A lizard’s intricately patterned skin follows rules like those used by a simple type of computer program.
As the ocellated lizard (Timon lepidus) grows, it transforms from a drab, polka-dotted youngster to an emerald-flecked adult. Its scales first morph from white and brown to green and black. Then, as the animal ages, individual scales flip from black to green, or vice versa.
Biophysicist Michel Milinkovitch of the University of Geneva realized that the scales weren’t changing their colors by chance. “You have chains of green and chains of black, and they form this labyrinthine pattern that very clearly is not random,” he says. That intricate ornamentation, he and colleagues report April 13 in Nature, can be explained by a cellular automaton, a concept developed by mathematicians in the 1940s and ’50s to simulate diverse complex systems.
A cellular automaton is composed of a grid of colored pixels. Using a set of rules, each pixel has a chance of switching its shade, based on the colors of surrounding pixels. By comparing photos of T. lepidus at different ages, the scientists showed that its scales obey such rules.
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In the adult lizard, if a black scale is surrounded by other black scales, it is more likely to switch than a black one bounded by green, the researchers found. Eventually, the lizards’ scales settle down into a mostly stable state. Black scales wind up with around three green neighbors, and green scales have around four black ones. The researchers propose that interacting pigment cells could explain the color flips.
Computer scientists use cellular automata to simulate the real world, re-creating the turbulent motions of fluids or nerve cell activity in the brain, for example. But the new study is the first time the process has been seen with the naked eye in a real-life animal.
The scales on an ocellated lizard change color as the animal ages (more than three years of growth shown in first clip). Circles highlight four instances of color-flipping scales. Blue circles indicate a scale that switches from green to black, the green circle indicates a black to green transformation, and the light blue circle marks a scale that flip-flops from green to black to green. Researchers used a cellular automaton to simulate the adult lizard’s color-swapping scales (second clip), and re-create the labyrinthine patterns that develop on its skin.