We’ve all had bad tummy days, but nothing comes even close to this.
“When we caught it, we just assumed the animal was ready to lay eggs,” said Natalie Claunch, a Ph.D. candidate in the University of Florida School of Natural Resources and Environment. “But when we went to feel for eggs, it just felt like it was full of Silly Putty.”
Claunch is studying invasive lizard populations in Florida, and she was shocked to find the unusual curly-tailed lizard. Along with Edward Stanley, director of the Florida Museum’s Digital Discovery and Dissemination Laboratory, she CT-scanned the lizard and found a massive fecal mass lodged in its enlarged stomach. It was so large that the surrounding organs were starting to atrophy, and the poop made up for almost 80% of its body weight.
“I was blown away by how little room there was left for all the other organs – if you look at the 3D model, it has only a tiny space left over in its ribcage for the heart, lungs and liver,” Stanley said. “It must have been a very uncomfortable situation for the poor lizard.”
The record poop-to-body ratio was almost six times larger than the previous one, held by a Burmese python. The unfortunate lizard was unable to digest the nutrient-depleted bolus and was essentially starving because she couldn’t eat more.
The culprit? Pizza.
Curly-tailed lizards are native to the Bahamas and Cuba, and they were originally introduced to Florida in the 1940s to eat sugarcane pests. The female lizard was likely hunting insects and other prey when it was lured to a parking lot by pizza grease. Thinking it found an easy source of nutrients, the lizard started gulping the grease, ingesting a bit of sand with each bite of pizza grease. Then, it was unable to digest or expel the digestive bolus, which quickly built up inside of it.
It’s very unlikely for an animal to suffer this type of problem in nature. Lizards typically only eat small insects and can’t gulp a lot of sand at one time, and if they do, they’re likely to become prey for their own predators. It was once again human activity that paved the way for this to happen.
“New populations are still being reported and discovered – these lizards can hitchhike in cars, plant delivery trucks or boats, so they end up in a lot of disconnected places,” Claunch said. “We have so many invasive lizards in Florida that funding and person-power is typically directed toward ‘high priority’ species that are a direct threat to native threatened or endangered species, or to infrastructure, but the curly-tailed lizards’ successful spread makes it an interesting case.”
The researchers published their findings as a note in the Herpetological Review.