For an illustrated version, see The EnvironMentor vol 7 no 3 pp 14-15

For an audio version, see Traveling Tales, Vol. 1!

Some kinds of lizards can literally drop off their tails if you try to catch them by grabbing their tail. We have some in Oklahoma, but others also live in Japan where I learned this story.


It is said that in the beginning, all animals had tails. Dogs had tails, cats had tails, birds had tails, fish had tails. Even humans had tails! They all had beautiful tails, except for some kinds of lizards.

These lizards were very unhappy. They went to the Beginning place and looked into the box marked “Tails” – but it was empty. “How can we get tails? There weren't enough to go around!”

They decided that the only way they could get tails, would be if another kind of animal was willing to give up theirs.

They asked the dogs, “You don't need your tails, do you? We'd like to have them.” But the dogs replied (ask your listeners how dogs use their tails, for instance to express excitement, happiness, or fear.)“And so we need to keep our tails,” the dogs said. “Sorry.”

They asked the cats. The cats replied (ask your listeners how cats use their tails, not just to show annoyance but to help turn over feet-downwards if they fall). “We'd use up our nine lives in a hurry if we didn't have our tails. Go away.”

They asked the birds. “You don't show feelings, and you don't have to worry about falling, so you don't need your tails, right?” But the birds (how do birds use their tails? Air brake when landing; balance on a twig; and don't forget attracting a mate!)“We need tails! We need tails!”

They even asked the fish. “All you do is swim all day. You could give your tails to us, right?” But the fish (ask listeners; many fish swim with their tails)“Sorry, we need our tails.”

The lizards were very discouraged. When they met some humans, they said “We guess you love your tails and need them too.” But the humans (ask listeners how inconvenient it could be to have a tail that is always in the way, makes dressing and sitting awkward, and might betray your true feelings). The humans said, “If you really want tails, you can have ours! Good riddance!”

So the lizards took the human tails and changed them into lizard style. They were very proud of how gracefully their tails followed them around. But they taught their children, and grandchildren, and great great great great grandchildren, “Remember: these tails came from humans. So if a human ever wants her tail back – let her have it!”

And that explains why, if you try to catch some kinds of lizard by the tail, it will leave its tail wriggling in your hand and run away.

Meanwhile, imagine what it would be like if we still had tails. Would yours be leathery or scaly? Full and fluffy (squirrel, fox), long and flowing (horse), or velvety and prehensile (harvest mouse, monkey)? What would you do with your tail?


Oklahoma has at least 19 species of lizards, including the green anole (Anolis carolinensis) which really can shed its tail when caught. 

Special muscles clamp down to limit blood loss. The dropped tail can continue to wiggle, distracting the predator while the lizard escapes. The lizard's life is saved!

But this escape comes at a cost. Extra protein (muscle) and fat stored in the tail are lost. Although they can regrow a replacement tail, it is a poor imitation of the original one with cartilage in place of bone, and the regrowth process takes a lot of food and energy. Until their tail has regrown, they can't be as lively and healthy as they were before. So they don't do “caudal autotomy” (self-amputation of the tail) unless they are in real danger – or think that a human wants her tail back!

Recent genetic research has identified the genes that lizards use to regrow their tails. Oddly enough, these same genes are found in all other vertebrate animals – including humans. But our regeneration genes are in a “switched-off” state. If medical geneticists can find a way to switch those genes back on in humans, we might be able to regenerate lost limbs or damaged organs.


Folktale source: 

Adapted from “The Tale of the Lizards' Tails” pg 6 in Folktales from the Japanese Countryside as told by Hiroko Fujita, edited by Fran Stalllings. Libraries Unlimited World Folklore Series 2008. 

Note: The original short folktale was likely intended to comment on the way old lore can control our behavior. It had the lizards going straight to the humans, but I added the other animals in order to discuss with listeners the various functions of animal tails. They are not just for decoration!

Fact source:

Oklahoma Lizard Identification

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