Science

A bunch of lizards were blasted by leaf blowers in the name of science

Researchers wanted to observe how they endured storms.

Tropical lizards have a stickability in high wind that puts TV weather reporters to shame. Now we know why, thanks in part to a high-powered leaf blower.

Researchers at Harvard University cranked up the garden gadget to observe how 47 of the Caribbean critters held on to a wooden rod.

Under tropical storm-force winds, the lizards lounged. As the wind speed cranked up, they still held on, although it got tougher.

Even at 102mph, the lizards grasped the pole with two clingy front feet while their tails and back legs flapped in the wind like a flag.

Study lead author Colin Donihue said: “All the lizard needs is an inside-out umbrella and the image would be perfect.”

But there’s only so much a little lizard can take. At 108mph, it was flying lizard time.

Don’t worry. No lizard was harmed in the lab test.

“They do go flying in the air, but it is softly into the net and everybody was returned back home,” said Mr Donihue, a Harvard evolutionary biologist.

Lizard in an experiment.
A lizard being blown by a leaf blower (Colin Donihue/Harvard University)

The lizards’ secret weapon to surviving hurricanes? The survivors had 6%-9% bigger toe pads, significantly longer front limbs and smaller back limbs, compared with the population before the storm.

The study is the first to show natural selection due to hurricanes, Mr Donihue said.

By coincidence, he and his colleagues had been measuring and studying lizards just before storms blew into the Turks and Caicos Islands last September.

They returned several weeks later to see if there was a difference in the surviving population.

They found the survivors were a bit lighter overall despite the bulked-up front.

Key were those toe pads. They are at most about half the size of a pencil’s eraser, Mr Donihue said.

It also explains why island lizards have bigger toe pads than inland Central American lizards, a difference that had baffled scientists.

Outside experts praised the study, especially the researchers’ luck in being in the right place at the right time.

Lizard in an experiment.
Biologists wanted to find out how lizards survive hurricanes (Colin Donihue/Harvard University)

Tracy Langkilde, a biologist at Pennsylvania State University, who wasn’t part of the study, said: “This study provides exciting insight into the effects of extreme natural events.”

Mr Donihue and colleagues didn’t merely measure the differences. They took the leaf blower and cranked up the power on different lizards, recording it all with a high-speed camera.

“These lizards are very impressive for their clinging in the high winds,” Mr Donihue said.

The research is published in the journal Nature.

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