Tropical lizards have a stick-to-itiveness in high wind that puts TV weather reporters to shame. Now it is clear why, thanks in part to a high-powered leaf blower.
Hurricanes Irma and Maria put a group of little tree-hugging lizards to the test, and scientists were perfectly positioned to see which reptiles survived and why. Then, Harvard University researchers cranked up the leaf blower to observe just how 47 of the Caribbean critters held onto a wooden rod.
Under tropical storm-force winds, the lizards lounged. As the wind speed cranked up, they still held on, although it got tougher. Even at 164kph, the lizards grasped the pole with two clingy front feet while their tails and back legs flapped in the wind like a flag.
“All the lizard needs is an inside out umbrella and the image would be perfect,” study lead author Colin Donihue said.
However, there is only so much that a little lizard can take. At 174kph, it was flying lizard time.
No lizards were harmed in the laboratory test.
“They do go flying in the air, but it is softly into the net and everybody was returned back home” unharmed, said Donihue, a Harvard evolutionary biologist.
The lizards’ secret weapon to surviving hurricanes: The survivors had 6 to 9 percent bigger toe pads, significantly longer front limbs and smaller back limbs compared with the population before the storm, a study in published on Wednesday in Nature said.
The study was the first to show natural selection due to hurricanes, Donihue said.
By coincidence, Donihue and colleagues had been measuring and studying lizards just before the storms blew into the Turks and Caicos Islands in September last year.
They returned several weeks later to see if there was a difference in the surviving population.
They found that the survivors were a bit lighter overall, despite the bulked-up front. Key were the toe pads, which are at most about half the size of a pencil’s erase, Donihue said.
It also explains why island lizards have bigger toe pads than inland Central American lizards, a difference that baffled scientists.
Outside experts praised the study, especially the researchers’ luck of being in the right place at the right time.
“This study provides exciting insight into the effects of extreme natural events,” said Pennsylvania State University biologist Tracy Langkilde, who was not part of the study.
Donihue and colleagues did not merely measure the differences. They took a leaf blower and cranked up the power on different lizards, recording it all with a high-speed camera.
“These lizards are very impressive for their clinging in the high winds,” Donihue said.
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