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Shrinking skinks: lizard body size declines in a long-term forest fragmentation experiment



Increasing rates of habitat fragmentation globally underscore the importance of understanding the full spectrum of fragmentation’s ecological consequences. Fragmentation alters the thermal environment of fragments, which may alter the body size of ectothermic organisms and in turn impact survival and reproduction.


To determine whether experimental habitat fragmentation alters body size in the heliothermic, ground-dwelling common garden skink (Lampropholis guichenoti).


We use body size data spanning 29 years to experimentally test the prediction that lizards will experience morphological changes in forest fragments but not in non-fragmented controls.


Lizards were smaller in forest fragments relative to those in the non-fragmented controls after the fragmentation treatment was applied. For lizards within forest fragments, the greater the exposure to deforested areas, the greater the decline in body size. This pattern was strongest in the first 5 years following fragmentation and weakened or reversed over time as the pine plantation matrix surrounding the fragments matured. Using sampling site-scale temperature data for the most recent 5 years of the experiment, we show that temperature predicts lizard body size. Our findings are consistent with predictions made under the temperature-size rule that ectotherms will be smaller in fragmented landscapes because of temperature increases at newly created edges.


Our results raise new concerns about the effects of fragmentation on organisms in remnant patches and offer new research priorities, as more evidence is needed to determine the generality of body size declines in fragmented landscapes. Our results also highlight that body size declines, often attributed to climate change, may be amplified by habitat fragmentation, which has been global in its impact.

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We greatly appreciate the technical support and expertise of Dr. Beth Mantle, Nicole Fischer, and Robyn Meier of the Australian National Insect Collection, particularly for their use of the SatScan machine that made this study possible. We also thank Dr. Leo Joseph of the CSIRO Australian National Wildlife Collection for providing us access to the historic skink specimens and to Mr. John Wombey for identifying, aging, and processing skink specimens. The successful translation of the Wog Wog bird data was made possible by the generosity of Mrs. Katherine Nix, who graciously hosted KTT throughout the data entry and validation process. Funding was provided by the National Science Foundation (DEB 0841892 to KFD and BAM; and DEB 1350872 to KFD) and the University of Colorado’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP). Finally, we are grateful to Dr. Deahn Donner, Dr. Craig Moritz, and four reviewers whose comments greatly improved the manuscript. Finally, we are very grateful to Forestry Corportation of NSW and the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service for permission to sample and for continued support for the experiment.

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Correspondence to Kendi F. Davies.

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Tuff, K.T., Glidden, C.K., Melbourne, B.A. et al. Shrinking skinks: lizard body size declines in a long-term forest fragmentation experiment. Landscape Ecol 34, 1395–1409 (2019).

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  • Deforestation
  • Habitat fragmentation
  • Thermal biology
  • Temperature-size rule
  • Temperature
  • Morphometrics
  • Climate change
  • Ectotherms
  • Lampropholis guichenoti
  • Wog Wog