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Lizard Vision

Groundbreaking lizard extinction research could predict the wrath of climate change—and what to do about it

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In three refrigerated closets set to precisely 15, 18 and 21 degrees Celsius, Barry Sinervo is using several dozen salamanders assembled in small plastic tubs to predict the future.

On one metal shelf is a contingent of surreal-looking “Mexican walking fish” called axolotls—a nearly-vanished species from the Mexico City canals forged by the Aztecs. Other shelves hold endangered Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders and a black-and-red-spotted species native to the Sierra Nevadas.

“These are going extinct,” Sinervo says as he wrangles a lanky giant salamander. The cast of creatures changes often at the lab in UC Santa Cruz’s coastal biology building, but the goal stays the same.

“We gotta save them,” Sinervo says.

The focus on amphibians—in particular Sinervo’s first passion, lizards—may seem niche within the wide world of evolutionary biology, but scientists find them an excellent proxy for the physical and social changes climate change spurs in all kinds of species. Sinervo uses the data he gathered over three-plus decades of tracking extinctions and adaptations to hone universal formulas that may also predict extinctions for birds, fish and mammals.

“In a funny way, I’m the Nostradamus of biodiversity,” says Sinervo, a trained mathematician and herpetologist (a biologist who specializes in reptiles and amphibians). “We can prove the sixth mass extinction is happening now.”

The affable 58-year-old, whose office door says “Dr. Lizardo,” has a remarkably sunny demeanor for someone who made a career out of predicting environmental catastrophes. He credits his upbringing in Ontario’s rugged Thunder Bay region with instilling an early appreciation for nature’s quirks. “I had iguanas as a kid, and I hunted snakes,” Sinervo says. “You know the mating balls that males end up in, where you get a male copulating a male? That was my sex education.”

Eccentric humor and northern humility lend Sinervo the ability to get away with things many academics can’t, like referencing his own TED Talk without sounding pretentious. In that 2015 talk, he recounted how around 2001 he first noticed European lizards disappearing from their usual habitats. He and his colleagues soon found similar extinctions all around the world, pointing to a new era of mass extinction with die-offs comparable to the last Ice Age. Except this time, it’s happening much faster.

“Biological annihilation,” or an “assault on the foundations of human civilisation” are how recent reports describe the current era of biodiversity loss, which some researchers call the “anthropocene.” Gerardo Ceballos, of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, led a 2017 study that tracked habitat loss for 27,500 land-dwelling species. He told the Guardian, “The situation has become so bad it would not be ethical not to use strong language.”

At their home on the Central Coast, Sinervo and his wife noticed species such as the northern alligator lizard—unique for giving birth to live young rather than laying eggs—disappear from their backyard. The same emissions-driven temperature increases causing habitats to go haywire also accelerate sea-level rise in coastal communities, which are beginning to grapple with how to protect billions of dollars worth of seaside real estate threatened by higher tides and more frequent extreme weather.

“We really have a train wreck coming,” says Gary Griggs, a coastal geologist and author who helped write recent state climate assessments with Sinervo. “Well, there are a couple train wrecks.”

From the California coastline to the mountains of Central Mexico to the Amazon rainforest and the Kalahari desert; Sinervo now reliably predicts death and destruction everywhere he goes.

But he also has a secret which helps him avoid the cynicism and depression that might accompany his line of work: It gets easier after you come face to face with your own demise.

Heat Rising

Sinervo was aware of the conversation about climate change as far back as the late 1980s, while studying at the University of Washington. Back then, it was a theoretical conversation. If people didn’t take action to curb carbon emissions causing global temperatures to spike, the thinking at the time went, it was likely more species would start to disappear.

Sinervo’s frequent research collaborator Donald Miles, a fellow lizard expert and professor at Ohio University, remembers a “small but dedicated” group of ecologists and biologists sounding the alarm about climate change around the time he started working with Sinervo in 1993. Sinervo was always funny and enthusiastic, Miles remembers, but he was intense, working long hours and building a reputation as a prolific publisher in scientific journals. Sinervo made a name for himself as a doctoral student and was hired by UCSC, after he discovered what he describes as a naturally occurring game of rock-paper-scissors near a research site in Los Banos. For male side-blotched lizards that come in three colors—orange, blue or yellow—he established that each group’s character traits keep the three populations in equilibrium. The orange lizards’ blatant aggression beats the smaller blue lizards, using brute force to win more mating partners. But the yellow lizards can trick the macho orange lizards by imitating females to sneak in and find more mates. Blue can still trump yellow, though, since they’re monogamous and thus more vigilant in protecting mating partners.

The “roshambo” research, as Sinervo calls it, was one of what would become many examples of how lizard evolution can shed light on an issue that confounds humans.

“A lot of people struggle with teaching gender,” Sinervo says. “With the lizards, you can kind of begin to grapple with all that. They’re not just male and female.”

In the process, Sinervo also established his street cred with fellow herpetologists.

By 2007, Sinervo and Miles had worked together enough that the UCSC professor sent a grad student with Miles to Mexico on a supposedly routine research trip. Following the directions of Mexican colleague Fausto Roberto Méndez de la Cruz, the duo headed to a reliable site east of Mexico City. But they couldn’t find the lizards there, nor in several surrounding areas. They called for reinforcements.

“There were five people looking for lizards, and we didn’t find any of the species,” Miles recalls. “Maybe it’s climate change,” he told Méndez de la Cruz.

In the following months, Sinervo made similar extinction discoveries in the Yucatán, and by 2010, a team of more than two-dozen researchers on several continents expanded the findings into a landmark article published in the journal Science under the title “Erosion of Lizard Diversity by Climate Change and Altered Thermal Niches.” In layman’s terms, the researchers connected the dots between extinctions by proving climate change was the common link.

“Then we knew it was global,” Sinervo says. “Other people had published extinctions that seemed enigmatic, but we could explain them all around the world.”

Professionally, things were better than they’d ever been. Within a few years, hundreds of other researchers cited the paper, and Sinervo attracted new funding from groups like the National Science Foundation to train hundreds of graduate students in the field. In 2014, he received a $1.9 million grant from the University of California Office of the President to create an Institute for the Study of Ecological and Evolutionary Climate Impacts. The following year, Sinervo returned from a whirlwind 26-country tour of Europe, China, the Amazon and other hotbeds for extinction. As usual, the results were brutal. He struggled to process the constant bad news.

“Oh my god it was so depressing,” he says. “For several years I was thinking, ‘I’m leaving my son with nothing.’”

But today, in his office filled with reminders of doom, Sinervo’s attitude is different. And he pinpoints exactly what changed his mind.

“You know I’ve had cancer, right?” he says.

The Brink

Adenoid cystic carcinoma, or ACC, is a rare form of malignant tissue growth often found in salivary glands of the head and neck. Sinervo knew biology better than almost anyone, and the diagnosis was devastating. The cancer invaded his sinuses and soft palate, requiring a team of Stanford researchers to rebuild his throat.

Still, Sinervo was pragmatic. Not wanting to rack up carbon emissions driving to Stanford twice a week, he took the bus from Santa Cruz to a train in San Jose to another bus in Palo Alto, which took about four hours round trip. He still grew lettuce in his backyard for vegetarian meals and insisted he and his family reuse old iPhones. Over time, his perspective shifted.

“As I normalized my fight with cancer and realized maybe I’ll be able to overcome it, I did that in parallel with my fight against climate change,” Sinervo says.

The best way he can describe it is by comparing it to overcoming post-traumatic stress. Virtually everyone is likely to encounter cancer in some way—if not personally, then through someone they know.

“Everybody will be touched by it, and we do everything we can,” he says. “Climate change is like that. It will affect everybody on the planet personally.” Sinervo points to examples such as mountainous areas of El Salvador and Guatemala being ravaged by drought and intense heat, making it impossible to grow food there, and contributing to the migration crisis on the southern U.S. border. And, California now experiences more frequent deadly wildfires fueled by hotter, drier conditions.

Sinervo is also wading deeper into public policy discussions about reforestation, habitat preservation and other ways to potentially reverse the impacts of climate change. At the same time, his colleagues watching the shoreline warn it’s time to talk about a point of no return with regards to the erosion threatening coastal homes and infrastructure.

Griggs is part of a team of engineers, economists and geologists hired by the city of Santa Cruz to put together a plan for what to do about oceanfront West Cliff Drive and its recurring sinkholes. At the county level, a first-of-its kind coastal armoring program is being discussed to set new rules for building seawalls, which studies show will likely erode public beaches and impact surf breaks. The alternative is retreating from coastal property—a prospect that could require buyout programs or changes in how climate risk is priced into homeowner’s insurance.

“When do we pull the plug? It’s going to be different for the public infrastructure than private residences,” Griggs says. “Every decision that gets made is going to have a huge impact on all these other parts of the puzzle.”

In the process, Griggs says, it’s entirely possible scientists like Sinervo will find themselves at odds over habitat conservation with property owners inclined to dig in their heels and protect their homes or investments. That’s to be expected, Sinervo says.

“We will need government to impose all these things,“ he says. “This is not a moral call. Some people are just more selfish than others, and they won’t do it. Others will.”

“I work on the equations for why we behave the way we behave, and I understand it. It’s the way we evolved.”

Sinervo worked all the way up until his surgery at Stanford in 2017, when Miles was at the hospital with his wife, who is a psychotherapist. While Sinervo underwent radiation therapy, he began work on another paper.

“Barry is not the person who gives up,” Miles says. New Normal

In January, Sinervo made it to the last destination on the worldwide extinction tour he started before his cancer diagnosis. The findings were brutal. Sinervo’s equation had successfully predicted a 60,000-square-mile extinction zone in the Kalahari desert in Southern Africa.

“That one’s mind-blowing,” he says, scrolling through heat maps on his laptop at UCSC. “This is scary shit. I get afraid sometimes of my own work.” Sinervo is different now than he was before his battle with cancer. In his 2015 TED Talk, he came across as a quintessential dad-academic in khakis and a lime-green button up. He spoke in a measured tone, and occasionally peppered in PG-rated phrases like, “The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” This spring, he took it up a notch with a stand-up cameo in comedian Shane Mauss’ science-themed show at DNA’s Comedy Lab in downtown Santa Cruz.

“I’m going to try to inject a little levity into this. Not much,” Sinervo quipped in a voice that, post-surgery, has taken on a more nasally, slightly artificial quality. “We’re talking about a fucking mass extinction.”

Sinervo’s curly brown hair is now gray, lending him a mad scientist vibe that’s amplified when he wears goggles to protect his left eye, which has remained closed since the surgery. It all fits when you walk into his small, second-floor office and see a series of incomprehensible equations scribbled on a white board—Sinervo’s working formulas to predict extinction anywhere in the world.

“I’m trying to make it as simple as possible,” he says of the horseshoes and commas and other symbols that denote variables like population growth and species interactions.

A natural teacher happy to explain any of his dozens of papers, there’s just one type of question that visibly irritates Sinervo, and that’s whether this issue can be dealt with, as many climate-change skeptics suggest, 20 years from now, or maybe 50? After 2100?

“It’s now. That’s what my work is showing,” Sinervo says. “It’s now. It’s now.”

The combination of Sinervo’s unique style and his research credentials have attracted a new generation of climate-conscious acolytes to the lab at UCSC.

“Barry is sort of like the climate change guru when it comes to lizards,” says Pauline Blaimont, a 28-year-old recent grad of UCSC’s evolutionary biology doctoral program. With Sinervo’s help, she spent several summers studying how lizards in the Pyrenees mountains are (or aren’t) adapting to hotter conditions.

Blaimont, from Southern California, has always been into animals. Lizards are perfect for studying climate change, she says, since they’re exothermic, regulating body temperature by directly basking in the sun. When it’s too hot, they spend more time in the shade—allowing less time to hunt insects—and see reduced levels of physical activity until they ultimately must migrate or face extinction. Since they’re low on the food chain, what happens to lizards also has ripple effects for the birds, snakes and mammals that eat them.

Like Sinervo, Blaimont says research has bled into her personal life. She and her partner do Meatless Mondays, and she’s distilled her advice to others into one directive: “Reduce, reuse, recycle, but in that order.” Students in Sinervo’s lab currently study on-the-ground adaptations to climate change, like how “moms reprogram their babies for the future” by passing on altered hormones or genes.

Sinervo, who is currently most enthusiastic about reforesting the Amazon, acknowledges his efforts to “normalize” extinction through comedy, social media and other channels is “more on the edge” in the world of buttoned-up climate scientists. It makes sense, since his research has always been kind of unusual.

Miles, his collaborator, says looking at the bright side is the only real option. Reached while on a research trip in France during another intense heat wave last month, he was enthusiastic about Germany’s efforts to cut coal-fired electricity and ramp up renewable energy. In the U.S., a wave of young, insurgent left-wing politicians are also raising the profile of a “New Green Deal” or similar drastic shift away from fossil fuels.

“Species can recover,” Miles says.

Sinervo harkens back to his first job as a lumberjack cutting down trees in Canada with his brothers (one of whom, Pekka, is also a first-generation college graduate and physicist who studies the Higgs boson, or “God particle,” often described as a fundamental building block of the universe). He remembers a day when he was 16 and had to cut down an old-growth balsam tree. He started to consider the equilibrium between nature and human livelihood. “I went, ‘Wow, I’m gonna change things when I get older,’” Sinervo says.

Susan Landry contributed to this story.

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