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Climate Change Hard on Desert-Dwelling Animals, Not Just Polarbears

Desert ecologist Cameron Barrows is a sand country cowboy. His white-brown beard and wide cotton hat deflect the brutal sun as he leads volunteers—citizen scientists—through Joshua Tree National Park. They weave past smooth orange boulders and the menacing white spines of cholla cacti, on the lookout for lizards and tortoises.

Barrows’ band is sweeping 27 sites in California’s High Desert in an effort to understand how climate change impacts the populations of local reptiles, including western whiptails, desert iguanas, and chuckwallas, which are foot-long, vegetarian lizards. Long droughts—like California's current five-year episode—have been hard on creatures in the park, especially at the hottest low-elevation sites. When healthy, chuckwallas are especially “rotund,” like “a lizard that could be mistaken for Shrek,” Barrows says. But now, “they’re just not plump, chubby chuckwallas anymore.”

You’d think desert creatures would love climate change. They already thrive in the hottest, driest places on earth. But Barrows sees their numbers “dwindling,” an observation that reflects a larger trend: From Southern Africa to the Southwestern U.S., arid environments are becoming even less hospitable, and their denizens—animals as well as plants—seem to be struggling to keep up.


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