How to win a game of tag: lizard edition

If you have ever played a game of tag, then you know what it’s like to be “it”. You also probably know that there’s no feeling more humiliating than being “it” and unable to catch anyone. If you’re looking to give yourself an edge without putting in the work, then a new study by David Adams, a recent high school graduate, and Dr. Mathew Gifford, an assistant professor at the University of Central Arkansas, has got you covered. 

Tag: the movie. Coming to a theater near you.

How can natural history inform strategies about tag? By looking at successful predators. Adams and Gifford (2020) set out to better understand how habitat complexity affects hunting behavior and success by studying the prairie lizard (Sceloporus consobrinus).To test this, the team collected several lizards and filmed their foraging attempts in three experimental arenas that varied in their complexity and arrangement of obstacles (Figure 1). From these videos, the authors calculated the initial distance between the predator and prey as well as how fast the lizard moved to capture the prey. Because the prey crickets often escaped upon capture, the authors not only recorded whether the lizards caught their prey but also if they were able to consume it.

Screen Shot 2020-08-20 at 12.02.04 PM
Figure 1 from Adams and Gifford (2020). Diagrammatic representation of the area design used in this study. Solid circles represent the arrangement of the wooden dowels in the areas.

To provide context, the author predicted that in the more cluttered arenas, the lizards would trade speed for maneuverability. Can’t catch prey if you’re too busy slipping and crashing into obstacles. The authors also predicted that the lizards would get closer to their prey before striking to compensate for restricted vision caused by the obstacles.

Overall, Adams and Gifford (2020) found evidence supporting their initial hypotheses. Although, lizard speed and arena complexity did not really affect the probability of capturing a cricket. However, the authors stressed that capturing the prey item is not foraging success, consuming the prey defines a successful hunt. With that in mind, the probability of consuming the crickets decreased with greater attack speeds in the more open arenas, presumably because it reduces the accuracy of the lizard’s strike. For example, crickets caught by only the leg were able to escape more easily. By contrast, foraging success remained fairly consistent across all speeds in the most complex and cluttered arena. 

So in the end it looks like the prairie lizards are pretty great at being “it”. Although, no matter how coordinated they might be, it’s pretty clear that their surroundings play a key role in their success. So the next time you play a game of tag, make sure to do so inside or an area with lots of obstacles. 


Jonathan Huie is a PhD student at George Washington University. Currently, his research focuses on the limb biomechanics and water to land transition in salamanders. He has also worked on the evolution of fish feeding morphology and anole ecomorphology. You can found more about Jonathan here: or follow him on twitter @jmhuiee.

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