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Lizards rely on trees, so what happens when they disappear?

New research highlights the plight of lizards due to the widespread loss of trees. The study has revealed that the combined stress of deforestation and climate change will negatively impact up to 84 percent of North America’s lizards by the end of the century.

According to scientists from Tel Aviv University and the University of Colorado, lizards are particularly sensitive to temperature fluctuations, making them ideal indicators of how climate change impacts wildlife. The problems they face foreshadow challenges for a wide variety of animals.

Lizards and the importance of trees

Trees act as natural air conditioners. The shade they provide creates a significantly cooler environment compared to the sun-exposed ground. This cooling effect is vital for lizards, which, as ectotherms, rely on external sources to regulate their body temperature.

Beyond mere shade, trees offer a variety of microhabitats within a single structure. By moving around a tree, lizards can find microclimates that suit their thermal needs at different times of the day or year.

These microhabitats become critical refuges, especially as ground temperatures become increasingly inhospitable due to global warming.

“Animals will become increasingly dependent on trees for survival as temperatures rise,” said study co-author Dr. Ofir Levy.

Within a single tree, temperatures become cooler and wind increases with height. A lizard can strategically move between sun, shade, and the breezy higher branches to regulate its temperature.

Dr. Levy’s team observed this directly. “We’d see the lizards actively using different parts of the tree to find the most comfortable temperature. It underscored their absolute reliance on trees,” he said.

Lizards, trees and climate change

At first glance, the effects of a warming climate might seem beneficial for cold-blooded creatures like lizards. These animals depend on external heat sources to regulate their body temperature.

Therefore, a warmer environment could potentially extend their periods of activity, allowing them more time for essential behaviors like foraging, mating, and territory defense.

The study suggests that in many places, climate change could initially allow lizards to thrive due to reduced periods of cold that force them into inactivity.

However, the research underscores a critical caveat: the initial benefits of a warmer climate are significantly overshadowed by the adverse effects when combined with habitat destruction caused by humans, such as deforestation.

As discussed, trees not only provide crucial shade and cooler microhabitats but also serve as vital platforms for many of the lizards’ activities, including escaping predators, finding food, and even regulating their body temperature.

Study co-author Omer Zlotnick explained: “Computer simulations show that in warmer regions, climate change alone could harm lizards populations. Add in tree loss, and the situation becomes far worse.”

Impact of tree loss beyond lizards

Lizards are not the only animals that face hardships associated with deforestation. The loss of trees disrupts the delicate thermal balance that countless species depend on.

Impact on birds

Birds use trees for more than just nesting; trees provide essential shade that helps regulate the temperature of nests, protecting eggs and young chicks from overheating. This natural cooling system is crucial for the survival of fledglings.

Without the canopy cover, nests become exposed to direct sunlight, leading to increased temperatures that can be lethal to the eggs and young birds.

Similarly to lizards, birds use trees for protection from predators and a supply of food through fruits, seeds, and insects. The loss of trees thus not only threatens their thermal comfort but also their food security and safety.

Impact on mammals

Mammals, ranging from small rodents to large predators, often adapt to rising temperatures by moving to higher altitudes, where the climate is naturally cooler.

However, as deforestation expands and climate change exacerbates, these once-forested areas at higher elevations are becoming barren.

This shift not only leaves mammals without the necessary cover and resources found in forested habitats but also forces them into closer quarters with other species, potentially leading to increased competition for dwindling resources and higher susceptibility to predation.

The lack of vegetation at higher altitudes also means less carbon sequestration, a vital process in mitigating climate change.

Take action to protect trees

While the news is sobering, trees offer a powerful solution, and we can take action to protect them. “Our research demonstrates the crucial role forests and trees play for animals struggling with a changing climate,” said Dr. Levy.

Advocate for forest protection

Take a stand for forest conservation by voicing your support for policies and initiatives aimed at protecting forests. Whether it’s through signing petitions, joining conservation groups, or contacting your representatives, your advocacy can help halt deforestation.

Make informed decisions when purchasing products by choosing those that do not contribute to forest loss. Look for certifications that indicate sustainable sourcing.

Participate in tree-planting efforts

Engage directly in the fight against deforestation by taking part in local tree-planting campaigns. Many communities and environmental organizations organize events aimed at reforesting areas that have been cleared or degraded.

If you have the space, consider planting native trees on your own property. Not only do trees absorb carbon dioxide, but they also provide habitats for wildlife, contributing to biodiversity.

Support sustainable forestry practices

Backing sustainable forestry practices is crucial in ensuring that forests can be used without being destroyed. This includes purchasing products from companies that are committed to reducing their impact on forests.

Additionally, consider reducing your paper consumption where possible, opting for digital alternatives, and recycling paper products.

By making these sustainable choices, you contribute to a demand for responsibly sourced products, encouraging industries to adopt practices that protect rather than harm forests.

The next time you’re grateful for shade on a hot day, remember the countless creatures like lizards that depend on trees for their very survival. By taking steps to protect trees, we safeguard the delicate balance that allows wildlife (and ourselves) to thrive.

The study is published in the journal Nature Climate Change.


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