Did you know that the tiny island of Filfla has its own endemic creature? What is stranger still is that it is said to be a two-tailed lizard! But how much truth is there to this urban legend?
Filfla's endemic lizard
That the Filfla lizard is endemic to the island is a fact. Even its name indicates as such. Well, actually, there are four (or is it five?) subspecies of this lizard, found on some of the Maltese islands as well as the Pelagian Islands of Linosa and Lampione in Italy. They grow to about 28 centimetres in length and thrive in a typical Mediterranean habitat made of rocky areas with shrub-like vegetation, arable land and rural gardens. They feed on insects, as well as fruit and vegetables. Males are generally brighter coloured than the females, which tend to be brown.
Podarcis filfolensis ssp. filfolensis
The podarcis filfolensis ssp. filfolensis is the largest of these, with a dark skin with blue or aquamarine spots. It's natural habitat is Filfla and it can only be found on that little island - so, there you are, so far the legend is true!
Podarcis filfolensis ssp. kieselbachimale
But, podarcis filfolensis ssp. kieselbachimale is also exclusive to the isle of Selmunett, or St Paul's Islands - or should we say 'was endemic'? Sadly, this guy and all his family became extinct in 2005. Rather beautiful, these varied in colour from brown to grey, with an orange belly and small black spots.
Podarcis filfolensis ssp. generalensis
Podarcis filfolensis ssp. generalensis, however, competes in rarity but can be found on Fungus Rock in Gozo. Yes! That tiny rock has its own endemic inhabitant which sports a reddish belly and blue-like flanks. In Maltese it's called il-gremxula tal-Gebla tal-General.
Podarcis filfolensis ssp. maltensis
On the other hand, the podarcis filfolensis ssp. maltensis is rather common. Greenish and speckled, it is seen on the three main islands of Malta, Gozo and Comino.
Podarcis filfolensis ssp. laurentimulleri
Another subspecies, podarcis filfolensis ssp. laurentimulleri, lives on the islands of Linosa and Lampione in Italy. This, or perhaps another unnamed genus (opinions differ), is believed to be endemic to Cominotto. Note, not Comino - Cominotto!
A tale of two... tails?
And, now we come to the two-tail tale. Let me explain.
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When threatened by a predator, the Filfla lizard, like most lizards, will shed its tail. How? A special anatomical arrangement will cause the muscles to break a bone on what is known as the breakage plane, which easily fractures. So, while the predator is distracted by the writhing dismembered tail, the lizard gets away to safety.
So muscles pull apart, blood vessels split but little blood is lost, as the body sends out a signal to itself to grow a new tail. Sometimes, however, a new one starts to grow, even if the tail is only partially broken. The end result is a two-tailed lizard. You can usually tell the new tail from the old one as new tails do not regrow the original vertebrae but appear as one long, cartilaginous rod.
Fun fact: Did you know that you could even have a three-tailed–lizard?