Lizards Rapidly Evolve After Introduction to Island

<< Back to Page 1   Page 2 of 2

"The island was swarming with lizards," he said.

The findings were published in March in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Fast-Track Evolution

The new habitat once had its own healthy population of lizards, which were less aggressive than the new implants, Irschick said.

The new species wiped out the indigenous lizard populations, although how it happened is unknown, he said.

The transplanted lizards adapted to their new environment in ways that expedited their evolution physically, Irschick explained.

Pod Mrcaru, for example, had an abundance of plants for the primarily insect-eating lizards to munch on. Physically, however, the lizards were not built to digest a vegetarian diet.

Researchers found that the lizards developed cecal valves—muscles between the large and small intestine—that slowed down food digestion in fermenting chambers, which allowed their bodies to process the vegetation's cellulose into volatile fatty acids.

"They evolved an expanded gut to allow them to process these leaves," Irschick said, adding it was something that had not been documented before. "This was a brand-new structure."

Along with the ability to digest plants came the ability to bite harder, powered by a head that had grown longer and wider.

(Related news: "Komodo Dragon's Bite Is 'Weaker Than a House Cat's'" [April 18, 2008].)

The rapid physical evolution also sparked changes in the lizard's social and behavioral structure, he said. For one, the plentiful food sources allowed for easier reproduction and a denser population.

The lizard also dropped some of its territorial defenses, the authors concluded.

Such physical transformation in just 30 lizard generations takes evolution to a whole new level, Irschick said.

It would be akin to humans evolving and growing a new appendix in several hundred years, he said.

"That's unparalleled. What's most important is how fast this is," he said.

While researchers do know the invader's impact on its reptile brethren, they do not know how the species impacts local vegetation or insects, a subject of future study, Irschick said.

Dramatic Changes

The study demonstrates that a lot of change happens in island environments, said Andrew Hendry, a biology professor at Montreal's McGill University.

What could be debated, however, is how those changes are interpreted—whether or not they had a genetic basis and not a "plastic response to the environment," said Hendry, who was not associated with the study.

There's no dispute that major changes to the lizards' digestive tract occurred. "That kind of change is really dramatic," he added.

"All of this might be evolution," Hendry said. "The logical next step would be to confirm the genetic basis for these changes."

<< Back to Page 1   Page 2 of 2


SOURCES AND RELATED WEB SITES

ADVERTISEMENT

NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC'S PHOTO OF THE DAY

NEWS FEEDS     After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.   After installing a news reader, click on this icon to download National Geographic News's XML/RSS feed.

Get our news delivered directly to your desktop—free.
How to Use XML or RSS

National Geographic Daily News To-Go

Listen to your favorite National Geographic news daily, anytime, anywhere from your mobile phone. No wires or syncing. Download Stitcher free today.
Click here to get 12 months of National Geographic Magazine for $15.