SICB 2014: Why Curly-Tailed Lizards Curl Their Tails

Continuing with my theme of posting about non-anoles that anolologists find interesting, here’s a summary of a fascinating poster about tail-curling in two species of LeiocephalusL. carinatus (the famous consumer of A. sagrei in the Bahamas) and L. barahonensis. Tail-curling is known to function as a predator-deterrent signal in L. carinatus, but its potential as a social signal has remained unexplored. Bonnie Kircher, a student in Michele Johnson’s lab at Trinity University, set about rectifying this gap.

Having never seen a curly-tail myself, I was surprised to learn that these lizards exhibit a variety of tail-curling behaviours.

A figure from Bonnie Kircher's poster describing how tail-curling was scored in this study.

A figure from Bonnie Kircher’s poster describing how tail-curling was scored in this study.

By scoring the intensity of tail-curling during social encounters as well as during non-social periods, Kircher showed that tail-curling was not used as a social signal in either Leiocephalus species. In an elegant control, she demonstrated that head-bobbing was more frequent in social than in non-social contexts, thus verifying that social contexts were indeed accurately identified.

Kircher also simulated predation by approaching the lizards and observed their use of tail-curling while fleeing. A comparison of the frequency of tail-curling between disturbed and undisturbed lizards confirmed that L. carinatus uses tail-curling as a signal during encounters with potential predators. The same pattern was not observed in L. barahonensis–we therefore don’t yet know why this species curls its tail. Kircher speculates that the behaviour might have been directed at other, undetected, predators, or perhaps plays a role in lending stability to the lizard during locomotion.

This variation in the utilization of the same signal between two closely-related species points to the lability of signal use, and with almost 30 species in the genus, this system is a prime candidate for future work on signal evolution.

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