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.

13 Father's Day Gifts for Geeky Dads

Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk
Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk

When in doubt, you play the hits. Watches, flasks, and ties are all tried-and-true Father’s Day gifts—useful items bought en masse every June as the paternal holiday draws near. Here’s a list of goodies that put a geeky spin on those can’t-fail gifts. We’re talking Zelda flasks, wizard-shaped party mugs, and a timepiece inspired by BBC’s greatest sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Light the “dad” signal ‘cause it’s about to get nerdy!

1. Lord of the Rings Geeki Tikis (Set of Three); $76

'Lord of The Rings' themed tiki cups.
Toynk

If your dad’s equally crazy about outdoor shindigs and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, help him throw his own Lothlórien luau with these Tiki-style ceramic mugs shaped like icons from the Lord of the Rings saga. Gollum and Frodo’s drinkware doppelgängers each hold 14 ounces of liquid, while Gandalf the Grey’s holds 18—but a wizard never brags, right? Star Wars editions are also available.

Buy it: Toynk

2. Space Invaders Cufflinks; $9

'Space Invaders' cufflinks on Amazon
Fifty 50/Amazon

Arcade games come and arcade games go, but Space Invaders has withstood the test of time. Now Pops can bring those pixelated aliens to the boardroom—and look darn stylish doing it.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Legend of Zelda Flask; $18

A 'Legend of Zelda' flask
Toynk

Saving princesses is thirsty work. Shaped like an NES cartridge, this Zelda-themed flask boasts an 8-ounce holding capacity and comes with a reusable straw. Plus, it makes a fun little display item for gamer dads with man caves.

Buy it: Toynk

4. AT-AT Family Vacation Bag Tag; $12

An At-At baggage tag
ShopDisney

Widely considered one of the greatest movie sequels ever made, The Empire Strikes Back throws a powerful new threat at Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion: the AT-AT a.k.a. Imperial Walkers. Now your dad can mark his luggage with a personalized tag bearing the war machine’s likeness.

Buy it: ShopDisney

5. Flash Skinny Tie; $17

A skinny Flash-themed tie
Uyoung/Amazon

We’ll let you know if the Justice League starts selling new memberships, but here’s the next best thing. Available in a rainbow of super-heroic colors, this skinny necktie bears the Flash’s lightning bolt logo. Race on over to Amazon and pick one up today.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Captain America Shield Apron; $20

A Captain America themed apron
Toynk

Why let DC fans have all the fun? Daddy-o can channel his inner Steve Rogers when he flips burgers at your family’s Fourth of July BBQ. Measuring 31.5 inches long by 27.5 inches wide, this apron’s guaranteed to keep the cookout Hydra-free.

Buy it: Toynk

7. Doctor Who Vortex Manipulator LCD Leather Wristwatch; $35

A Doctor Who-themed watch
Toynk

At once classy and geeky, this digital timepiece lovingly recreates one of Doctor Who’s signature props. Unlike some of the gadgets worn on the long-running sci-fi series, it won’t require any fancy chronoplasm fuel.

Buy it: Toynk

8. Wonder Woman 3-Piece Grill Set; $21

Wonder Woman three-piece gill set
Toynk

At one point in her decades-long comic book career, this Amazon Princess found herself working at a fast food restaurant called Taco Whiz. Now grill cooks can pay tribute to the heroine with these high-quality, stainless steel utensils. The set’s comprised of wide-tipped tongs, a BBQ fork, and a spatula, with the latter boasting Wonder Woman’s insignia.

Buy it: Toynk

9. Harry Potter Toon Tumbler; $10

Glassware that's Harry Potter themed
Entertainment Earth

You can never have too many pint glasses—and this Father’s Day, dad can knock one back for the boy who lived. This piece of Potter glassware from PopFun has whimsy to spare. Now who’s up for some butterbeer?

Buy it: EntertainmentEarth

10. House Stark Men’s Wallet; $16

A Game of Thrones themed watch
Toynk

Winter’s no longer coming, but the Stark family's propensity for bold fashion choices can never die. Manufactured with both inside and outside pockets, this direwolf-inspired wallet is the perfect place to store your cards, cash, and ID.

Buy it: Toynk

11. Mr. Incredible “Incredible Dad” Mug, $15

An Incredibles themed mug
ShopDisney

Cue the brass music. Grabbing some coffee with a Pixar superhero sounds like an awesome—or dare we say, incredible?—way for your dad to start his day. Mom can join in the fun, too: Disney also sells a Mrs. Incredible version of the mug.

Buy it: ShopDisney

12. Star Wars phone cases from Otterbox; $46-$56

Star Wars phone cases from OtterBox.
Otterbox

If your dad’s looking for a phone case to show off his love of all things Star Wars, head to Otterbox. Whether he’s into the Dark Side with Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, the droids, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett, you’ll be able to find a phone case to fit his preference. The designs are available for both Samsung and Apple products, and you can check them all out here.

Buy it: Otterbox

13. 3D Puzzles; $50

3D Harry Potter puzzle from Amazon.
Wrebbit 3D

Help dad recreate some of his favorite fictional locations with these 3D puzzles from Wrebbit 3D. The real standouts are the 850-piece model of Hogwarts's Great Hall and the 910-piece version of Winterfell from Game of Thrones. If dad's tastes are more in line with public broadcasting, you could also pick him up an 890-piece Downton Abbey puzzle to bring a little upper-crust elegance to the homestead.

Buy it: Hogwarts (Amazon), Winterfell (Amazon), Downton Abbey (Amazon)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

How to Watch the Great Smoky Mountains' Synchronous Fireflies From Home

QEYES/iStock via Getty Images
QEYES/iStock via Getty Images

Each June, thousands of synchronous fireflies put on a stunning light show in Great Smoky Mountains National Park. People won't be able to view the spectacle in person this year due to the COVID-19 crisis, but for the fireflies, it will be business as usual. As CarolinaCoastOnline reports, the nonprofit Discover Life in America found a safe way to share the event with as many people as possible by streaming it online.

The fireflies of Tennessee's Great Smoky Mountains are the only fireflies in the Western Hemisphere that flash in sync. For two weeks in June, the males above ground blink for the females on the forest floor below, creating a rhythmic, hypnotic display.

In a typical year, thousands of people would gather to witness the phenomenon, but in April 2020, Great Smoky Mountains National Park canceled the event after determining that social distancing would be impossible. The synchronous fireflies are so popular that the park has to distribute tickets for shuttle access by lottery. Whether you had plans to see the show this year or you're hearing about it for the first time, it's now easy to view it from home.

Discover Life in America, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting biological diversity, streamed its virtual firefly-watching event to YouTube on Monday, June 1. After an introduction explaining the science behind the insect's behavior, the feed cuts to footage of the Great Smoky Mountains at night. The fireflies can be seen flashing over a stream, a hiking trail, and an open field in the park. There's even a clip that shows the insects performing the mating ritual as a thunderstorm brews in the background. You can watch the full video below.

If you're looking to relax with more wildlife content, check out these animal webcams you can watch right now.

[h/t CarolinaCoastOnline]