Can lizards change their nesting behavior to survive climate change?

Clemson University
Anderson, South Carolina
DOI: 10.18258/4259
Raised of $2,000 Goal
Funded on 6/01/16
Successfully Funded
  • $2,004
  • 100%
  • Funded
    on 6/01/16

About This Project

The decision of where to nest is perhaps the greatest one a lizard can make for her offspring. Many lizards dig nests in open, sunny spots because warm temperatures help lizard embryos grow and survive. However, climate warming is raising temperatures at those nest sites to the point they may soon become harmful and even lethal to lizard embryos. This project investigates whether lizards can choose shadier, cooler places to nest, which could buffer offspring from effects of climate change.

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What is the context of this research?

This project investigates whether lizards can respond to climate warming via nesting behavior. Where a lizard nests determines what her offspring experience during development. We are using the Eastern fence lizard for this study because it has a wide geographic range, and much of its behavior and thermal biology have been well studied. Research has shown fence lizards will explore far across their habitat to nest in open, sunny spots. However, it is not clear if they are searching the environment for warm nest sites, or if something else is driving them to those locations. This is an important question because the answer will tell us whether they have the capacity to modify their nesting behavior in response to changes in the environment, such as those brought on by rapid climate change.

What is the significance of this project?

The embryonic environment has long-lasting effects through the life cycle. Basically, as an embryo you are dealt the cards that you can play as needed through the rest of your life. Unfortunately, not enough research has examined how the impacts of climate warming on embryos will affect the way organisms function and survive. Most predictions of the impacts of climate change on species have been made based on information about later life stages (juveniles and adults that can move and respond to their environment). But embryos are very sensitive to change, so the effects of climate warming on embryo development and survival could have big implications for species in coming years. The information from this work will help to make better informed predictions of the impacts of climate change.

What are the goals of the project?

Funds will be used to pay a student to help with field research, data analysis, and dissemination of results (presentations and a published manuscript).

The ability to alter nesting behavior depends whether lizards choose where to nest based on the quality of sites found in their habitat, or if they are driven by something else (e.g., “philopatry” = nest where you were born; sea turtles are a popular example). Nesting that is limited by something like philopatry could prevent lizards from responding to climate change. So, it would be beneficial if they could choose the best sites available. We will radio-track Eastern fence lizards in South Carolina this summer to analyze nesting behavior, and to compare the quality of nest sites they choose to those available in the surrounding habitat.


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In order to track enough lizards to ensure our results are reliable and meaningful, I need help. Alone, I can track at most 12 lizards a day (and that's pushing my body to its limits!), but I need to track at least 20 lizards for this project to work. With the help of an undergraduate research assistant, I will be able to complete the project safely and much more efficiently. Plus, I will be able to give a bright, hard-working undergraduate student valuable experience conducting research, analyzing data, and then later presenting at conferences and writing a manuscript to share the results of our research. The money raised for this project through will fund a stipend for my undergraduate research assistant, who will work with me full time for the entire summer. If we are lucky enough to go over our proposed budget, any excess funds raised will help pay for equipment and supplies used by that undergraduate assistant, which I am funding out of my pocket at this point.

Endorsed by

Mike and I have been working together for 3 years in the same lab at Clemson. We broadly study how animals respond to climate, and Mike is studying how lizards can use behavior to survive a warming climate by laying their eggs in cooler places.
These kinds of behavioral studies are crucial for understanding the risks posed to animals due to climate change. For many reptiles, embryos are trapped in their nests for several months until they are ready to hatch. As temperatures increase, these nests may become too hot, and natural selection will favor females than can choose deeper or shadier nests for their babies. Mike is doing an excellent field work. Hopefully, he will find that lizards are choosing nest sites wisely.
Field studies like this one are critical for understanding whether animals can adjust successfully to changing climates. Carlo has the experience required to pull off the work and the data will directly inform efforts to build populations growth models. A worthy project to support!

Meet the Team

Michael Carlo
Michael Carlo
PhD student; National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow


Clemson University
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Michael Carlo

I got my start in research at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Since UMW is a small liberal arts college with a strong biology program, I got the opportunity to work closely with my mentors there, learning first-hand laboratory and research skills. By the time I graduated, I was able to publish an honors thesis on methods to measure stress in wild bird populations based on two years of research with my advisors, Dr. Andrew Dolby and Dr. Deborah O'Dell.

I am now a PhD student in Dr. Mike Sears' lab at Clemson University where I work in the field of "thermal ecology," studying how changing temperatures affect the survival, growth, and reproduction of different organisms. For my PhD research, I am working with a North American species of lizard called the Eastern fence lizard to (1) examine how organisms at different life stages may respond to climate warming through changes in their physiology and behavior, and (2) estimate the potential for adaptation in response to climate change.

Additional Information

We very much appreciate any and all support for this project. We will be posting lab notes and updates throughout the course of this project, even after the fundraising period is over. As an additional incentive, we'd like to offer the following bonuses to particularly generous backers:

$20 or more: You will become a member of our "Adopt a Lizard" program. Thanks to your contribution, we will be able to track nesting behavior and keep track of the lizards that hatch from the nests we find. So at the end of the summer, you will receive a "birth announcement" including information about and photo(s) of a hatchling fence lizard.

$50 or more: You will also receive a personalized video message from us and the lizards out here in the field, thanking you for your support and demonstrating some of the things we do out here.

$100 or more: You will also receive a limited edition t-shirt designed by one of our fellow Clemson student researchers. It will feature a unique design based on the fence lizard research we are doing, and it will acknowledge your contribution to science!

Project Backers

  • 13Backers
  • 100%Funded
  • $2,004Total Donations
  • $154.15Average Donation
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