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At some point in our lives, we all wish we had an extra hand to help us through our day. In the case of the chameleon, they essentially do. It’s called a prehensile tail.
The term prehensile describes the tails ability to grasp objects. A chameleon uses its prehensile tail to assist them as they move between branches while climbing through the trees, as well as using their tails to provide additional stability when they are perched. The tail functions like a fifth appendage, providing support and assisting balance.
Unlike the prehensile tails of certain other species, chameleon tails function as a coil and cannot be moved in any direction it chooses. The coiling action is what helps grab onto tree branches and other supports as it moves. The tail forms a spiral around the object and the chameleon is able to squeeze the object for support. This is particularly helpful when a chameleon is moving down a tree, as it allows the chameleon to climb in a vertical position.
Not All Chameleons Have Prehensile Tails
While the vast majority of chameleons do have prehensile tails the pygmy chameleons belonging to the genera Brookesia and Rhampholeon generally do not. Being a pygmy chameleon does not automatically mean they will not have a prehensile tail, as smaller chameleons in the Bradypodion genus have quite long prehensile tails just like its larger-sized brethren.
Tail Curled Up? I’m Resting
When a chameleon is at rest, the tail curls into a tight spiral. It is not fully understood if this action is due to the fact that it makes the chameleon appear larger, possibly helping to ward off potential predators, or if it is simply a more comfortable position, it appears to be a common resting point for all chameleons with prehensile tails regardless of the genus.
Chameleons Cannot Regenerate Their Tails
While some species of lizards can regenerate their tails, with some being able to disconnect the ends of their tails at will to distract predators, a chameleon does not have this ability. Since the tail has a more complex structure, allowing it to provide additional function beyond that of certain other lizards, the loss of its tail would be permanent.
In fact, the only species of vertebrates that can regenerate complex structures, such as those found in most limbs and tails, are those belonging to the family of Urodele amphibians. Other lizards that are able to regenerate their tails are actually only able to regrow imperfect copies that do not have the same structure or abilities of the original.
Tails as a Sign of Health
A healthy chameleon’s tail will likely have a fairly strong coil, will exhibit similar coloring to the rest of the body, and will move properly for your chameleon’s needs. If any changes to the tail are noted, it could be a sign that something is wrong.
Whether due to a physical injury or damage from an unknown cause, if your chameleon’s tail looks like it has seen better days, it is best to contact your veterinarian. An abnormal sloughing or necrosis of the tip of the tail can be a sign of a more serious condition, such as a Vitamin A imbalance, which may require immediate professional treatment.