The flat-tail horned lizard of the Sonoran Desert is under threat from environmental changes caused by humans, as the habitat of the lizard has experienced major changes as a result of modernization and climate change.
The lizards are just a few inches in length, and they feed on ants in lightly vegetated areas in Arizona and California. They need places to escape the intense sun or else they will melt away in the heat.
Herpetologists Dan Mulcahy and Peter Buck are attempting to map out the genes of the species in order to help it survive in the ever-changing environment. Previous studies conducted by the scientists indicated that western flat-tailed horned lizards show more genetic diversity than lizard populations found to the east.
Some lizards were separated by both natural and man-made geographical features, which led to genetic differences between lizard populations.
However, the scientists want to take a closer look at the gene flow between populations. In order to do this, scientists will need to further examine the DNA of the lizards. The new studies will focus on DNA that is obtained from both of a lizard’s parents. Previous studies were only able to examine the DNA from a lizard’s mother.
Mulcahy says, “Now we have the technology to rapidly sequence a lot of DNA. With the next-generation sequencing, we can capture big pieces of the genome very quickly and efficiently.”
The scientists believe that looking at the DNA from both parents might indicate different results from when they only looked at the DNA that was passed along from the mothers.
Mulcahy and Buck speculate that obtaining this data will assist researchers in determining whether or not some populations of the lizard will be better able to adapt to new climate changes that are likely to occur in the future.
Mulcahy explains, “(For the lizards) things are constantly changing, whether it’s disease or climate. Genetic diversity can help a species weather such changes.”
Scientists are particularly worried about global warming. A hotter climate could prove disastrous for the lizards. As cold-blooded reptiles, they are not able to regulate their own body temperatures. The flat-tailed horned lizards cope with this by burrowing underground.
However, if the climate becomes hotter, they will have to retreat earlier in the day, which might not give them the time they need to find food and other resources.
Mulcahy says that the lizards might need to transition into a nocturnal species if they want to survive. However, their genes might not allow for that to happen. By examining their genes further, the scientists will be able to understand the situation better.