Lizard extinction attributed to climate change

By Jordan Dziendziel

A Brigham Young U. professor’s field notes from the 1970s helped in research correlating local lizard extinctions to climate change.

Jack Sites, a professor of biology and senior author on a paper published in last week’s issue of Science, reported a global pattern of lizard disappearances in unchanged habitats — except for rising temperatures.

“I have kept all of the field notes I ever made for my research career,” Sites said. “In part because, as my thesis adviser used to say, the strongest mind is weaker than the palest ink.”

According to Sites, he never expected the research he collected in Mexico years ago would have provided a baseline for a research model.

“In the case of the Spiny Lizards in Mexico, my field collections … provided the baseline data set from which Mexican biologists and Dr. (Barry) Sinervo worked out the extinction rates and then constructed the model used in the science paper,” Sites said. “We could not have imagined any of this in the 1970s and 1980s.”

The results of the research study are alarming, according to Barry Sinervo of the department of ecology and evolutionary biology at U. California.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” Sinervo told the Associated Press. “It heralds that we have entered a new age, the age of climate-forced extinctions. Extinctions are not in the future. They are happening now.”

Sites said the heat is making it difficult for the lizards to regulate their body temperature while looking after their basic needs.

“The heat doesn’t kill them, they just don’t reproduce,” Sites said. “It doesn’t take too much of that and the population starts to crash.”

According to the science paper, lizards cannot scavenge for food in the high heat. When lizards are unable to eat, they will not reproduce, which causes the decline in population.

Sites said he believes this has been a valuable experience for his teaching career.

“I can see several uses here depending on the class I am teaching,” Sites said.

Sites said he never had research opportunities like the kind students at BYU have now.

“Very few institutions invest as heavily in undergraduate mentored research as does BYU,” Sites said. “Students here are extremely fortunate in this regard.”

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