The tail drop is a common phenomenon among lizards, but a strange one nonetheless. Leopard geckos can also drop their tails, which can be disruptive and traumatic for a first-time witness.
But why does it happen, what’s the aftermath, and what does your gecko dropping its tail tells about its physical or mental health?
Let’s discuss that!
What is Leopard Gecko Tail Drop?
The tail drop is known as autotomy and describes the willful amputation of the caudal appendix. Many lizards are capable of such a feat, which is a great evolutionary feature designed to improve the animal’s chances of survival.
The process itself is quite fascinating because the lizard’s tail is anatomically designed to sever between specific vertebrae under certain conditions.
This occurs due to the muscles in the tail disjointing the vertebrae and causing the tail to rupture and detach from the body.
The same anatomical effect that occurs with the vertebrae also occurs with the muscles and skin. They all rupture instantly with the precision of a scalpel cut.
There are 2 intriguing facts about the tail drop phenomenon that are worth mentioning here:
- There is no blood loss – The tail has specific vasoconstricting mechanisms in place designed to seal the blood vessels and prevent a hemorrhage. This means that most caudal autotomies occur with minimal-to-no blood loss.
- The tail’s autonomy – The tail possesses local nerves that function autonomously after the amputation occurs. This causes the tail to wiggle around violently for up to 5 minutes, distracting the predator and allowing the reptile to escape. The fact that reptiles have been using this diversion for millennia is proof of its effectiveness and reliability.
As we will soon see, the tail drop mechanism has some real benefits to discuss. Until then, let’s have a look at the tail’s role in the gecko’s life.
The Role of the Tail in Leopard Gecko Anatomy
I would say that the gecko’s tail fulfills 4 critical roles:
- Fat storage – You can tell that a leopard gecko is fat by checking its tail. Geckos primarily store fat in their tails, which they can use in case of food scarcity. Naturally, the tail isn’t the only fat storage. An overweight lizard will also display fat deposits around the belly, limbs, under the chin, etc.
- Balance and mobility – Geckos use their tails to maintain their balance when running, steering, walking, and climbing. These are standard tail uses, no matter the species of the animal possessing it. Without it, lizards won’t be as fast and agile, which will decrease their survivability dramatically.
- Defense mechanism – We’ve already discussed this point. Caudal autotomy is a great defensive mechanism, allowing the lizard to sacrifice its tail but keep its life. It’s a great trade-off, which explains why this feature keeps being passed to future generations.
- Communication tool – Leopard geckos actually use their tails to communicate their intentions. A gecko holding its tail up or swinging it side-to-side expresses stress, anger, or irritability. The same gesture signifies aggression when paired with an open mouth and a raised head. Geckos resort to such behavior when stressed, threatened, or simply annoyed and want their ‘aggressor’ to keep its distance.
As you can see, the gecko’s tail is pretty much a vital organ with multiple potential uses. So, what happens if the gecko loses it?
What to Do if Your Leopard Gecko Loses its Tail?
While geckos don’t really need assistance when dropping their tails, you can be of some help.
Consider the following:
- Change the substrate and clean the habitat – While the wound site won’t bleed after the separation, it will remain open. This puts the gecko at risk of infection when kept in a dirty environment. An unfit substrate with wood chippings or tiny rocks can also become detrimental due to the matter getting stuck on the wound. Replace the substrate with a paper towel and clean and disinfect the gecko’s habitat to prevent infections.
- Minimize the gecko’s stress – No matter the reason why your gecko lost its tail, make sure that the lizard remains peaceful and comfortable during the recovery period.
- Keep environmental parameters stable – Check the temperature and humidity to ensure your gecko’s comfort. A calm and peaceful gecko will recover faster.
- Monitor the gecko – While most tail drops go smoothly, you want to monitor the gecko to prevent health problems along the way.
While these are good strategies to assist your gecko during recovery, your intervention should be minimal. The gecko will most likely recover without your help, so don’t overcommit.
Can a Leopard Gecko’s Tail Grow Back?
Yes, leopard geckos regenerate their tails over time. An adult leopard gecko needs approximately 60 days to regrow its tail fully, although it can take longer.
Some of the factors influencing the regenerative process include the lizard’s age, its physical condition, genetics, any complications that may arise along the way, environmental parameters, etc.
It’s also worth noting that your leopard gecko’s tail will never be the same again. It won’t have the same color, it won’t reach the same length or thickness, and it will most likely have a different shape. Most regrown tails take on a blunter look and only have some of the utility they once had.
This also means that leopard geckos don’t have an unlimited number of tail drops and that each tail drop impacts the lizard’s life irreversibly. So, it’s best to avoid it.
Preventing Tail Drop in Leopard Geckos
To prevent your leopard gecko from dropping its tail, consider the following:
- Create a personalized and comfy setup – Leopard geckos are ground dwellers, so they don’t need climbing spots. Make sure your gecko has 20 gallons of space at its disposal and craft its layout so that it mimics the lizard’s natural environment. Hiding places are also necessary for the gecko’s state of mind.
- Give the lizard space – Leopard geckos can be quite skittish at first until they become acquainted with their new home. They might be more fearful for a while, have low appetite, and display more aggression when attempting to pet them. Give them the space and time necessary to adapt to their new setting so that they won’t become stressed or scared.
- Handle them gently – You should always handle your gecko with care, without holding it too tight or trapping it against its will. You should first introduce yourself by feeding the gecko by hand for a while. This gives the lizard the time to become accustomed to your presence and scent and learn to associate your presence with food and comfort. You can then place your hand in the enclosure for your gecko to climb it on its own. Only hold your gecko for as long as it feels comfortable. If your gecko appears uncomfortable or attempts to jump or flee, place it back in its enclosure.
- Learn when to avoid contact – Leopard geckos will sometimes inform you that they prefer to be left alone. You can tell that the gecko prefers solitude if it flees when you attempt to grab it or displays aggressive behavior with an open mouth and a raised tail. In this case, it’s better to leave the lizard be until it displays a better mood.
- Don’t grab or hold it by its tail – The tail is very sensitive, and geckos usually amputate it by instinct. Sensing pressure on the tail or feeling it trapped is usually a common trigger. Don’t hold your lizard or lift it by its tail if you want it to remain attached to your leopard gecko.
If you have several geckos housed in the same enclosure, ensure that your reptiles have sufficient room to avoid each other when necessary.
Leopard geckos can become aggressive and territorial towards each other, which can result in injuries and even amputated tails.
The Impact of Tail Drop on Leopard Gecko Health and Behavior
Studies show that leopard geckos lose some of their agility and hunting prowess upon losing their tail. Sometimes, they recover in full once their tails regenerate, but most of the time, they don’t.
It’s also important to note that leopard geckos who lose their tails due to poor handling are less likely to accept being handled moving forward.
Leopard geckos can also experience infections upon losing their tails, and this is no small problem. Open wound infections can become deadly fast.
The tail plays a vital role in the gecko’s life. You should always adapt to your gecko’s temperament and lifestyle to make sure it doesn’t resort to caudal autotomy, given that we’ve already discussed the downsides of that.
Fortunately, leopard geckos are unlikely to resort to such extreme behavior if you handle them with care and respect their boundaries.