University of London) and did a PhD on the population dynamics of a cereal aphid (Metopolophium dirhodum) in the UK. I spent 5 years with the British Antarctic Survey studing cold hardiness of Antarctic invertebates and 17 years with the Food and Environment Research Agency. My main interests now are natural history, photography, painting and bird watching.

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