What a Lizard Poop of Epic Proportions Is Teaching Scientists

Not the actual northern curly-tailed lizard with the epic poop.
Not the actual northern curly-tailed lizard with the epic poop.

In Homer’s Iliad, Achilles must choose between a mediocre but comfortable life and one that will end in his untimely death but immortal glory. And so it was with the case of a curiously distended curly-tailed lizard found in a parking lot behind a pizza joint in Cocoa Beach, Florida.

Most curly-tailed lizards are not worthy of an epic poem. They have neither huge fangs nor venom. They grow no larger than a candy bar.

But this female curly-tailed lizard, her abdomen chock-full of poop, will be remembered forever—not for leading the charge on an impenetrable city, but for possessing the largest feces-to-body-mass ratio ever recorded in a living animal.

"Silly Putty-Like Mass"

The saga begins on July 21, 2018, when Natalie Clauncha Ph.D. candidate at the University of Florida's School of Natural Resources and Environment—and her crew rose early to go hunting for lizards as part of a study about invasive species. Curly-taileds are native to the islands of the Caribbean, which means their presence in Central and South Florida could have dire consequences for native wildlife.

That fateful morning, the scientists were in a race against Helios, the sun-god, and his sky-traversing chariot of fire. Lizards are “thermally constrained,” Claunch tells Mental Floss, which means that by about high noon, most will disappear underground to wait out the heat of the day. And so each field assistant was working hard to nab as many lizards as possible with tiny nooses attached to 20-foot poles.

Then, at 10:41 a.m., it happened. An assistant trotted back from the frontlines holding a curly-tailed lizard shaped like one of Aphrodite’s beloved pears. Someone suggested perhaps the creature was pregnant, but after a few palpations of the Silly Putty-like mass, Claunch knew the critter was not full of jellybean-sized eggs. Indeed, the fates had spun a thread for her that was far worse. From her shoulder blades to her pelvis, this particular curly-tailed lizard harbored an oval-shaped deuce that accounted for a whopping 78.5 percent of her total body weight.

For reference, that would be like a 150-pound human carrying around a gut full of nearly 118 pounds of hard, impassable poo.

The previous poop-to-body-mass record holder, by the way, was a Burmese python in Florida described by Dickinson College herpetologist Scott Boback in 2016 [PDF]. "I'm more than happy to pass along the torch to Natalie Claunch for discovering the world's largest turd," Boback tells Mental Floss.

The stupendous stool took up so much physical space in the lizard’s body cavity, her liver and ovaries were “visibly atrophied,” Claunch wrote in a note published in the journal Herpetological Review.

By all accounts, the lizard’s condition must have been excruciating. So what in the name of the gods could lead to such a monstrous state?

A Taste For French Fry Grease

Claunch believes the lizard had been prowling around the pizza parlor’s grease bin, which had a tendency to drip into the sand below. Perhaps the reptile had developed a taste for old French fry oil, or maybe she’d learned to gulp down the insects that landed upon it, but somehow, she’d acquired a belly full of sand and dirt in the process. And while food kept going in, the lizard no longer seemed capable of squirting it back out again.

“There’s also an anole skull in there,” says Claunch, noting that curly-taileds sometimes devour brown anoles, which are also invasive.

Boback praised both Claunch's and the lizard's fortitude. "Clearly she searched far and wide, knee-deep in the muck, to discover yet another squamate [scaled reptile] with a magnum rectum, capable of consuming enough greasy cheese fries to develop a poop almost the size of herself," he says.

The reason we know so much about one lizard’s weird poop is Florida state law prohibits anyone from releasing invasive species back into the wild. So after humanely euthanizing the impacted reptile, Claunch drove it over to Ed Stanley, an evolutionary biologist at the Florida Museum of Natural History, to take a closer look.

Stanley has been called the “sultan of scan” for the way he uses an x-ray technology called Micro-CT to reveal the inner workings of everything from chameleon eyeballs and hidden parasites to deep sea creatures. And after one look at the curly-tailed lizard, he too wanted to take a peek inside.

While some might think scanning giant turds is a crappy way to spend one’s time, Stanley sees his efforts as a way to democratize science. In fact, he’s part of a larger, ambitious effort, called oVert, to create 3D models of every vertebrate genus currently held in American museum collections.

What the Turds Tell Us

Museum collections are full of rare, important specimens that simply can’t be lent out to every high school science class that might want to dissect them, according to Stanley. But with 3D models that allow you to illustrate everything from an animal’s circulatory system to its bones, skin, and organs, “it lets us put the specimens in the hands of people who might not otherwise be able to see them,” Stanley tells Mental Floss. He’s had everyone from scientists to animators and artists use his scans for reference.

The best part is, thanks to this modelling technology, you don’t need any credentials to go poking around the curly-tailed lizard’s guts any time you get a hankering. Just be forewarned, it’s easy to get lost in there. “It’s like The Magic School Bus,” Claunch says.

Of course, there are plenty of scientific reasons to scan scat.

Impacted poops are commonly thought of as products of a life spent in captivity, but the giant warrior queen with a gut full of skull and sand proves that it can happen in the urban wild, too. And this may hold insight for exotic vets, according to Claunch. Likewise, Stanley says he’d like to go back and scan the reptile again, this time with contrast agents, to better compare how the animal’s body accommodated such a fantastic fecal mass.

And now that the model is available on the internet, immortalized in pixels, other scientists could use it to discover, well, who knows what?

A curly-tailed lizard has crossed over to the Elysian Fields and into the stuff of legend. For it was Homer who once wrote, “Any [bowel movement] might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we are doomed.”

Her existence was ephemeral, but her excreta shall be eternal.

10 Reusable Gifts for Your Eco-Friendliest Friend

Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
Disposable tea bags can't compete with this pla-tea-pus and his friends.
DecorChic/Amazon

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By this point, your eco-friendly pal probably has a reusable water bottle that accompanies them everywhere and some sturdy grocery totes that keep their plastic-bag count below par. Here are 10 other sustainable gift ideas that’ll help them in their conservation efforts.

1. Reusable Produce Bags; $13

No more staticky plastic bags.Naturally Sensible/Amazon

The complimentary plastic produce bags in grocery stores aren’t great, but neither is having all your spherical fruits and vegetables roll pell-mell down the checkout conveyor belt. Enter the perfect alternative: mesh bags that are nylon, lightweight, and even machine-washable.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Animal Tea Infusers; $16

Nothing like afternoon tea with your tiny animal friends.DecorChic/Amazon

Saying goodbye to disposable tea bags calls for a quality tea diffuser, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t be shaped like an adorable animal. This “ParTEA Pack” includes a hippo, platypus, otter, cat, and owl, which can all hang over the edge of a glass or mug. (In other words, you won’t have to fish them out with your fingers or dirty a spoon when your loose leaf is done steeping.)

Buy it: Amazon

3. Rocketbook Smart Notebook; $25

Typing your notes on a tablet or laptop might save trees, but it doesn’t quite capture the feeling of writing on paper with a regular pen. The Rocketbook, on the other hand, does. After you’re finished filling a page with sketches, musings, or whatever else, you scan it into the Rocketbook app with your smartphone, wipe it clean with the microfiber cloth, and start again. This one also comes with a compatible pen, but any PILOT FriXion pens will do.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Food Huggers; $13

"I'm a hugger!"Food Huggers/Amazon

It’s hard to compete with the convenience of plastic wrap or tin foil when it comes to covering the exposed end of a piece of produce or an open tin can—and keeping those leftovers in food storage containers can take up valuable space in the fridge. This set of five silicone Food Huggers stretch to fit over a wide range of circular goods, from a lidless jar to half a lemon.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Swiffer Mop Pads; $15

For floors that'll shine like the top of the Chrysler Building.Turbo Microfiber/Amazon

Swiffers may be much less unwieldy than regular mops, but the disposable pads present a problem to anyone who likes to keep their trash output to a minimum. These machine-washable pads fasten to the bottom of any Swiffer WetJet, and the thick microfiber will trap dirt and dust instead of pushing it into corners. Each pad lasts for at least 100 uses, so you’d be saving your eco-friendly friend quite a bit of money, too.

Buy it: Amazon

6. SodaStream for Sparkling Water; $69

A fondness for fizzy over flat water doesn’t have to mean buying it bottled. Not only does the SodaStream let you make seltzer at home, but it’s also small enough that it won’t take up too much precious counter space. SodaStream also sells flavor drops to give your home-brewed beverage even more flair—this pack from Amazon ($25) includes mango, orange, raspberry, lemon, and lime.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Washable Lint Roller; $13

Roller dirty.iLifeTech/Amazon

There’s a good chance that anyone with a pet (or just an intense dislike for lint) has lint-rolled their way through countless sticky sheets. iLifeTech’s reusable roller boasts “the power of glue,” which doesn’t wear off even after you’ve washed it. Each one also comes with a 3-inch travel-sized version, so you can stay fuzz-free on the go.

Buy it: Amazon

8. Countertop Compost Bin; $23

Like a tiny Tin Man for your table.Epica/Amazon

Even if you keep a compost pile in your own backyard, it doesn’t make sense to dash outside every time you need to dump a food scrap. A countertop compost bin can come in handy, especially if it kills odors and blends in with your decor. This 1.3-gallon pail does both. It’s made of stainless steel—which matches just about everything—and contains an activated-charcoal filter that prevents rancid peels and juices from stinking up your kitchen.

Buy it: Amazon

9. Fabric-Softening Dryer Balls; $17

Also great for learning how to juggle without breaking anything.Smart Sheep

Nobody likes starchy, scratchy clothes, but some people might like blowing through bottles of fabric softener and boxes of dryer sheets even less. Smart Sheep is here to offer a solution: wool dryer balls. Not only do they last for more than 1000 loads, they also dry your laundry faster. And since they don’t contain any chemicals, fragrances, or synthetic materials, they’re a doubly great option for people with allergies and/or sensitive skin.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Rechargeable Batteries; $40

Say goodbye to loose batteries in your junk drawer.eneloop/Amazon

While plenty of devices are rechargeable themselves, others still require batteries to buzz, whir, and change the TV channel—so it’s good to have some rechargeable batteries on hand. In addition to AA batteries, AAA batteries, and a charger, this case from Panasonic comes with tiny canisters that function as C and D batteries when you slip the smaller batteries into them.

Buy it: Amazon

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Pretty in Pink: Drone Captures Birds-Eye View of Massive Flamingo Flock in Kazakhstan

MORAN, Unsplash
MORAN, Unsplash

Flamingos sport some of the most eye-catching plumage in the animal kingdom. Their diet of beta-carotene-rich plankton and crustaceans produces a distinctive pink hue that's hard to miss. One flamingo is striking on its own, but the birds are even more impressive as a crowd, as demonstrated by the footage below.

As Fox 13 Tampa Bay reports, Azamat Sarsenbayev used a drone to capture this video of flamingos congregating on Lake Karakol near Aktau, Kazakhstan. A flamingo flock (also called a flamboyance) can contain up to several hundred birds. Flamingos do a lot together, including mating displays. From above, everyday life for a flamingo makes for a breathtaking, candy-colored spectacle.

This footage was taken during the species' migration south. By the end of their journey, the birds will likely be settled in the Khazar nature reserve or even farther south in Iran. After checking out the video, read up on these fascinating facts about flamingos.

[h/t Fox 13]