Norman, Okla.—Tropical lizards detect the effects of global warming in a climate where the smallest change makes a big difference, according to herpetologist Laurie Vitt, curator of reptiles and George Lynn Cross Research Professor at the University of Oklahoma’s Sam Noble Museum of Natural History. Climate change caused by global warming threatens the very existence of these and other tropical species, the ecosystem and its by-products, Vitt maintains.
Vitt has studied the ecology of lizards in rain forests around the world and, for the past 20 years, as part of a biodiversity project in the Amazon. As a fellow researcher on a study funded by the National Science Foundation, Vitt investigated the affects of global warming on tropical lizards and the diversity of the ecosystem. “We depend on these tropical lizards and other species of animals and plants for food, materials, and pharmaceuticals, but we are losing these species as a result of global warming,” Vitt remarks.
Tropical species are affected more by the very narrow temperature range of their typically warm climate than are ectotherms living where the temperatures fluctuate in greater degrees. Even the smallest change in the tropics makes a difference to the tropical species most susceptible to climate change. “Climatic shifts are part of our natural history, but years of research indicate global warming has increased the rate at which climate change is taking place, ” Vitt states.
As populations grow around the world, so does consumption. In the densest areas of the world, the elimination of animals that feed on disease vectors, such as mosquitoes and flies, adds to our growing human health problem. “The loss of these predators, like tropical species, upset the natural biodiversity of the ecosystem,” Vitt notes. “The effects may not be so obvious in the short term, but the long-term effects will be irreversible.”
Tropical rain forests contain most species of animals and plants needed to sustain the world’s population, but global warming has already upset the natural biodiversity of the ecosystem. An international debate over global warming ensues while the world’s population continues to grow. “At some point,” Vitt concludes, “we have to address the world’s growing population which doubles every 30 years.”
“Our ability to connect with nature and better understand tropical lizards is important because these animals serve as model organisms for detecting the effects of global warming,” Vitt summarizes. “Ecosystems are complex and interdependent. When one species becomes extinct, the entire system is affected. The long-term effects on human health can be dramatic.”