/aw-TAW-tə-mee/. noun. The reflexive casting off (or ejection) of a body part in response to being attacked. Colloquially, if such a word can be said to be used that way!, self-amputation.
Alan Watts said—amidst thousands of other pithy pieces of wisdom I’d give my eye teeth to have thought of—that:
trying to define yourself is like trying to bite your own teeth
The impossibility of succeeding at, and the still irresistible desire to engage in, that kind of solipsistic gnawing prompted me to think of the damage we unknowingly do to ourselves in the name of knowing ourselves. Which inevitably led to the damage we knowingly do, a perennial hobby—and hobby horse—of mine.
It turns out that, despite the facility with offensive tools we higher primates find so many ways to display and boast about, we’re mere brutes in the defensive dismantling arts, a phenomenon known as autotomy.
Hundreds of life forms, ranging from crabs and octopodes (yes, that is the proper, if obscure, plural of octopus) to crickets and bees, are capable of autotomy, or the reflexive casting off (or ejection) of a body part in response to being attacked.
Everyone I bored with my questions already knew that many kinds of lizard can shed their tail and leave it, still seductively twitching, to distract the predator that would make a meal of them. The lizard, like the octopus, grows the appendage back rather quickly, which is why you don’t see that many tailless lizards or less-than-octal octopodes. But lizards dropping their tails are the Carhartt’s of the autotomic world: effective but not winning any style points.
The sea star is way more awesome. Cut away one—or even a piece of one—of its (up to fifty!) arms, and the arm not only grows back, but the severed limb, called a comet, quickly develops into an independent, fully limbed sea star itself.
There’s even an example of autotomy in mammals: two species of African spiny mice can shed skin when attacked. That they can do this intentionally, and that the skin grows back complete and without scarring, is what makes this autotomy rather than merely a wound healing.
But the grand prize for autotomy, what I’ve decided to call the “tomy” award, belongs to the holothurian, known less inspiringly as the sea cucumber. When attacked, the sea cucumber instinctually turns away from the aggressor, contracts its entire body, and ejects—from its impolite end—most of its viscera along with scores of tubules sporting a coating with a unique adhesive and a toxin called holothurin. Within 10 seconds these sticky threads will immobilize the unfortunate predator, usually a small fish or a crab, leaving the gutted sea cucumber to crawl away and regenerate to fight another day.
Autotomy isn’t quite the same thing as self-amputation, as is sometimes seen when an animal is stuck in a trap, or a human in a desert slot canyon for 127 hours or, lately, when your narrator is more-or-less forced to watch TV news— hashtag thanks-o-Mama—and trading a body part, or maybe a brain, feels like it would be a fair trade for liberation. We can at best approximate the act without the regeneration, making the symbolism of autotomy a powerful one.
Wisława Szymborska dedicated a poem to the poet Halina Poswiatowska who, despite suffering from a heart condition for most of her life and dying at just 32, still became one of Poland’s most famous—and important—writers. Titled “Autotomy,” Szymborska’s poem invokes the lowly sea cucumber, capable of dividing and surviving itself in a way we, with our all too mortal flesh, cannot. She writes:
In danger, the holothurian cuts itself in two.
It abandons one self to a hungry world
and with the other self it flees.
We, too, can divide ourselves, it’s true.
But only into flesh and a broken whisper.