Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

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Department ofBotany



No. 379
July 2016


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In This Issue


Warming may Shrink Ancient Range of Heat Loving Desert Lizard


-Adapted from Smithsonian Insider

The Mojave Desert and Death Valley are among the hottest, driest places in North America. So how might climate change impact a resilient reptile that has persisted in these deserts for tens of thousands of years?

Desert horned lizard, Joshua Tree National Park (Photo by Stacy Manson/National Park Service)

Desert horned lizard, Joshua Tree National Park (Photo by Stacy Manson/National Park Service)

To answer this question a team of scientists studied DNA from desert horned lizards (Phrynosoma platyrhinos) living across the Southwest, looking back 21,000 years to see how their populations responded following a previous warming period scientists call the Last Glacial Maximum.

To conduct their study, the scientists captured lizards from across the expanse of the desert horned lizard's range and took DNA samples from each animal's tail or a toe. Long stable populations show more mutations and genetic divergence in their DNA. This allows researchers to distinguish between populations that have remained in place for long periods and those that have experienced recent expansion.

Collected data showed that after temperatures warmed during the Last Glacial Maximum, horned lizards living in the Mojave and Sonoran deserts expanded north into the Great Basin, in areas that are now in Nevada and Utah. This new region had previously been too cool and moist for the horned lizards.

Yet as they expanded into new territory, the horned lizards did not give up any of their old territory, despite the fact that their old territory grew from hot to hotter. "The southern deserts that were their home warmed up, but instead of shifting out of them as we might expect, the desert horned lizard was able to persist," says Daniel Mulcahy, herpetologist at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, and co-author of a recent paper on the study in the journal Ecography.

This plasticity, as scientists call it, is unusual, Mulcahy adds. Faced with rising temperatures, studies show that many animal, insect and plant populations shift geographically to remain inside their "climatic niche," expanding into one area while withdrawing from former territory. Some species, for example, respond to climate change by shifting to higher elevations up the side of a mountain to stay inside their climate niche.

The shift for the desert horned lizard may still occur however, 21,000 years late.

Predicted higher temperatures brought on by global warming promise not to be so kind to the desert horned lizard this time around, Mulcahy observes. The lizard's challenge is that the Mojave and lower Sonoran deserts are hotter today than they were 21,000 years ago after the Last Glacial Maximum. "Usually, as soon as the sun comes up desert horned lizards are out and active until about 10 in the morning when it gets too hot. They then crawl under a bush or down in a burrow to escape the heat," Mulcahy says. They dine primarily on ants.

Now, in really hot places like Death Valley, even before 9 a.m., it has begun to reach temperatures these resilient lizards cannot tolerate. "This gives them little time to be active. As a result they can't build the resources they need to run around and eat insects and build up their fat so they can reproduce. There is just not a large enough activity window for them to survive."

Researchers have gone out to find historic populations of other desert lizard species, returning to places that are experiencing really extreme temperatures, and the lizards are gone, Mulcahy adds.


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Dalu, T., Sachikonye, M.T.B., Alexander, M.E., Dube, T., Froneman, W.P., Manungo, K.I., Bepe, O., and Wasserman, R.J. 2016. Ecological assessment of two species of potamonautid freshwater crabs from the Eastern Highlands of Zimbabwe, with implications for their conservation. PLoS ONE 11(1):e0145923.

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Day, J., Gerken, J.E., and Adams, G.L. 2016. Population ecology and seasonal demography of the endangered grotto sculpin (Cottus specus). Ecol. Freshw. Fish 25(1):27-37.

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de Andrade, W.M., Ramos, M.A., Souto, W.M.S., Bento-Silva, J.S., de Albuquerque, U.P., and Araújo , E.D. 2015. Knowledge, uses and practices of the licuri palm (Syagrus coronata (Mart.) Becc.) around protected areas in northeastern Brazil holding the endangered species Lear's Macaw (Anodorhynchus leari). Trop. Conserv. Sci. 8(4):893-911.

De Danieli, C., and Sarasa, M. 2015. Population estimates, density-dependence and the risk of disease outbreaks in the Alpine ibex Capra ibex. Anim. Biodivers. Conserv. 38(1):101-119.

De Oliveira, J.A., and Sobrado, S.V. 2016. Bradea borrerioides (Rubiaceae), a new species from Brazilian inselbergs. Phytotaxa 243(1):83-90.

de Souza, T.A.F., Rodriguez-Echeverría, S., de Andrade, L.A., and Freitas, H. 2016. Could biological invasion by Cryptostegia madagascariensis alter the composition of the arbuscular mycorrhizal fungal community in semi-arid Brazil? Acta Bot. Bras. 30(1):93-101.

Deacon, A.E., Shimadzu, H., Dornelas, M., Ramnarine, I.W., and Magurran, A.E. 2015. From species to communities: the signature of recreational use on a tropical river ecosystem. Ecol. Evol. 5(23):5561-5572.

Decher, J., Hoffmann, A., Schaer, J., Norris, R.W., Kadjo, B., Astrin, J., Monadjem, A., and Hutterer, R. 2015. Bat diversity in the Simandou Mountain Range of Guinea, with the description of a new white-winged vespertilionid. Acta Chiropterol. 17(2):255-282.

Di Maggio, R., Campobello, D., Tavecchia, G., and Sarà, M. 2016. Habitat- and density-dependent demography of a colonial raptor in Mediterranean agro-ecosystems. Biol. Conserv. 193:116-123.

Dieni, A., Brodeur, J., and Turgeon, J. 2016. Reconstructing the invasion history of the lily leaf beetle, Lilioceris lilii, in North America. Biol. Invasions 18(1):31-44.

Dixon, M.J.R., Loh, J., Davidson, N.C., Beltrame, C., Freeman, R., and Walpole, M. 2016. Tracking global change in ecosystem area: the Wetland Extent Trends index. Biol. Conserv. 193:27-35.

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Wahlert, G.A., Phillipson, P.B., and Lowry, P.P. 2015. A new species of Grewia L. (Malvaceae, Grewioideae) from northeastern Madagascar. Candollea 70(2):201-205.

Walker, B.L., Apa, A.D., and Eichhoff, K. 2016. Mapping and prioritizing seasonal habitats for greater sage-grouse in Northwestern Colorado. J. Wildlife Manag. 80(1):63-77.

Walker-Springett, K., Jefferson, R., Bock, K., Breckwoldt, A., Comby, E., Cottet, M., Hubner, G., Le Lay, Y.F., Shaw, S., and Wyles, K. 2016. Ways forward for aquatic conservation: applications of environmental psychology to support management objectives. J. Environ. Manage. 166:525-536.

Wallace, J.M., and Prather, T.S. 2016. Invasive spread dynamics of Anthriscus caucalis at an ecosystem scale: propagule pressure, grazing disturbance and plant community susceptibility in canyon grasslands. Biol. Invasions 18(1):145-157.

Wang, H.H., Koralewski, T.E., McGrew, E.K., Grant, W.E., and Byram, T.D. 2015. Species distribution model for management of an invasive vine in forestlands of eastern Texas. Forests 6(12):4374-4390.

Ward-Fear, G., Pearson, D.J., Brown, G.P., Rangers, B., and Shine, R. 2016. Ecological immunization: in situ training of free-ranging predatory lizards reduces their vulnerability to invasive toxic prey. Biol. Lett. 12(1):20150863.

Warne, R.W., LaBumbard, B., LaGrange, S., Vredenburg, V.T., and Catenazzi, A. 2016. Co-infection by chytrid fungus and ranaviruses in wild and harvested frogs in the tropical Andes. PLoS ONE 11(1):e0145864.

Wasekura, H., Horie, S., Fujii, S., and Maki, M. 2016. Molecular identification of alien species of Vallisneria (Hydrocharitaceae) species in Japan with a special emphasis on the commercially traded accessions and the discovery of hybrid between nonindigenous V. spiralis and native V. denseserrulata. Aquat. Bot. 128:1-6.

Wasowicz, P. 2016. Non-native species in the vascular flora of highlands and mountains of Iceland. PeerJ 4:e1844.

Webb, K.M., Schultz, R.E., and Dibble, E.D. 2016. The influence of invasive aquatic plant removal on diets of bluegill in Minnesota lakes. J. Aquat. Plant Manage. 54:37-45.

Weel, S., Watson, L.H., Weel, J., Venter, J.A., and Reeves, B. 2015. Cape mountain zebra in the Baviaanskloof Nature Reserve, South Africa: resource use reveals limitations to zebra performance in a dystrophic mountainous ecosystem. Afr. J. Ecol. 53(4):428-438.

Wei, F.W., Swaisgood, R., Hu, Y.B., Nie, Y.G., Yan, L., Zhang, Z.J., Qi, D.W., and Zhu, L.F. 2015. Progress in the ecology and conservation of giant pandas. Conserv. Biol. 29(6):1497-1507.

Westgate, M.J., Barton, P.S., Pierson, J.C., and Lindenmayer, D.B. 2015. Text analysis tools for identification of emerging topics and research gaps in conservation science. Conserv. Biol. 29(6):1606-1614.

Wetterer, J.K. 2015. Geographic distribution of Trachymyrmex jamaicensis (Hymenoptera: Formicidae). Fl. Entomol. 98(4):1175-1178.

Willems, T., Depestele, J., De Backer, A., and Hostens, K. 2016. Ray bycatch in a tropical shrimp fishery: Do Bycatch Reduction Devices and Turtle Excluder Devices effectively exclude rays? Fish. Res. 175:35-42.

Wilmshurst, J.M., McGlone, M.S., and Turney, C.S.M. 2015. Long-term ecology resolves the timing, region of origin and process of establishment for a disputed alien tree. AoB Plants 7:plv104.

Woinarski, J.C.Z., MacRae, I., Flores, T., Detto, T., Reid, J., Pink, C., Flakus, S., Misso, M., Hamilton, N., Palmer, R., Morris, K., Znidersic, L., and Hill, B. 2016. Conservation status and reintroduction of the Cocos Buff-banded Rail, Gallirallus philippensis andrewsi. Emu 116(1):32-40.

Wolfe, J.D., Stouffer, P.C., Mokross, K., Powell, L.L., and Anciães, M.M. 2015. Island vs. countryside biogeography: an examination of how Amazonian birds respond to forest clearing and fragmentation. Ecosphere 6(12):295.

Wu, J.G. 2016. Detecting and attributing the effects of climate change on the distributions of snake species over the past 50 years. Environ. Manage. 57(1):207-219.

Wu, J.G., and Shi, Y.J. 2016. Attribution index for changes in migratory bird distributions: The role of climate change over the past 50 years in China. Ecol. Inform. 31:147-155.

Yen, A.L. 2015. Conservation of Lepidoptera used as human food and medicine. Curr. Opin. Insect Sci. 12:102-108.

Yuan, B.D., and Lu, C.H. 2016. Effects of urbanization on bird diversity: a case study in Yizhou, Guangxi Province, China. Asia Life Sci. 25(1):79-96.

Zapata-Ríos, G., and Branch, L.C. 2016. Altered activity patterns and reduced abundance of native mammals in sites with feral dogs in the high Andes. Biol. Conserv. 193:9-16.

Zarzoso-Lacoste, D., Bonnaud, E., Corse, E., Gilles, A., Meglecz, E., Costedoat, C., Gouni, A., and Vidal, E. 2016. Improving morphological diet studies with molecular ecology: an application for invasive mammal predation on island birds. Biol. Conserv. 193:134-142.

Zhang, L. 2015. Balancing conservation and development to preserve China's biodiversity. Conserv. Biol. 29(6):1496-1496.

Zhang, L.B., and Jiang, Z.G. 2016. Unveiling the status of alien animals in the arid zone of Asia. PeerJ 4:e1545.

Zhang, Y., Peng, C.H., Li, W.Z., Tian, L.X., Zhu, Q.Q., Chen, H., Fang, X.Q., Zhang, G.L., Liu, G.M., Mu, X.M., Li, Z.B., Li, S.Q., Yang, Y.Z., Wang, J., and Xiao, X.M. 2016. Multiple afforestation programs accelerate the greenness in the 'Three North' region of China from 1982 to 2013. Ecol. Indic. 61:404-412.

Zhao, L.N., Li, J.Y., Liu, H.Y., and Qin, H.N. 2016. Distribution, congruence, and hotspots of higher plants in China. Sci. Rep. 6:19080.

Zhuang, P., Zhao, F., Zhang, T., Chen, Y., Liu, J.Y., Zhang, L.Z., and Kynard, B. 2016. New evidence may support the persistence and adaptability of the near-extinct Chinese sturgeon. Biol. Conserv. 193:66-69.

Zou, Y.A., Tang, C.D., Niu, J.Y., Wang, T.H., Xie, Y.H., and Guo, H. 2016. Migratory waterbirds response to coastal habitat changes: conservation implications from long-term detection in the Chongming Dongtan wetlands, China. Estuaries Coasts 39(1):273-286.


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