Imagine that you’re a voracious carnivore who sinks its teeth into the tail of a small reptile and anticipates a delicious lunch, when, in a flash, the reptile is gone and you are left holding a wiggling tail between your jaws.
A new study by the University of Toronto Mississauga research team led by Professor Robert Reisz and PhD student Aaron LeBlanc, published in the open source journal, Scientific Reports, shows how a group of small reptiles who lived 289 million years ago could detach their tails to escape the grasp of their would-be predators — the oldest known example of such behaviour. The reptiles, called Captorhinus, weighed less than 2 kilograms and were smaller than the predators of the time. They were abundant in terrestrial communities during the Early Permian period and are distant relatives of all the reptiles today.
As small omnivores and herbivores, Captorhinus and its relatives had to scrounge for food while avoiding being preyed upon by large meat-eating amphibians and ancient relatives of mammals. “One of the ways captorhinids could do this,” says first author LeBlanc, “was by having breakable tail vertebrae.” Like many present-day lizard species, such as skinks, that can detach their tails to escape or distract a predator, the middle of many tail vertebrae had cracks in them.
It is likely that these cracks acted like the perforated lines between two paper towel sheets, allowing vertebrae to break in half along planes of weakness. “If a predator grabbed hold of one of these reptiles, the vertebra would break at the crack and the tail would drop off, allowing the captorhinid to escape relatively unharmed,” says Reisz, a Distinguished Professor of Biology at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
The authors note that being the only reptiles with such an escape strategy may have been a key to their success, because they were the most common reptiles of their time, and by the end of the Permian period 251 million years ago, captorhinids had dispersed across the ancient supercontinent of Pangaea. This trait disappeared from the fossil record when Captorhinus died out; it re-evolved in lizards only 70 million years ago.
They were able to examine more than 70 tail vertebrae — both juveniles and adults — and partial tail skeletons with splits that ran through their vertebrae. They compared these skeletons to those of other reptilian relatives of captorhinids, but it appears that this ability is restricted to this family of reptiles in the Permian period.
Using various paleontological and histological techniques, the authors discovered that the cracks were features that formed naturally as the vertebrae were developing. Interestingly, the research team found that young captorhinids had well-formed cracks, while those in some adults tended to fuse up. This makes sense, since predation is much greater on young individuals and they need this ability to defend themselves.
This study was possible thanks to the treasure trove of fossils available at the cave deposits near Richards Spur, Oklahoma.