How lizards use clever coloring to deceive predators

June 9, 2016, 12:51 p.m.
The five-lined skink
Photo: Pan Xunbin/Shutterstock

The beautiful five-lined skink has a blue tail that's truly eye-catching. And that's on purpose. Predators notice the colorful tail as well. When they grab the tail, the skink can detach it and escape. The wily lizard lives to regrow its tail again.

New research shows that not only is the bright blue tail part of a survival strategy, but so too are the noticeable stripes running down the skink's sides.

Gopal Murali, an evolutionary biologist at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Thiruvananthapuram, created a set of experiments to test how well a predator (and in this case, the predator being a group of graduate students) can judge the speed at which a striped lizard is moving.

Using a computer game for the test, students had to click on a lizard's front half when it was moving. When the front half of a lizard had stripes, the students were 25 percent less able to click on the lizard's front half.

Then the students had to judge which lizard was running faster across the screen — one with stripes or one with blotches. It turns out that lizards with striped patterns are viewed as moving slower than they really are.

"Together, the two games show how these stripes might work in nature. If a bird goes in for the kill but underestimates a skink’s speed, it will come up with nothing but a mouthful of disembodied tail — and the skink will live another day," reports Science Magazine.

This is the telling reason why so many lizard species have stripes: it helps them deceive predators and have a better chance of escape.