Anole lizards in the eye of the storm

Hurricanes Irma and Maria were devastating for the Caribbean, but presented an opportunity to study the effects of extreme weather on the evolutionary process. 

The endemic Turks and Caicos anole, Anolis Scriptus

The endemic Turks and Caicos anole, Anolis Scriptus © Colin Donihue


When storms struck in 2017, biologists led by Harvard University’s Colin Donihue had just completed a survey of anole lizards on Pine Cay and Water Cay islands north of the Caribbean.

By repeating the study after the destruction, they established how a select few survived the 265kph winds.

“There were definitely fewer lizards,” says Donihue. “We had to work harder to catch our sample.”


Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria caused considerable damage to the vegetation on Pine Cay and Water Cay, which are located in the Turks and Caicos Islands in the West Indes © Colin Donihue


The team wondered whether surviving animals had features that helped them cling onto trees.

“The sticky toe pads on their fingers and toes, we thought maybe they would be larger,” says Donihue. Indeed they were.

But the survivors also sported longer than average forelimbs and shorter hindlimbs compared to the pre-storm population.


Researchers took macro photos of the toepads and measured their surface area, as it predicts clinging strength © Colin Donihue


Wind-tunnel experiments confirmed that these characteristics keep anoles anchored (long hindlimbs, for example, are unhelpful, catching the wind like a sail).

With hurricanes expected to rise in intensity, anoles may need to get an even tighter grip on things.

Read the paper in Nature.


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