A 9-year-old American alligator has a new tail after undergoing a landmark procedure.
"As far as we know, as of today, there are no reptiles in the world that have ever received a prosthetic limb of any kind," Phoenix Herpetological Society curator Daniel Marchand said.
On Monday, during a press conference, the world will get its first look at the 3-foot-long new tail that took more than a year to develop.
The alligator, known as Mr. Stubbs, was missing his tail when he came to PHS. It's believed to have been bitten off by another alligator. Without a tail, Mr. Stubbs was in danger of drowning in his pond.
"When we first got him, if the water was too deep for him to touch the bottom, he would roll over onto his back and could not right himself,"said PHS President Russ Johnson. "We had to teach him to swim by dog paddling, like you teach a child to swim."
Mr. Stubbs was also in danger of starving since gators store food in their tails during the winter time.
Inspired by the movie Dolphin Tale, based on the true story of a dolphin that got a prosthetic tail, rescuers began to think that it might seem logical Mr. Stubbs would benefit from the same technology.
As word spread of the alligator's plight, researchers at the Center for Orthopedic Research and Education in Arizona started to consider creating a prosthetic tail.
Working with researchers at Midwestern University, Dr. Marc Jacofsky and his team determined the ideal size and density of the appendage needed to recreate the proper body proportions and weight distribution for Mr. Stubbs.
Other researchers soon joined the effort, including Dr. Justin Georgi, who had been studying the locomotion of alligators, monitor lizards and tortoises at PHS since 2010.
Using several alligator specimens of different sizes from his lab, Georgi and a lab intern from the Phoenix Union Bioscience High School were able to work out the appropriate size of tail for Mr. Stubbs.
Based on these measurements, Georgi provided one of the specimens from his lab as the model for the new tail and consulted on the prosthesis design with Jacofsky and the team from the CORE Institute.
The CORE Institute created high-resolution molds of the alligator's stump, as well as a full tail of appropriate size. The prosthesis was covered in Dragon Skin, a lightweight, flexible silicone material often used for special effects and animatronics in films, as well as prosthetics.
Next, a replica of the full tail was married to a mold of Mr. Stubbs' posterior. The final step was creating a harness system to securely affix the new prosthetic tail to the alligator's body without creating any pressure points that could cause discomfort or skin breakdown over time.
This tale appears to have a happy ending: Mr. Stubbs' gait has shown dramatic improvement and he is adapting to his new balance in the water, researchers said in a statement.
One obstacle remains.
"After almost eight years, we need to 'unteach' him the dog paddle so he can swim like a normal alligator," Johnson said.
American alligators, like Mr. Stubbs, have come back from the brink of extinction. The wild population totals more than 1 million.
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