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Sandy soil reptiles face extinction threat due to climate change

Sandy soil reptiles, once considered able to withstand against global warming, now face an increased risk of extinction and substantial habitat loss due to climate change.

Consequently, this stark revelation stems from a detailed study on ten lizard and snake species across three South American biomes. Contrary to earlier beliefs that rising global temperatures would benefit these reptiles, Brazilian researchers have revealed a more alarming reality.

The findings reveal the unforeseen vulnerabilities of these creatures. This challenges the notion that warmer climates would expand their suitable habitats.

Unexpected findings

“We concluded that climate change will modify the geographical distribution of reptiles and lead to the extinction of some species. That’s the opposite of the usual prediction,” said Júlia Oliveira, lead author of the study.

The research was a significant part of Oliveira’s master’s project at the State University of Maranhão (UEMA). It feeds into a broader study titled “Evolution and biogeography of the herpetofauna: patterns, process, and implications for conservation in a scenario of environmental and climate changes,” coordinated by Professor Thaís Guedes.

Adaptation or extinction: Survival in the sands

“The species we studied have the peculiarity of being adapted to sandy soil habitats, which confers traits such as reduced or absent limbs, reduced eyes, and raised rostral scales,” Guedes explained. Initially seen as beneficial, these unique adaptations now suggest imminent danger for the species amid fast-changing climate conditions.

The study’s detailed analysis of the South American Diagonal of Open Formations paints a grim future for sandy soil reptiles. By blending current climate data with future projections, the researchers revealed the likely habitat loss and extinction risks faced by these reptiles.

“Some of the species for which we predict major losses and even extinction wouldn’t even be endangered according to the current criteria used in this kind of threat assessment. The criteria must be changed for the next assessment,” said Oliveira, highlighting the need for revised conservation criteria.

Conservation challenges: Protecting the sands of time

The experts recommend establishing and expanding protected areas to meet the species’ current and future needs. However, despite the creation of 27 new protected areas in the last six years, less than 16% suit the targeted reptiles. This fact highlights the inadequacy of current conservation efforts in the face of shifting climate dynamics.

The findings present a stark warning but also provide hope by identifying potential new habitats for the reptiles. This dual perspective underscores the critical need for incorporating future climate scenarios into conservation planning. It ensures the survival of sandy soil reptiles in a rapidly changing world.

More about sandy soil reptiles 

Reptiles that inhabit sandy soil environments have evolved unique adaptations to thrive in these conditions. Sandy soils, characterized by loose granular structures, are often found in deserts, beaches, and certain forested areas. 

These environments pose challenges such as limited water availability, extreme temperature fluctuations, and loose footing for movement. Here are some general characteristics and examples of reptiles adapted to sandy soil environments:



Many sandy soil reptiles are adept at burrowing. This behavior helps them escape the extreme heat of the surface, hide from predators, and sometimes hunt for prey. 

The physical adaptations for burrowing can include wedge-shaped heads, strong forelimbs, and flattened bodies.

Temperature regulation

Reptiles are ectotherms, relying on the environment to regulate their body temperature. Sandy soil reptiles often have behavioral adaptations like basking in the sun to raise their body temperature or burrowing to cool down.

Water conservation

Reptiles in sandy environments have developed efficient means of conserving water. 

This can include a highly efficient kidney that recycles water, scales that minimize water loss, and behaviors such as drinking dew.

Examples of sandy soil reptiles 

Sand Viper (Cerastes cerastes)

Found in the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East, this viper is well adapted to sandy environments. Its coloration blends perfectly with the sand, and it can bury itself in the sand to ambush prey.

Gopher tortoise (Gopherus genus)

Native to the southeastern United States, the gopher tortoise digs extensive burrows in sandy soils. These burrows provide shelter for the tortoise and numerous other species.

Fringe-toed lizards (Uma notata)

These lizards have specialized scales on their toes that help them move quickly across loose sand, resembling snowshoes. They inhabit desert and sandy areas in North America.

Horned lizards (Phrynosoma) 

Adapted to desert and arid environments with sandy soils, horned lizards have a flat, rounded body and colors that mimic their surroundings, offering camouflage against predators.

Reptiles living in sandy soil environments exemplify the remarkable adaptability of life. Each species has developed a set of traits that allow it not only to survive but to thrive in conditions that might initially seem inhospitable.

The study is published in the journal Arid Environments.


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