Climate Change: Northern Lizards Thrive in Newfound Warmth

Oct 12, 2015 08:09 AM EDT

It's no secret that many species across the globe are suffering in the wake of climate change. Marine life, birds, insects, amphibians, and even lizards are on facing new hardships that they must rapidly adapt to if they want to survive. However, it turns out that at least for some species of lizards, they couldn't be happier.

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This past January, climatologists from the Japanese Meteorological Agency (JMA) announced that, according to their data, 2014 was definitely the hottest year ever recorded. NASA and the NOAA confirmed that declaration with their own global data, showing that regions particularly in the northern hemisphere were experiencing some significant warming.

"[2014] is the latest in a series of warm years, in a series of warm decades," Gavin Schmidt, the director of the Goddard Institute of Space Studies said on the advent of that confirmation.

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As a consequence of this obvious warming, many species, such as the arctic's polar bears, a host of amphibians, and migratory birds, are having trouble finding enough food and other resources to raise their young. And one huge problem, it has been shown, is that the northern seasons are shifting and changing.

"Shifts in the timing of lifecycle events in response to climate change is widespread, but the crucial question is how this affects an animal or plant's fitness," researcher Gabriella Ljungstrom, from the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, explained in an emailed statement. (Scroll to read on...)

Past studies have shown that even for warmth-loving lizards, climate change has lead to desperate adaptation in the southern hemisphere, with species like Australia's central bearded dragons going as far as to naturally switch their gender to ensure there are always enough breeders. It is reportedly the first case of sex-reversal seen in a wild terrestrial vertebrate.

For northern lizards, however, climate change may actually be making life easier. That's at least according to a study recently published in the journal BMC Evolutionary Biology, which details how Swedish sand lizards (Lacerta agilis) are thriving in new and uncharacteristically warm weather in the north.

"For this high-latitude population, our results contrast global projections of extinction risk for lizards as a result of climate change," said Ljungstrom, who led the study. "This highlights the importance of taking spatial differences into account when predicting future effects of climate change on species and populations." (Scroll to read on...)

Specifically, the researcher and her colleagues determined that these northern sand lizards have been able to lay their eggs earlier and earlier over the last 15 years, giving new generations more time to grow and prepare for adulthood.

Still, the team adds that having such a long-term dataset on a wild population is rare, especially for a reptile - a testament to a major gap in information that may be crucial in understanding the effects of a warming world.

"With climate change, there are a lot of new and increasing stresses on ecosystems, but biology sometimes surprises us," Kristopher Karnauskas, a climate scientist and researcher who recently discovered how warming waters may have saved the Galapagos penguins (read about that here) added in a statement. "There might be places where ecosystems [and species] thrive just by coincidence."

It's a researcher's duty then, Ljungstrom argues, to find these animals and ecosystems and study them closely, developing a better understanding on how our world prepares-for and even accepts radical change.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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