Distribution of energy reserves in a viviparous skink: Does tail autotomy involve the loss of lipid stores?

David G. Chapple, Roy Swain

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53 Citations (Scopus)


Caudal autotomy is an effective defensive strategy used by many lizards to facilitate escape during predatory encounters. However, it has several potentially severe consequences, including a range of energetic costs that are believed to result from the depletion of caudal lipid reserves during tail loss. In this study we examined the possible effect of caudal autotomy on the energetic reserves of a small viviparous skink, Niveoscincus metallicus (O'Shaughnessy 1874). Animals of each sex were collected on three occasions to assess the distribution of lipid stores. In addition, the frequency and position of naturally occurring tail breaks were determined. Both abdominal and caudal lipid stores are present in N. metallicus; however, caudal fat bodies comprise the majority (55-78%) of these fat reserves. Temporal variation in fat body mass, both abdominal and caudal, was evident. There was a significant relationship between the two fat stores, which was distorted in pregnant females, when relatively more fat was stored in the tail. Examination of the distribution of caudal fat in the tail revealed that the majority (90-95%) occurs within the proximal third of the tail. The remainder is located in the middle portion of the tail, with no reserves in the most distal tail section. During late pregnancy, females store relatively more fat closer to the body. The frequency of tail loss in a natural population of N. metallicus was extremely high (78%). Tail breaks were normally distributed along the length of the tail (i.e. most near the middle and fewer distal and proximal breaks). Thus there was a relatively high chance of some lipid depletion as a result of tail loss, but because 76% of breaks occur in the middle and distal thirds of the tail, there is a high probability that tail loss results in only minimal (i.e. <10%) lipid depletion. This is the first instance where both the energetic 'value' of the tail and the likelihood of lipid depletion during tail loss have been determined in a lizard. Overall, the combination of the aggregation of caudal fat reserves and position of naturally occurring tail breaks may enable N. metallicus to combine caudal fat storage and tail autotomy with minimal conflict.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)565-572
Number of pages8
JournalAustral Ecology
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Autotomy
  • Cost of reproduction
  • Fat body
  • Niveoscincus metallicus
  • Predation
  • Reproduction
  • Scincidae
  • Tail loss

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