Listen to Episode 151 on PodBean, YouTube, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts!
For most animals, the body doesn’t end at the hips! That final stretch of anatomy comes in many shapes and sizes suitable to a wide variety of lifestyles. This episode, we discuss the diversity and biological importance – past and present – of Tails.
In the news
Clustered Lystrosaurus fossils seem to indicate repeated droughts
Incredible fossil site preserves the earliest known fish jaws
That same fish site also provides clues to early evolution of paired fins
A detailed look at paleontology representation in video games (read the study here)
Right Behind You
In vertebrate animals, the tail is the part of the spinal column (plus surrounding tissues, of course) that extends past the rear end of the animal. But, of course, it’s more complicated than that. There are lots of structures among invertebrates that we call “tails” and which serve similar purposes: in many arthropods, such as certain insects, the final body section, the metastoma, extends into a tail-like structure, and many crustaceans have a long telson which forms their version of a tail, just to name a couple. And all these many types of tails come in a huge array of forms and functions.
Tails as Old as Time
As we can see, the shape of an animal’s tail is tightly linked to its lifestyle, whether the tail is being used for locomotion, display, defense, or some other purpose. So it’s no surprise that paleontologists are often excited when they can get a good look at a fossil animal’s tail, as they can lead to great insights into the lives of extinct species.
Sometimes, fossil tails are key to understanding ancient species’ habits and evolution. Among dinosaurs, for example, tail shape is a key feature that signals the transition toward modern birds, and the recent discovery of a tall, flat Spinosaurus tail has added support to suspicions that these dinosaurs spent lots of time in water. There are even fossil examples of tail loss and regeneration!
A Tale of the Tail (2021), an overview of tails, tail evolution, and what’s going on with humans
Fish fossils reveal how tails evolved (2016)
Simulations show how dinosaurs used their tails while walking (2021)
Convergent evolution in the tail weapons of mammals and dinosaurs (2019)
From dinosaurs to birds: a tail of evolution (2014, technical, open access)
If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:
- Episode 140 – Horns and Antlers
- Episode 77 – Fins to Feet: The Fish-Tetrapod Transition
- Episode 150 – Stegosaurs
- Episode 69 – Ankylosaurs
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