Impacts of Hurricane Events on the Evolution of a Diverse Genus of Neotropical Lizards

2021 Faculty Research Award

Award Period: 2021-2023

Princeton professor Shane Campbell-Staton and Brown University postdoctoral fellow Colin Donihue will work toward a clearer understanding of how the destructive power of hurricanes can influence evolution through natural selection. In 2017, surveys of the common tree lizard Anolis scriptus before and after Hurricanes Irma and Maria found that surviving individuals exhibited relatively larger adhesive toepads, as well as longer fore-limbs and shorter hindlimbs. A follow-up study found that these traits had been passed on to the next generation. This project will draw on Donihue’s research demonstrating that Anolis toepad area positively correlates with hurricane activity to test whether adaptive physical traits provide an advantage in withstanding hurricane-force winds. They will measure 22 physical traits in 500 individuals each from three species of Anolis, then place those individuals into a high-speed wind tunnel to test clinging performance. The researchers will then analyze tissue samples from each lizard to identify the regions of the Anolis genome that possibly determine hurricane-resilient traits, and investigate whether these loci show predictable patterns of selection in response to extreme weather events.

The common tree lizard Anolis scriptus. (Photo by Colin Donihue, Brown University)

Educational Impact

This project will provide undergraduates with an opportunity to engage in integrative biological experimentation in support of their junior and senior independent research, while also facilitating the collaborative collection of data and the building of a specialized toolkit. Undergraduates in the Campbell-Staton Group at Princeton also will be expected to participate in semester-long discussions related to evolution in the Anthropocene during weekly lab meetings.

Future Directions

The results of this project could provide a powerful toolkit for understanding the lasting biological impacts of hurricanes and extreme weather events. These data will help to establish Anolis as a model system for exploring the mechanisms of biological response in the Neotropics. The project also could provide essential data for future grant proposals to the Division of Environmental Biology at the National Science Foundation.

Anolis scriptus in experimental wind tunnel. (Photo by Colin Donihue, Brown University)

Participating Departments

Collaborating Institutions


Assistant Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Additional Researchers

Institute at Brown for Environment and Society