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I saw a bizarre three-tailed lizard, and scientists say it's not alone

There may be a surprising number of multitailed lizards crawling around out there.

multitaillizard
Damian Lettoof of Curtin University snapped this photo of an Australian barred wedgesnout skink lizard with two tails.
Damian Lettoof/Curtin University

In May 2019, I hiked through a shady patch of the Manzanita Mountains of New Mexico. A flicker caught my eye and I spotted a lizard on a rock. I love lizards, so I slowly closed in with my phone camera. I'd never seen a lizard like this one before.

The critter's tail ended in three tails, like a tiny medieval weapon. The photo I have shows it in mottled shade, but you can clearly see the oddity. 

Take a close look at that crazy tail.

Amanda Kooser/CNET

I'm pretty sure it was a fence lizard, a common type that's known for performing comical push-ups as a territorial display. I still think about that lizard. I pull out the photo like a party trick and show it to people. Look at this fantastical lizard!

My fascinating find is not the only of its kind. A team of researchers from Curtin University in Australia have taken a deep look at the prevalence of multitailed lizards in the wild.

"We analysed the available two-tailed lizard data from more than 175 species across 22 families, from 63 different countries. Contrasting this data with all comparable lizard population numbers, our findings suggest an average of 2.75% of all lizards within populations could have two tails or more at any one time," said doctoral candidate James Barr in a Curtin University release Tuesday.

Barr described that percentage as "quite a surprisingly high number." 

Barr is the lead author of a study published in Biological Reviews in late June that examines "abnormal caudal regeneration." Many lizards have the ability to "self-amputate" part of their tails in order to escape a predator. Multiple tails are usually the result of a lizard not completely losing its tail. It then grows an additional tail. In the case of the lizard I spotted, this process may've happened twice.

The researchers are interested in how these extra tails impact the lizards that have to haul them around. It's an open question, but those lizards may be at a disadvantage. 

"It could affect a range of things, such as their kinetic movements, restrictions they might have when trying to escape a predator, their anti-predation tactics, and socially speaking, how other lizards might react to them," said co-author Bill Bateman, a Curtin associate professor.

I hike every weekend. I snap glamour shots of horny toads and follow skinks along the trails. I have yet to see another multitailed lizard. I still think about the first one, and I wonder if it's still out there in the manzanitas, defying death by the skin of its tail.