News About Climate Change–Some Good, Some Bad–Courtesy of Lizards…

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The Good News About Lizards

Tiny lizards inspired biologist Thor Hanson to write a book: Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change. I heard him speak in yet another fascinating Alan Alda Clear&Vivid podcast.

Hanson’s book, Alda says, is about “the ways plants and animals are responding as we humans are messing with their lives.”

“Hurricane Lizards”? The name speaks to the work of evolutionary biologist Colin Donihue and colleagues in the Turks and Caicos islands in the Caribbean.

As Hanson relates, Donihue and his team were studying and measuring lizards in 2017 when they had to leave the islands because of hurricanes Irma and Maria. They returned weeks later to see what impact the storms had had on the species (Anolis scriptus).

What did the survivors possess, they wondered, that enabled them to hang on while being belted by hurricane winds? The studies of this species that they’d done just prior to the hurricanes enabled them to compare characteristics of the survivors with those that had presumably been swept away.

Donihue’s team created an experiment with what was probably not a tried-and-true piece of scientific equipment: a commercial leaf blower.

I’ll eliminate the element of suspense and state at the outset that those scientists stressed no lizards were harmed during their research. (I’m not sure how they know that because it sounds like these little guys went for a harrowing ride.)

With a number of lizards clinging to a stick comparable to their natural environs, the researchers directed strong winds at them with the leaf blower.

As the researchers turned up the wind, the lizards raced to the other side of the stick. They held on with their sticky toe pads—larger toe pads than those on the lizards the team had measured before the hurricanes.

They also had longer front legs that helped them stay on the stick as the toe pads slipped, and shorter back legs that flapped like sails.

When they could no longer hold on, they dropped into a net the researchers had positioned below them. They were then released (presumably without therapy…).

These lizards had actually benefited from an evolutionary process enabling them to withstand unusually devastating winds. The researchers’ findings, they stated in Nature, provide nothing less than the first evidence of a species rapidly undergoing natural selection.

This is “directional selection,” Hanson says. Donihue and colleagues had “measured survival of the fittest in action.”

(If you’d like more information about these findings, Donihue has published an interesting article here. He noted that “the change in these traits was in the same direction for the lizard populations on both of the islands we sampled, suggesting that this remarkable pattern wasn’t just a fluke, hurricanes can consistently induce natural selection on populations in their path.”)

Hanson points out similar evidence of adaptability among trees, specifically oak trees. Large data sets from the US government have documented something that conjures up an extraordinary visual in my anthropomorphic imagination: trees move several kilometers each decade—even faster than some species of birds.

These movements are aided by birds: blue jays carry acorns long distances to areas where the climate is more hospitable. Then the little acorns start on their trajectory to become great oaks.

The Bad News About Lizards…And Time Mismatching

Discussing findings from the work of evolutionary biologist Barry Sinervo, Hanson speaks of desert lizards that spend part of their time during the long sunny days hiding under rocks to keep their body temperature stable.

But as the climate has warmed, the daily hours behind the rocks have increased. That means fewer hours to forage for food, which leads to less energy for reproduction. The result: some lizards aren’t breeding, a major disruption to the species.

We’re also now seeing “time mismatching” among species that depend upon each other, Hanson notes.

Flowers, reacting to the sun’s warmth, open at the time they’re ready for pollination. But the bees—“the most important pollinators”—living in the cooler ground–are on the “old schedule;” when they emerge, they miss that optimum time.

“The breakdowns of ecological relationships are one of the more subtle but critical aspects” of climate change, Hanson warns, and “will have tremendous consequences.”

The Potential for Human Survival

Plasticity is the inherent genetic capacity to adapt,” Hanson says reassuringly. “Homo sapiens have a lot of it.”

With the benefit of technology, we have been expanding both our comfort and our ability to live in more and more places.

But, he says, our creature comforts, the technology we rely on, and our abundance of food all depend on high energy consumption. So the lifestyles that we currently enjoy may have to change. (I note here that I assume he’s referring to the lifestyles that are actually available to a relatively small percentage of the earth’s population—listeners to this podcast, for example.}

Thus, assuming humans survive, what life will look like is an “open question.”

Any Rays of Hope Here?

Hanson sounds like a lively, genial, upbeat guy. Remember, those tiny adaptable lizards inspired him. And the plastic squid in his book title? He didn’t discuss them in this podcast. I initially thought he might be referring to marine life that had somehow used the dreadful plastic pollution to its advantage.

When I first googled “plastic squid,” all the references were to the lures used for fishing. Wrong plastic squid.

Looking further, I realized that Hanson is referring to the squid’s ability to change–its plasticity. (Turns out these are big nasty critters–fierce predators that have even attacked scuba divers.)

Here he is describing what was learned about that plasticity after it was thought the squid had disappeared from an area completely, migrating to cooler waters:

“When the waters got warm, they responded to that heat stress by maturing in half the time, by eating different foods, by growing half as long, and by growing only half as large. So much so that …the hooks were too big to catch these small squid that were all around. Even when a fisher would haul one of these small ones up, they would think, ’Oh, it’s the juvenile or maybe another species,’ and just throw it back. But it was the plasticity of the Humboldt squid that allowed them to make a quick pivot.”

Hanson seems to have wittily reversed the common usage of “plastic squid.” Instead of a human-made item that people use to “fool” fish, he’s discussing a squid’s ability to “fool” people who fish.

I think I’ve been lured into reading his book.

Hanson likes to use the term “global weirding”: the strange and dramatic climate swings many of us are seeing quite often. His hope is that as we witness this weirding first-hand with greater frequency, we’ll finally be motivated to address the issue with the urgency it deserves—first as individuals, and then as a society.

Scientists are learning from those little lizards, he says, by adapting to our new reality. That includes focusing on how to “worry smarter”: to point the way to better allocations for research, conservation, and policy toward the ecosystems that need them the most—right now.

What Can We Individuals Do?

Everything you can, he says, urging us to think about how we drive, shop, mow our lawns, light our homes, dry our laundry.

When we take such steps, Hanson believes, we “feel a little better and want to do more.” The resulting “positive feedback loop” has the “cumulative power…we need to change policy.

What do you think? Are we up to this challenge as the clock ticks away?

Annie

26 thoughts on “News About Climate Change–Some Good, Some Bad–Courtesy of Lizards…

  1. Interesting stuff. As the resident pessimist I don’t see much happening on a scale necessary to solve the problem. After all, I learned about the coming climate disaster back in the 1970s in college. But the grip of the fossil fuel industry on political “leaders” seems to be permanent an unshakable.

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    1. Hanson described a Swedish scientist who discovered warming in the 1890s, but since Sweden was so cold, he thought this was a good thing.

      Well, time is fleeing, that’s for sure, though money is being made with alternate energy sources in both the US and elsewhere (India, China, etc).

      Young people are heavily engaged, as well they should be.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. And the lizards are even now developing a religion in which the devils are scientists they regard as assholes…..

    This kind of rapid evolutionary change has even been seen in elephants, which are relatively long-lived animals. Elephants in Africa are growing smaller tusks than before, due to hunting of elephants with large tusks. This is just an example of natural selection operating at extreme pressure. If tusk size is genetically determined, and all the large-tusked elephants are killed, only small-tusked ones will be left to reproduce. Thus a substantial change occurs in just one generation.

    There is no doubt that some, perhaps many, species will simply become extinct because they cannot adapt fast enough to the changes humans are making in the Earth’s environment. This is entirely normal. Of all the species that have ever existed, more than 99% are now extinct — and changes to the environment caused by other species are, and always have been, one of the major causes of extinctions. Ecosystems are highly resilient and adaptable, not fragile and prone to collapse at the slightest disruption as they are often depicted. Humans have been causing mass extinctions on the scale of entire continents for tens of thousands of years, and in no case did it lead to a general ecosystem collapse. Other species adapted and life went on.

    I assume he’s referring to the lifestyles that are actually available to a relatively small percentage of the earth’s population

    That’s the key point. The billions of people in places like India, the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, China, Indonesia, etc want what we have — cars, air conditioning, clean water, reliable electricity, reliable healthcare, modern sewer systems, internet access, etc — and their countries are rapidly developing now. Many of these countries are on track to catch up with the West in a decade or two. There’s not a chance in hell that all those people will agree to give up those aspirations and stagnate forever in picturesque poverty. They want progress and it is their absolute right to achieve it.

    Thus the global demand for electricity is going to skyrocket to many times the present level over the next decade or two, no matter what happens or doesn’t happen in the Western countries. It is utterly futile to try to address climate change by reducing energy consumption in the West since any such reductions will be completely swamped by the vastly larger rise in consumption in what we used to call the “third world” as it catches up. The only hope is to develop non-fossil-fuel energy sources as intensively as possible, so that the inevitable rise in energy demand is satisfied in ways that don’t contribute to global warming. Fortunately this is already happening — India and some Arab countries are developing solar energy on a huge scale, for example. More needs to be done. The West’s money and technology could help. But nagging people in New Jersey about what kind of light bulbs they’re using is not going to save the lizards.

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    1. Infidel: You may be right about the Hurricane Lizards in Donihue’s experiment. Perhaps the fear engendered by what must have been a terrifying experience caused the tiny lizard portions of their tiny brains to overcome their prefrontal cortices (!), and they determined that the scientists trying to blow them off their sticks were, in fact, devils. Then who knows in what direction their sticky toe pads may take them!
      Seriously, I hadn’t known about elephant tusks; I hope that adaptation will be protective. It would seem, though, that Donihue et al therefore don’t have bragging rights to state, as they do in Nature and PNAS, that they confirmed the *first* instance of rapid natural selection. Puzzling.
      The rest of your comment—and the post you’ve linked to—provide a great deal to ponder. Hanson’s suggestion that scientists need to prioritize which species and ecosystems to protect shows who’s in the driver’s seat for decision-making. But you’re right: it can’t be otherwise.
      Though massive investments in renewable resources certainly seem the only way forward, I still feel we—individually and collectively—have a responsibility to do more for the sake of the generations to follow and the flora and fauna everywhere.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Perhaps my phrasing was unclear. When I said “develop non-fossil-fuel energy sources as intensively as possible”, I meant build them on as large a scale as possible — I wasn’t referring to the invention of brand-new technology (though that wouldn’t hurt). I’m aware that the necessary technology already exists and it’s just a matter of implementing it on a big enough scale.

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  3. Yesterday someone told me that it’s so cold in Florida that frozen iguanas are falling from trees and hitting people on the head. ( I’d better do some fact checking). When I saw your graphics here, I was expecting that story! Close. Fascinating scary stuff! I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Mr. Hanson.. Thank you, Annie!

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    1. You’re very welcome, Fred. I’m glad you enjoyed the podcast. Hanson’s discussion about the plastic squid appears in a lengthy video interview that I linked to as well. You may enjoy that one too!

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  4. Fascinating scary stuff, indeed, as one of your readers noted. Intend to follow links now and learn more. Thanks for this . . . just what I needed to distract myself from the heavy snow still falling. Ugh.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’m not convinced we’re up to the challenge. Throughout my life, ecologists have been warning us that the human species is destroying the planet in countless ways. We do take steps to slow the destruction, regulating pollution, protecting endangered species, adding recycling to every city’s trash collection, etc. But the overall trend doesn’t look good.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. There’s reason for pessimism, to be sure. It’s troubling to think that although the human brain is capable of considerable plasticity, and the evidence is now upon us, we can’t collectively agree on pathways to reverse the dangerous course we’ve been following with our dependence on fossil fuels.

      Liked by 1 person

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