Letter | Published:

Hurricane-induced selection on the morphology of an island lizard

Naturevolume 560pages8891 (2018) | Download Citation


Hurricanes are catastrophically destructive. Beyond their toll on human life and livelihoods, hurricanes have tremendous and often long-lasting effects on ecological systems1,2. Despite many examples of mass mortality events following hurricanes3,4,5, hurricane-induced natural selection has not previously been demonstrated. Immediately after we finished a survey of Anolis scriptus—a common, small-bodied lizard found throughout the Turks and Caicos archipelago—our study populations were battered by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Shortly thereafter, we revisited the populations to determine whether morphological traits related to clinging capacity had shifted in the intervening six weeks and found that populations of surviving lizards differed in body size, relative limb length and toepad size from those present before the storm. Our serendipitous study, which to our knowledge is the first to use an immediately before and after comparison6 to investigate selection caused by hurricanes, demonstrates that hurricanes can induce phenotypic change in a population and strongly implicates natural selection as the cause. In the decades ahead, as extreme climate events are predicted to become more intense and prevalent7,8, our understanding of evolutionary dynamics needs to incorporate the effects of these potentially severe selective episodes9,10,11.

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Competing interests: The authors declare no competing interests.

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This work was made possible thanks to the Pine Cay Homeowners Association and the US National Science Foundation. All procedures were approved by the Turks and Caicos DECR (Initial Permit: 17-08-02-14; Revisit Permit: 17-10-01-15) and Harvard University IACUC (26-11). We thank C. Santoro for help in the field and with the manuscript, and members of the Losos laboratory for valuable feedback. A.H. thanks the Caribaea Initiative for promoting science in the Caribbean and facilitating the networking that made the initial Turks and Caicos study possible.

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Nature thanks E. Palkovacs and the other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

Author information


  1. Harvard University, Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology, Cambridge, MA, USA

    • Colin M. Donihue
    •  & Anthony J. Geneva
  2. UMR 7179 CNRS/MNHN, Département Adaptations du Vivant, Paris, France

    • Colin M. Donihue
    • , Anthony Herrel
    •  & Anne-Claire Fabre
  3. Ghent University, Department of Biology, Evolutionary Morphology of Vertebrates, Ghent, Belgium

    • Anthony Herrel
  4. University of Antwerp, Department of Biology, Functional Morphology, Antwerp, Belgium

    • Anthony Herrel
  5. University of California, Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology, Santa Barbara, CA, USA

    • Ambika Kamath
  6. University of California, Department of Evolution and Ecology, Davis, CA, USA

    • Thomas W. Schoener
  7. University of Rhode Island, Department of Biological Sciences, Kingston, RI, USA

    • Jason J. Kolbe
  8. Washington University, Department of Biology, St. Louis, MO, USA

    • Jonathan B. Losos


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C.M.D., A.H., J.J.K. and J.B.L. conceived the study; C.M.D., A.H. and A.-C.F. conducted fieldwork; C.M.D., A.J.G., A.-C.F. and A.K. conducted analyses; C.M.D. and J.B.L. wrote the initial draft of the manuscript; and T.W.S., J.J.K., A.H., A.-C.F., A.J.G. and A.K. all contributed to interpretation of the data and to editing of subsequent drafts of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Colin M. Donihue.

Supplementary information

  1. Supplementary Information

    This file contains: (1) Description of lizard behaviour on a perch in hurricane-force winds; (2) Additional analysis details and results; and (3) Variance estimates.

  2. Reporting Summary

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