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An anole lizard clings to a perch during simulated high winds. Credit: Colin Donihue and Nature Video.

Small-bodied anole lizards (Anolis scriptus) do not run and hide from oncoming hurricanes like one might think. Instead they cling to tree branches for survival, their bodies transforming into sails, anchored in place thanks to toe pads.

Why this matters: A new study published in the scientific journal Nature this week found that hurricanes can accelerate natural selection, favoring anole lizards that have larger toeholds and shorter rear legs. It also may help solve an enduring mystery about these commonly found lizards.

What they did: The possible selection of traits that allow these lizards to survive hurricanes was discovered serendipitously, when a team of researchers happened to be studying the species at the same time that Hurricanes Irma and Maria struck their habitat in the Turks and Caicos islands in 2017.

  • Colin Donihue, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University, and his colleagues had just finished a survey of anole lizards before the storms struck. They then returned to the islands 6 weeks after Hurricane Irma hit, and 3 weeks after Maria, to look at the differences between storm survivors and those that did not make it.
“We really didn’t know what to expect as we headed back to the Turks and Caicos."
— Colin Donihue, lead author of the new study.
  • The research team found that the surviving population had larger toe pads, longer forelimbs and shorter hind limbs on average than the lizards surveyed before the storms.
  • "The fact that we saw the same pattern on both Pine Cay and Water Cay is one of the big reasons we think this pattern wasn’t a fluke," Donihue said via email, referring to two islands in the Turks and Caicos. "The repeatability of the patterns was one of the linchpins of our argument for natural selection."
  • The researchers also carried out a crude experiment involving a leaf blower, some lizards, material resembling a branch or perch and netting.

By filming the lizards' behavior while being knocked around by strong winds, Donihue and his colleagues were able to see just how well the lizards were able to stay on branches despite the high winds.

“The lizards didn’t jump off the perch. They would hold on tight.”
— Donihue

What they found: As the winds increased, the scientists found that the lizards tucked their forelimbs close to their body, but jutted out their hind limbs at a 90-degree angle. Those hind limbs caught winds like a sail, and if they caught too much wind, the lizard would pop off the perch, and land harmlessly in the net in the experimental setting.

  • Hurricanes, Donihue said, can accelerate the process of natural section. He plans on another Turks and Caicos visit to see if the lizards' offspring resemble the hurricane survivors or the pre-storm lizards. He thinks they'll more closely resemble the pre-storm population, since short hind legs are not helpful for the lizards' mobility on the island.
  • “There are other consistent selective forces acting on these lizards,” Donihue said, adding that hurricanes would have to hit with a greater frequency to have a more lasting influence on the lizards' traits.

The intrigue: Interestingly, the new study may help shed light on a longstanding mystery of why anole lizards on these islands differ in their characteristics from anole species in South America and other areas.

“There’s been this long mystery about why the island lizards have such big overgrown toe pads relative to the lizards that live on the mainland. This study might point us toward an explanation.”
— Donihue

Go deeper

Scoop: Gina Haspel threatened to resign over plan to install Kash Patel as CIA deputy

CIA Director Gina Haspel. Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

CIA Director Gina Haspel threatened to resign in early December after President Trump cooked up a hasty plan to install loyalist Kash Patel, a former aide to Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), as her deputy, according to three senior administration officials with direct knowledge of the matter.

Why it matters: The revelation stunned national security officials and almost blew up the leadership of the world's most powerful spy agency. Only a series of coincidences — and last minute interventions from Vice President Mike Pence and White House counsel Pat Cipollone — stopped it.

Updated 10 hours ago - Politics & Policy

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Coronavirus deaths reach 4,000 per day as hospitals remain in crisis mode — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
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  5. World: WHO team arrives in China to investigate pandemic origins.

John Weaver, Lincoln Project co-founder, acknowledges “inappropriate” messages

John Weaver aboard John McCain's campaign plane in February 2000. Photo: Robert Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

John Weaver, a veteran Republican operative who co-founded the Lincoln Project, declared in a statement to Axios on Friday that he sent “inappropriate,” sexually charged messages to multiple men.

  • “To the men I made uncomfortable through my messages that I viewed as consensual mutual conversations at the time: I am truly sorry. They were inappropriate and it was because of my failings that this discomfort was brought on you,” Weaver said.
  • “The truth is that I'm gay,” he added. “And that I have a wife and two kids who I love. My inability to reconcile those two truths has led to this agonizing place.”