Lizards, Leaf Blowers, and the Value of Basic Research

The benefits of basic research experiments aren’t always obvious, but that shouldn’t diminish their importance.

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  • Photos from a study of lizards in hurricane conditions went viral, and prompted the question, how does this help people?

    Visual: Colin Donihue

Earlier this year, Harvard University biologist Colin Donihue and his collaborators published an attention-grabbing study about the anole lizards of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The scientists brought several of the creatures into the lab, perched them on small wooden poles, and then blasted them with a leaf blower. As the wind velocities ratcheted up to hurricane speeds, the lizards didn’t flee. Rather, they moved to the lee of the pole — the side facing away from the wind — and hung on until the strengthening gale blew them off their perches. The windswept lizards landed safely in a net and were eventually released back into the wild.

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The study attracted a lot of media attention, some of which poked fun at the images and videos of the little lizards hanging on to the wooden poles, their hind legs and tails flapping in the wind. The stories caused a coworker of mine, a fellow pharmacist, to ask, why do scientists even do research like this? What’s the point?

“How does it help people?” she asked.

I hear that question a lot. I’m a hospital pharmacist, and, as such, I work in the world of applied science, where the fruits of scientific research are used to directly benefit people. But I also teach college biology and occasionally work on research projects. So, I also work in the world of theoretical ideas and basic scientific research. (I previously assisted with a project in the lab of Jonathan Losos, a coauthor of the leaf blower paper.)

To people outside of academia, basic research can seem bereft of purpose, of no benefit to humanity. Scientists often find themselves having to defend the value of their research, both to the public and to funding agencies. But even if basic research doesn’t help people directly, it can help answer important questions about how the world around us works — questions about ecology, animal behavior, evolution, and more.

Take the leaf blower experiment. Donihue said in an email that, first and foremost, the project was a behavioral experiment aimed at ascertaining how lizards respond to hurricane force winds. “We didn’t know what the lizards did during the storms because it’s too dangerous to have researchers outside during the hurricanes,” he explained. “We wanted to know if the lizard hung on to the perch or if it fled.”

Donihue and his coworkers found that not only did the lizards hang on, they behaved in a way that suggested they were familiar with weathering wind storms; they positioned themselves at the lee of the perch, for example. Based on those findings alone, Donihue characterized the experiment as “a success on all counts.”

But the Harvard biologist was also interested in the bigger question of how hurricanes might affect the lizard’s evolution. After Hurricane Irma swept across Turks and Caicos in 2017, he and his colleagues observed that the surviving anoles had longer forelimbs, shorter hindlimbs and bigger toe pads, on average, than the overall population that was present before the hurricane. The scientists speculated that these body characteristics might have helped the lizards survive. If so, hurricanes might act as a force that drives natural selection and shapes the lizards’ evolutionary path.

The leaf blower experiment helped shed light on that question. Had the lizards fled their perches at the first hints of strong winds, there would have been little reason to suspect that body shape — or morphology, as biologists call it — played a role in the lizards’ survival. That the lizards clung on, however, suggests a possible explanation for the morphological changes Donihue and company observed in Irma’s wake: Longer forelimbs and bigger toe pads might improve a lizard’s grip, while smaller hindlegs could reduce the wind drag on the lizard’s flailing back end. Lizards lacking those physical attributes might have been at higher risk of being blown into the Atlantic Ocean.

Donihue predicts that, as hurricanes become stronger and more frequent, his team’s findings could have important consequences. “These lizards are linchpins in this ecosystem, providing food to bigger predators, and eating massive quantities of insects,” he said. “If hurricanes change the ecological balance by redirecting the evolutionary trajectory of populations, then this could have implications for the structure and function of these ecosystems.”

James Hanken, a professor of biology and director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, who was not involved in the lizard leaf blower study, thinks that, in light of human-mediated climate change — and especially global warming — basic research in areas like ecology and evolution have a direct benefit to humanity.

“Basically, it’s ecologists and evolutionary biologists who are telling us the short- and long-term impacts of climate change on Earth’s living environments, which basically are the support systems for human society,” said Hanken. “Thus, even if one only cares about humans and couldn’t care less about any other living organisms, you should still pay attention to ecologists and evolutionary biologists and support their work.”

A case in point is the ongoing research of Richard Primack, a plant ecologist and conservation biologist at Boston University, who has been studying the effects of climate change in the Walden Pond area of Concord, Massachusetts. Primack has compared his own observations of flowering times, spring bird arrival times, plant biodiversity, and other ecological markers to those that Henry David Thoreau recorded in the same area in the 1800s.

Primack said in an email that his research benefits people by connecting Thoreau’s familiar writings about Walden Pond to the modern issue of climate change. He said it helps people to understand that the environmental, social, and philosophical issues that Thoreau wrote about in Walden are still applicable to today’s discussion of climate change.

Primack adds that, on a more practical level, “our research provides definitive evidence that a warming climate is causing wildflowers to flower earlier in the spring and trees to leaf out earlier in the spring, and is contributing to the loss of plant species from Concord.” Although he noted that early flowering of wildflowers is not bad in and of itself, he thinks the research foreshadows more serious consequences of climate change to come, including coastal flooding, heat waves, and the extinction of endangered species.

Dr. Sanjat Kanjilal, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and associate medical director of the clinical microbiology laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in an email that investigating the basic biology, ecology, and evolution of plants, fungi, and animals is valuable on multiple levels. He said that basic research has had many direct and measurable impacts on human health and, “off the top of his head,” he noted a few success stories: new medicinal compounds, deeper understanding of disease transmission, better remediation of environmental toxins, improved ability to recover from human-made and natural disasters, and greater sustainability in agriculture. But he believes that the indirect impacts of basic research are much greater. “The fact that it is impossible to measure with our rudimentary metrics, does not in any way diminish its value,” he said.

“It makes me sad to think that people could view anything not directly related to human health as somehow irrelevant,” Kanjilal added. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Perhaps Donihue said it best: “Part of the reason we do science is to better understand the world around us. Only through that better understanding can we make inferences that directly affect humans.”

Don Lyman is a freelance science journalist, biologist, and hospital pharmacist. He has been published in the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Southwest Airlines Magazine, High Country News, earthislandjournal.orgthemorningnews.com, Talking Writing, and elsewhere. He also does freelance audio segments for the Living On Earth environmental radio program on National Public Radio.

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