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Sniffing out lizard turds

Harald Franzen
February 1, 2017

Often overlooked and unappreciated, shrub plays an important role for the survival of lizards in arid regions. Scientists have now made this discovery with the help of an unlikely partner: dogs.

Blunt-nosed leopard lizard - Gambelia sila
Image: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Dogs are well-known for having a very keen sense of smell. They help us look for drugs, truffles and survivors buried under rubble after earthquakes. Now researchers at Toronto's York University have found a new use for this extraordinary ability: sniffing out lizard turds.

Yes, you read that right. The researchers were trying to learn more about the endangered and elusive blunt-nosed leopard lizard, which can only be found in one particular part of California. Rather than trying to track the lizards themselves, the team looked for lizard scat in the animals' habitat, which they tracked down with the help of their scat sniffing dogs.

What they found was an interesting relationship between the lizard and shrub that typically grows in the area. When a drought hit the area in 2014, the animals' droppings were suddenly more concentrated under the shrub, indicating that the lizards sought shelter there from the heat. The animals also use the shrub to escape predators. They hide in burrows dug by rodents and those are usually also found under shrubs.

"It demonstrates how much animals rely on plants for survival that goes beyond that of simply eating them," said York University doctoral student Alex Filazzola, who led the project.

And this discovery of the importance of shrub may have come just in time. "As the climate warms and lizards find it more difficult to regulate their body temperatures in the heat, these findings could help preserve them not only in California, but globally," Filazzola says. 

In recent years, a lot of solar panels were installed in the area in California where these particular lizards live and many of the seemingly irrelevant shrub was removed. Filazzola, who published his findings in the current issue of the journal Basic and Applied Ecology warns about the potential impact this trend could have on the lizards if it continues unabated.

"Planting shrubs, such as the Ephedra californica, could prove critical in managing and preserving endangered species in high-stress or arid ecosystems, such as a desert,” he said. "Continuing to remove these shrubs to install solar panels, however, further endangers this species.”

The blunt-nosed leopard lizard was once abundant in the San Joaquin Valley but its range has already been reduced by almost 85 percent due to human activity. If droughts in the area increase, they could go extinct.

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