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Dogs help researchers track down lizard poop

Researchers worry global warming will push the blunt-nosed leopard lizard to the brink of extinction.

By Brooks Hays

Jan. 31 (UPI) -- In an effort to understand the plight of the blunt-nosed leopard lizards, Gambelia sila, an endangered species native to California, researcher Alex Filazzola recruited the help of dogs -- scat-sniffing dogs.

The dogs helped Filazzola, a biology PhD student at York University in Canada, find and document blunt-nosed leopard lizard feces, revealing the endangered species' preferred hangouts. Filazzola and his colleagues recognized an association between the lizard and a local desert shrub, inspiring the research team to geotag 700 Ephedra californica shrubs in California's San Joaquin Valley.

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The scientists hunted lizard scat for two years, in 2013 and 2014. In 2014, the region suffered an extreme drought. The prolonged period of heat and lack of rain corresponded with an uptick in the concentration of scat found beneath the California ephedra shrubs, sometimes called desert tea.

The findings -- detailed in the journal Basic and Applied Ecology -- suggest the lizards are increasingly reliant on the shelter and shade provided by the dense canopy of the shrubs.

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"As the climate warms and lizards find it more difficult to regulate their body temperatures in the heat, these findings could help preserve them not only in California, but globally," Filazzola said in a news release. "It demonstrates how much animals rely on plants for survival that goes beyond that of simply eating them. Positive plant-animal interactions could further support animal populations that are already threatened."

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Land-use changes have led to a severe decline in the population of blunt-nosed leopard lizards, and conservation efforts have done little to slow the rate of disappearance. Researchers worry global warming will push the species to the brink of extinction.

Filazzola thinks ramping up the protection of desert tea could help save the lizard.

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"Planting shrubs, such as the Ephedra californica, could prove critical in managing and preserving endangered species in high-stress or arid ecosystems, such as a desert," he said. "Continuing to remove these shrubs to install solar panels, however, further endangers this species."

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