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Climate Change Forces Tropical Lizards to Swiftly Adapt

Sep 16, 2014 04:39 PM EDT
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Climate change is affecting all sorts of animals, from sharks to polar bears to birds, but new research has focused on tropical lizards, which have learned to swiftly adapt in order to survive.

Previous research has found that tropical species, because they're already tolerating extreme heat, are most vulnerable to changing ecosystems as a result of climate change. But scientists from Dartmouth University in New Hampshire and the University of Virginia believe some reptiles might be able to evolve to beat the heat.

"The potential for organisms to evolve in response to a rapidly changing environment is often downplayed, even though very few experimental studies have examined the extent to which species might be able to adapt," lead author Michael Logan added in a press release.

Brown anole lizards, a non-native species, in particular have swiftly acclimated to our warming world, and can even be said to thrive in a "stressful thermal environment."

Researchers realized this after they clocked the sprint times of several wild lizard populations in the Bahamas. Sprinting is actually a vital survival skill for these reptiles, allowing them to quickly snatch prey and escape predators.

One group stayed in place while the other was relocated from a cool forest in the interior of a Bahamas island to a peninsula that experienced hotter, more volatile temperatures, mimicking the rapid onset of climate change.

As predicted, the lizards that ran fastest at warmer temperatures, and across a broader range of temperatures, were more likely to survive the harsher environmental conditions of the peninsula.

"We found that not only can human-induced climate change exert natural selection on wild animal populations, but that this selection can be quite strong," said Logan, a researcher at the National Science Foundation. "This means that, if the traits under selection can be passed on from parents to offspring, rapid evolutionary change may be a critically important means by which some animals can resist the detrimental effects of global warming."

The swift lizards, the scientists calculated, could compensate for up to 30 percent of a century's worth of environmental change in a single breeding season - if their children inherited this agility.

The study appears in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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