These lizards use built-in 'scuba gear' to breathe underwater
Semi-aquatic anole lizards, found across the Americas, can breathe underwater for up to 18 minutes thanks to a bubble on their snouts.
There in the remote northern mountains of the island is a critically endangered species of anole calledAnolis eugenegrahami. Mahler, who was studying the rare subgroup, happened upon rebreathing when he gently tossed a specimen back into a clear, shallow section of the brook.
Fast forward to 2016, and a student of his at the time, Chris Boccia—the lead researcher of the project—went on a trip to Costa Rica to observe a distant relative of the Haitian lizard. Mahler asked him to keep an eye out for any sign of rebreathing. Sure enough, when dunked in water, Boccia saw the neighboring four-legged counterpart use a reservoir of air to stay submerged.Read more: Popular Science »
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at the University of Toronto whose lab led the project, said he first noticed this phenomenon fortuitously while on a 2009 trip to Haiti. There in the remote northern mountains of the island is a critically endangered species of anole called Anolis eugenegrahami . Mahler, who was studying the rare subgroup, happened upon rebreathing when he gently tossed a specimen back into a clear, shallow section of the brook. Fast forward to 2016, and a student of his at the time, Chris Boccia—the lead researcher of the project—went on a trip to Costa Rica to observe a distant relative of the Haitian lizard. Mahler asked him to keep an eye out for any sign of rebreathing. Sure enough, when dunked in water, Boccia saw the neighboring four-legged counterpart use a reservoir of air to stay submerged. [Related: Green bones, green hearts, can’t lose: these lizards survive with toxic green blood ] To prove the precariously perched drop of air was helping the lizards breathe, the researchers had to show the bubble’s oxygen saturation depleted over time. To do this, they carefully cradled captured anoles by hand and gently submerged them in tanks of water. Then, they aimed a specialized probe at the air bubble’s center to measure oxygen saturation. “This is when having experience with a group of organisms comes in handy,” says Mahler. He’s been studying anoles for more than 10 years. “You wouldn’t think you would be able to just pick one up and dump it in a bucket, but if you handle them in a relaxed way they get comfortable.” One of the most surprising discoveries of the project was that rebreathing wasn’t distinctive to the diving reptilians—it was universal in all anoles the study observed, including species not found near streams, and those endemic to Colombia, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Ecuador, and Costa Rica. However, the terrestrial-bound lizards weren’t as skilled when it came to rebreathing. This indicates the trait arose in an ancestral population for some other use, Mahler said, but was then tailored and specialized for those residing by small streams. “[The quicksilver] coating of air we think probably arose for some other purpose unrelated to diving, but has now given [semi-aquatic species of anoles] the ability to exaggerate this rebreathing mechanism into something quite useful,” says Mahler, who believes field-based studies like this are essential in uncovering clues to how adaptive evolution works. [Related: CRISPR turned these lizards into ghosts ] Not only does the discovery provide biologists insight into how evolution operates, but may offer some potential for future applications, Mahler says. Learning more about the surface properties of these underwater-breathing vertebrates’ skin, for example, could lead to new hydrophobic materials or films. But that’s many years away. The next step for Mahler is understanding what causes the anoles’ slinky scales to repel water. He thinks it probably has to do with their structure, but there could be a chemical explanation. “The biggest take home is this is just a pretty cool innovation that vertebrates have come up with that wasn’t really appreciated before,” Mahler says. is an associate editor on Insider 's health reference team and a contributor for Popular Science . Her work covers a wide range of science and health topics including nutrition, public health disparities, mental health, and biology. Grace holds a dual degree in journalism and science in human cultures from Northwestern University with a concentration in the environment, science, and society. Contact the author