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Saving Lizards

Fieldwork and genome sequencing will help reverse decline

Spot-tailed earless lizard

Photograph by Joel Sartore

UTA biologists Corey Roelke and Matthew Fujita are studying a species of lizard found in parts of Texas and northeastern Mexico to determine why the reptile's numbers have been dwindling dramatically.

They are conducting fieldwork and genome sequencing to learn as much as possible about the spot-tailed earless lizard Holbrookia lacerata, which has experienced a steady decline in population in Central and South Texas.

Drs. Roelke and Fujita are joined on the project by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and Texas A&M University.

"While the factors causing the lizard's dwindling numbers are unknown, at least some of the decline is likely due to anthropogenic-meaning caused by human activity-habitat change," Roelke says. "Potential threats include the use of agricultural herbicides and insecticides, the loss of habitat, and habitat fragmentation due to conversion of land to agriculture use or road construction."

The fieldwork this spring will be followed by more genome sequencing in Fujita's lab to provide a phylogenetic context of the lizard's evolution, test whether the Central and South Texas populations are distinct species, and quantify demographic parameters, including population sizes and gene flow between the Central and South Texas populations.

"These inferences will provide the necessary data and context to recommend a conservation management plan that works to benefit the lizard and private landowners," Roelke says. "It's an interesting project because this is a lizard that has declined greatly, and unfortunately, we really don't know why."