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Ecological interactions under climate change: How shifts in vegetation cover may affect desert lizards?

Ecological interactions under climate change: How shifts in vegetation cover may affect desert lizards?

Dr. Ofir Levy
School of Zoology, Tel Aviv University, Israel

Global concerns regarding climate change and its projected effects on biodiversity have triggered a significant volume of scientific research. As animals respond in various ways to climate change, ecologists are developing predictive models to explore the biological impacts of the continuous increases in temperatures. In these models, however, ecological interactions are mostly ignored, although they may have a crucial effect on the ability of animals to withstand climate change. To improve our theory of biological risks of climate change, we need to understand not only how a species may respond to changes in climate alone, but also how this species will respond to similar or opposite changes that will possibly occur in other species. To explore this gap, we are studying how variation in vegetation cover affects desert lizards and their arthropod prey in two desert communities near the Dead Sea, and exploring the possible effects of climate change. In particular, we have measured the body composition (lean and fat mass) of Mesalina guttulata lizards at various levels of vegetation cover. So far, lizards were collected during summer, fall, and winter next to Mishmar and Zeelim rivers, and transported to Tel Aviv University, where we measured their body composition using a Dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry machine. Each lizard was released back to its natural habitat after 1-2 days. To estimate the availability of vegetation cover at the home-range of each lizard, we have used a drone to map the vegetation cover at a 3 cm resolution at our study sites. We found that lizards collected next to higher percentages of vegetation cover have higher levels of fat storages, suggesting that vegetation plays an essential role in the ability of lizards to obtain energy from the environment. To estimate prey availability, we are currently using camera traps to collect data on the abundance of arthropods at our study sites under different temperatures, seasons, and levels of vegetation cover. We are also modeling the microclimates and percentages of vegetation cover under future climates. These ongoing studies will provide valuable insights into the impact of climate on desert communities; understanding these ecological links can inform both theoretical, empirical, and applied ecologists regarding the cascading effect of climate change on ecological systems.