Italian wall lizards thriving in New York, now headed to Connecticut

August 30, 2016, 10:55 a.m.
Italian Wall Lizard
Photo: MattiaATH/Shutterstock

Thanks to humans, countless species have been moved either accidentally or on purpose from their original habitats to other parts of the world. When faced with this new living situation, some species die off quickly while others thrive. How do some species adapt and thrive, even when their new ecosystem is quite different from their place of origin? And how quickly do these adaptations take place?

This is the question being studied by biologist Colin Donihue at Harvard University about the Italian wall lizard. The tiny reptilian species is from warm and sunny Tuscany, but introduced populations are currently thriving in a decidedly colder area of the northeast United States — and they're making their way farther north. What adaptations allow this 4-inch-long lizard to become perfectly content in a colder climate than that in which it evolved?

“Around New York City, the lizards have been found in at least four of the five boroughs, reports the New York Times. “[Donihue’s] study of their movement into Greenwich, Conn., was reported last month by Peregrine Frissell in The Hour, a local newspaper. Dr. Donihue hopes to track the lizards, though he has yet to find any tags that fit. He wants to find out how far north they can move, and what they do to survive winters much colder than in their native range.”

The lizards have only been introduced to the northeast for about 40 or 50 years, so are adapting to the colder climate quickly on an evolutionary scale.

“It’s a body plan that has been around for hundreds of millions of years,” Donihue told the New York Times. “That’s the cool part of this story. We have this historical perspective that evolution is one of these processes that takes a really, really long time. But we’re also finding that evolutionary changes can take place over a few generations.”

By answering the question of adaptability for the Italian wall lizard, Donihue may shed more light on how some species manage to evolve rapidly to cope with suddenly new environments.