News Archive (2013)

Mr. Stubbs Aligator Gets Prosthetic Tail by Researcher Dr. Marc Jacofsky from The CORE Institute

Alligator gets new lease on life with prosthetic tail

Rescued by Phoenix Herpetological Society, “Mr. Stubbs” gets help from researchers and physicians at The CORE Institute and Midwestern University

Unprecedented effort allows reptile to walk and swim like the rest of his predatory kin

WHAT: “A tale of a tail” – Press conference to unveil the bioengineering and construction of a prosthetic tail for an American Alligator

WHEN: Mon., March 11, 2013

10 a.m.

WHERE: Phoenix Herpetological Society, near 78th Street and Dynamite Road, Scottsdale

(Media -- We will provide specific directions if you are interested in covering)

SCOTTSDALE, AZ (March 10, 2013) — With their armored bodies, muscular tails, and powerful jaws, American alligators typically rule the swamps and rivers of the Southeastern United States. 

But the tale of one of these reptiles rescued by Phoenix Herpetological Society (PHS) is much different. The alligator now known as “Mr. Stubbs” was missing his tail when he came to PHS, probably losing it to the bite of another gator.

Even though they are heavy and ungainly out of water, American alligators are normally well adapted swimmers. But 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,” says Russ Johnson, President of PHS. “We had to teach him to swim by dog paddling, like you teach a child to swim.”

Thanks to the collaboration between researchers and physicians, Mr. Stubbs can now move like a normal alligator. He has been fitted with a prosthetic tail that took well over a year to develop, in order to create one that was the right size and weight to restore normal posture and movement while walking, and balance in the water.

The tale of the tail

When researchers at The CORE Institute learned about Mr. Stubbs, Dr. Marc Jacofsky and his research associate Sarah Jarvis took on the challenge of improving his mobility and quality of life. A team was assembled and several options were considered for creating a prosthetic tail. Working with researchers at Midwestern University, Dr. Jacofsky and his team determined the ideal size and density of the tail needed to recreate the proper body proportions and weight distribution for Mr. Stubbs.

Justin Georgi, PhD, an Assistant Professor of Anatomy in the Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine at Midwestern University, had been studying the locomotion of alligators, monitor lizards and tortoises at PHS since 2010. He became aware of Mr. Stubbs’ plight and, with his Research Assistant Kevin Manfredi, joined the project to help the reptile.

Using several alligator specimens of different sizes from his lab, Dr. Georgi and Samanta Arroyos, 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, Dr. Georgi provided one of the specimens from his lab as the model for the new tail and consulted on the prosthesis design with Dr. Jacofsky and the team from The CORE Institute.

Donating their work and materials, 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.

The 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. But, notes PHS’ Johnson, “After almost eight years, we need to ‘unteach’ him the dog paddle, so he can swim like a normal alligator.”

More about the American Alligator

Adult alligators are apex predators that are critical to the biodiversity of their habitat. They feed mainly on fish, turtles, snakes, and small mammals. They have come back from the brink of extinction thanks to state and federal protections, habitat preservation efforts, and reduced demand for alligator products. The species' wild population now numbers more than one million.

About Phoenix Herpetological Society

Phoenix Herpetological Society (PHS) is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to the rehabilitation of rescued reptiles and educating the public about living with these amazing creatures. PHS was founded in 2001, and operates a reptile sanctuary on more than two acres of privately owned land in north Scottsdale. PHS is home to nearly 1500 native and non-native reptiles, many of them endangered and participants in captive breeding repopulation programs. The sanctuary offers unique opportunities to get close to and, in some cases, interact with snakes, lizards, turtles and tortoises from the Desert Southwest and around the world.

About The CORE Institute

The Center for Orthopedic Research and Education, called The CORE Institute, began practicing in 2005 to fulfill a vision of orthopedic excellence encompassing the entire spectrum of orthopedic sciences. The CORE Institute includes a team of fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeons and specialists with a strong emphasis on research and development to improve healthcare quality and outcomes to help patients Keep Life in Motion®.

About Midwestern University

Founded in 1900 in Illinois, Midwestern University is an independent, not-for-profit corporation organized primarily to provide graduate and postgraduate education in the health sciences. The Arizona College of Osteopathic Medicine opened on the Midwestern University campus in Glendale in 1995, and has quickly established a national reputation for excellence.


Alligator Wags Prosthetic Tail

Mr. Stubbs

An alligator stuck with the ungainly name "Mister Stubbs" may need a new moniker now that his stump of a tail has been fitted with a lifelike prosthetic.

The alligator, which lost his tail as a youth after a run-in with another gator, was brought to the Phoenix Herpetological Society (PHS) in 2005 after he and 31 other alligators were discovered by police as part of an illegal shipment of exotic animals, the Arizona Republic reports.

Inspired in part by the film "Dolphin Tale," in which a dolphin is given an artificial tail, a team of experts dove into the task of discovering the type of tail a gator would need. No one had previously researched the center of gravity, weight or buoyancy of an alligator tail.

The animal's caretakers were aided by local experts from Midwestern University, a health-care college in Glendale, Ariz., and the CORE Institute in Phoenix, which specializes in orthopedic and prosthetic care for humans, ABC News affiliate ABC15.com reports.

Alligators are powerful swimmers, but as a youth, Mister Stubbs had to be taught to dog-paddle using his front legs, a poor substitute for an alligator's muscular tail. Most gators' tails comprise about half their body length, and are used for everything from swimming to constructing muddy "gator holes" to stay cool during periods of drought.

Though there were a few stumbling blocks in the development of the tail — an early version took on water and sank, taking the reptile with it — researchers are now encouraged that Mister Stubbs seems to be adapting to the new 3-foot-long rubber tail, which is attached with nylon straps. An inflatable water wing slipped over the prosthetic tail helps the alligator stabilize in the water.

Mister Stubbs will have plenty of time to get used to the new device: He's relatively young at just 11 years, and gators can live more than 70 years in captivity. And because adult male alligators have been reported as long as 20 feet in length, Mister Stubbs, now at 7 feet including prosthetic, will need to be fitted with a larger tail as he grows.

"He is going to have a long and happy life here," Russ Johnson, president of the PHS, told the Arizona Republic. "Right now, I want to get him to the point where he doesn't need that floaty anymore. That way, the other gators will stop making fun of him."

At a glance, he may look like a typical alligator: stubby legs, scaly skin and sharp teeth.

But Mr. Stubbs, an 11-year-old American alligator at the Phoenix Herpetological Society, is debuting a new look when he goes for a swim: an artificial tail.

“In 2005 someone put him in a pen where there were larger alligators, and I’m sure they were hungry, and they ripped his tail off,” Russ Johnson, president of Phoenix Herpetological Society, told ABC News.

Lacking a tail, the alligator struggled to swim, but lacked the basic ability to survive against other reptiles.

“We put him in deep water and he would roll over and capsize like a boat,” said Johnson. “When competition for food came, all the other alligators would win. He’d be the last to the chow line.”

This past year, doctors at The Core Institute Center for Orthopedic Research and Education came up with a groundbreaking prosthetic tail to better the quality of life for Mr. Stubbs.

“We’ve never made a prosthetic for an animal before,” Marc Jacofsky, the executive vice president for research and development for The Core Institute, told ABC News. “Our motto is ‘Keep life in motion.’ It just feels really good to apply that to an animal that’s in need.”

The Core Institute partnered with Midwestern University, which does research in the anatomy of an alligator, to ensure the prosthetic would match the density of a real tail. Even though the research and development was carefully calculated, Jacofsky said the team has had to make several adjustments after monitoring Mr. Stubbs’s reaction to a prototype.

“One of the early strapping systems to secure the tail pressed on his legs and he wasn’t able to walk properly,” said Jacofsky. “There are always unforeseen challenges that come up. We anticipate this whenever we are breaking new ground, and the key is to engineer around them.”

The prosthetic tail, donated by The Core Institute, was developed over a period of three months. The project cost around $6,000. Johnson said believes with the new tail, the alligator could live up to 80 years. Without help, it could have been 20.

“Eventually what would’ve happened is when he gets bigger there would’ve been an abnormal pressure between the discs in his back. We would’ve seen spinal cord degradation, acute pain and he would’ve had to be put down,” Johnson told ABC News. “We’re just trying to make his quality of life what it should be.”

Johnson said Mr. Stubbs still has a long road ahead of him. While volunteers had to teach him how to swim without a tail, now they will have to re-teach him how to swim with a tail.

“I taught him to essentially to dog paddle like you teach your kid,” said Johnson. “You have to remember, his body has memory but he’s been swimming this way for eight years and you’re putting an attachment on there. It took about six months to swim dog-paddling, and I figured it will take three to six months to teach him to swim with a tail.”

The Phoenix Herpetological Society, a sanctuary in Arizona that works with more than 1,500 reptiles, was co-founded by Johnson in 2001. Under the sanctuary’s care the alligator got his unique name and learned how to swim without a tail.

“It wasn’t very difficult to name him after seeing him. I named him within the first two hours,” said Johnson.


Nicknamed 'Mr. Stubbs,' an Arizona alligator that has lived most of his life without a tail now has a whopper of a "tale" to share with his friends.

It's the story of a prosthetic aligator tail crafted just for the 11-year-old gator. Per the Arizona Republic, Mr. Stubbs' original tail is believed to have been bitten off by another alligator, likely one of the 31 found with him in the back of a truck when he was confiscated by officials in 2005. The vehicle was illegally transporting the critters near Casa Grande, Ariz. (Here's a picture of Mr. Stubbs without his tail extension.)

Due to Mr. Stubb's condition, Arizona Game and Fish Department officers handed him off to the Phoenix Herpetological Society (PHS), which teamed up with researchers from the Center for Orthopedic Research and Education (CORE) Institute. Inspired by the story of a dolphin who learned to use a prosthetic tail, the research team went about constructing what they believe is the world's first prosthetic tail for an alligator.

“When we first got [Mr. Stubbs], 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 Russ Johnson, president of PHS, in a statement released by CORE. “We had to teach him to swim by dog paddling, like you teach a child to swim.”

The CORE statement goes on to say that the tail took more than a year to create. The design was based off a mold and detailed dissection of the tail from a similarly sized alligator cadaver. Researchers at Midwestern University helped model a prosthetic tail that was similar in size, weight distribution and density to the real thing.

Now, all that remains is teaching Mr. Stubbs how to swim and walk like other alligators do. For now, he wears an inflated water wing on the prosthetic to help him stay afloat -- an alligator fashion faux paus, for sure, but one that he'll probably sport for the next six months, reports NBC local affiliate KPNX in Arizona.

Once the flotation aid is removed, added Johnson to the Arizona Republic, "the other gators will stop making fun of him.”

It's illegal to own exotic animals like alligators in Arizona, yet an underground market for the creatures flourishes. According to a 2007 report by the Arizona Republic, it's a "huge" problem, fueled in part by a lack of serious consequences for those caught trafficking animals.