Lizards will on purpose sever their tails when in stressful or dangerous situations, an act known as autotomy from the Greek auto “self” and tome “severing” or self-amputation. Even after the tail is cast off, it goes on wriggling, hence distracting the lizard’s attacker. The lizard can regenerate its tail in a few weeks. The new tail will contain cartilage rather than bone and vary distinctly, not only in color but in texture, compared to its earlier appearance. In humans, change in skin pigment and texture are due to disease rather than protective behavior. I heard of a South African woman who was once white but turned black over time. It wasn’t the reptile genes calling but a condition known as hyperpigmentation. Her husband asked for a divorce and took off with their three children.
The only mammals that come close to regeneration are the African spiny mice. Upon capture they release their skin. Imagine a predator holding its prey only to realize seconds later that it has escaped leaving only its skin. The mice regrow their skin, hair follicles, glands, fur, and cartilage with little or no scarring. Organic surgery at its finest.
Empirical sources suggest that “lizards, whose tail is a major storage organ for accumulating reserves, will return to a discarded tail after the threat has passed, and eat it to recover the supplies.” This makes me think that when we discarded our tails as Homo sapiens, we were supposed to swallow them in order to keep our reserves intact. We forgot a significant part of ritual and opened ourselves to disease, predators, and a weaker immune system. Strangely, while looking in the mirror, I notice some things have fallen off my body and I can’t locate them on the floor. Others attach to me like textile fabrics in all the wrong places. They fracture my ego, and I must find consolation that these zones of weakness make me softer. I want to know more about the self-amputation act, free will and all, but the English dictionary corrects the word to autonomy: self-rule, independence, freedom, sovereignty, which surprisingly concern the lizards when they’re shedding tails; compelled by their strong desire to remain free, safe, uneaten, untrapped, unconquerable, and not subdued in accordance with their survival manual.
Copyright © 2018 Mildred Barya. Used with permission of the author. This poem originally appeared in Tin House, Summer 2018.