Scientists Terrorised Lizards With a Leaf Blower to Study Natural Selection

By Brian Kahn on at

I’m not sure if lizards can experience PTSD, but if they can, I have every reason to believe this science experiment induced it.

New research released on Wednesday in Nature chronicled a bizarre experiment involving lizards from Turks and Caicos, a stick, and a leaf blower. The goal? To study how hurricanes influence natural selection, of course.

You might want to turn the sound on.

Last year’s brutal hurricane season took a toll on wildlife in the Caribbean, as Hurricanes Irma and Maria rattled ecosystems from the Florida Everglades to Puerto Rico’s rainforest. Researchers are still digging into how wildlife bounced back from the pounding storms, but the new research goes one step further by looking at how the storms may have left an imprint on future generations of lizards in Turks and Caicos.

Scientists’ ability to tease this out involved a weird twist of academic fate. An international team of researchers had been conducting studies of populations of Anolis scriptus lizards spread across two islands. They finished their fieldwork four days before Hurricane Irma slammed into their research sites with 165-mph winds. Two weeks later, Maria ploughed through the area again with 124-mph winds.

That gave scientists a rare opportunity to look at whether the lizards that survived were different, on average, from the pre-storm populations. They found that the lizards who weathered the storm had bigger toepads, longer forelimbs, and shorter back legs. The researchers hypothesise that the first two qualities allowed the lizards to cling for dear life with a stronger grip than their shrimpy-limbed brethren. Meanwhile, the shorter back legs allowed them to be more aerodynamic in the hurricane-force winds, acting like a wind sock rather than a piece of sheet metal.

But why just hypothesise when you can test it out, amirite? The researchers took lizards to a lab of horrors to measure what they innocuously called “performance capacity.” In this case, it meant having the lizards do their best Jim Cantore impression by having them cling to a pole while a leaf blower tossed them about in hurricane-force winds (side note: leaf blowers are no joke apparently). Amazingly, the little buggers were able to hang on, even in winds up to 108 mph.

While it may look like a lizard version of Saw, the researchers stressed that no lizards were harmed – when they finally lost their grip, they flew into a nice, soft net. All of them were returned to the locations where they had been collected. Even so, there’s no way to measure the psychological trauma potentially experienced by these poor lizards.

The findings are the first of their kind to measure natural selection before and after a storm. In a world where climate change is projected to make hurricanes more intense, it could mean lizards are going to have to up their tree-hugging game if they want to survive.