City Lizards Evolved Stickier Feet, Longer Legs

Robert Eastman/Shutterstock
Janet Fang 05 May 2016, 21:22

Small tropical lizards called anoles have adapted to life in the urban jungle by evolving stickier hands and feet as well as longer arms and legs, according to a recent Evolution study. These help them cling to concrete walls, walk across slippery windows, and perch on metal fences with as much ease as their forest-dwelling cousins. 

Urbanization is rapidly increasing around the world, with humans living in nearly two-thirds of the planet’s terrestrial areas. As a result, animals are being confronted with new habitats – from decorative, non-native plants to impervious surfaces and artificial lights. And with these come novel selection pressures. While many wildlife species can survive in cities, relatively little research has been done on whether these populations have adapted (in an evolutionary sense) to their newfound environments. 

Crested anoles (Anolis cristatellus) are trunk-ground specialists; they use their long limbs and stocky build to navigate across broad surfaces like tree trunks or the forest floor. The species is native to Puerto Rico, which has been utilized intensively for agricultural cash cops like sugar cane, tobacco, and coffee throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. This has led to massive declines in native wildlife and tree cover. Around the same time, the island underwent major industrialization: 94 percent of the 3.7 million citizens now live in urban areas. 

To see if the lizards have adapted to urbanization, a team led by Kristin Winchell from the University of Massachusetts Boston compared the ecology, morphology, and DNA of hundreds of male crested anoles living in three high-density Puerto Rican cities – Mayagüez, Ponce, and San Juan – with anoles living in three subtropical forests nearby. 

As predicted, the temperature, humidity, and substrate availability varied a lot between urban sites and their neighboring natural areas. Additionally, urban lizards often used artificial substrates, which were generally broader than the substrates in forests. However, city anoles had longer forelimbs and hindlimbs relative to their body size, and they also had more lamellae – tiny scales on the undersides of their toes that help them "stick" to surfaces. 

The team also reared the hatchlings of wild-caught adult pairs from one urban and one natural population: 25 males and 25 females from each of the two populations. They found that the differences between urban and natural wild populations were maintained in their captive-reared offspring – which means these differences are likely genetically based. 

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