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Nobody knew that alligators could regrow their own tails

Published Dec 21st, 2020 11:36PM EST
alligators regrow tails
Image: Daniel Meunier/Adobe
  • New research reveals that juvenile alligators are capable of regrowing large portions of their tail if they lose it to a predator or other danger.
  • The finding is somewhat surprising, as some lizard species are known to have regenerative abilities but American alligators weren’t thought to have that ability.
  • The discovery was made almost entirely on accident when the remains of an alligator that had regenerated part of its tail were found by researchers. 

Alligators are incredible creatures for so many reasons. They’re essentially living dinosaurs, having remains mostly unchanged for millions of years. They’re also remarkably fast considering their size and somewhat awkward gait, and they’re ridiculously skilled as ambush predators to boot. With all that in mind, and so much research focused on them over the years, you might assume that there’s not much left to learn about the creatures. Well, you’d be wrong.

In a new research paper published in Scientific Reports, scientists reveal that juvenile American alligators appear to have the ability to regenerate portions of their tails if they have them severed by a predator or due to some other form of injury. It’s a remarkable finding that demonstrates that even some of the most well-understood spaces on the planet may still have some secrets to reveal.

The regrowth of limbs is something that isn’t uncommon in the world of reptiles. Many smaller lizards have the ability to regrow their lost limbs. It’s an invaluable tool when escaping predators, and creatures like geckos can regrow multiple tails, even regrowing the spinal cord that extends into the tail, and they can do it in as little as a month.

However, the ability to regrow limbs has been thought to be something that was reserved for much smaller species. An American alligator is a very large creature and even as a juvenile, they are typically larger than the kinds of lizards that are known to have the ability to regrow their limbs. However, after an alligator tail was sent to a team of researchers at Arizona State University, a team of scientists was able to determine that its tip had in fact regrown.

As is often the case with limbs that are regrown, the tail was slightly discolored and its scales were significantly smaller than they should have been, based on the age of the animal it came from. Using x-ray scanning and an MRI machine to get an inside look at the tail structure before slicing it open themselves, the researchers were able to determine that the tail was regrown.

“We saw a lot of similarities between regenerated alligator tails and lizard tails, including the presence of a cartilaginous structure, the scale patterning, and the coloration. We also saw the regrowth of peripheral nerves and blood vessels,” Cindy Xu, lead author of the study, said in a statement.