Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid

We know that climate change is having a devastating impact on our planet: rising sea levels, more intense forest fires, more frequent and more powerful storms. We also know that many plant and animal species are going extinct or suffering population collapse. But other species seem to be adapting, and even thriving as the Earth warms. Why is this happening, and how?

That’s what Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid: The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change is all about.

Author and conservation biologist Thor Hanson looks at the biology of climate change to answer three important questions:

  1. What challenges does climate change create for plants and animals?
  2. How do they respond to these challenges?
  3. What can we predict about their future and ours from these responses?

Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid is a fascinating on-the-ground report about how plants and animals are dealing with climate change. It’s a useful perspective because:

“… while people may have spent the past thirty years struggling to even think about a response, every other species on the planet has simply been getting on with it.” [p. xv]

Cover of Hurricane Lizards an Plastic Squid

Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid:
The Fraught and Fascinating Biology of Climate Change

By Thor Hansen
Basic Books, New York, 2021

So what exactly has every other species been doing?

As Hanson puts it, they have three choices: move, adapt, or die.

Many species are moving, or “range shifting.” As the world warms, there’s a general trend all over the planet for species to move to higher latitudes and higher altitudes. In other words, they’re moving towards the poles and up the slopes seeking cooler temperatures. Hanson gives lots of examples, like the brown pelican moving up the Pacific coast, extending its range from Mexico and California into Oregon and southern Washington.

As many places dry out, there’s another trend for species to move to moister locations. Some oak and maple species in North America, for example, are moving north and west. Not literally of course, they’re not Ents. But as older individuals die off, their seeds are finding better conditions for germinating – cooler to the north and moister to the west – carried by squirrels, jays and owls who are themselves migrating to more hospitable locations. It’s amazing to think of whole forests moving over time.

The challenge from these population movements is that newcomers can out-compete existing local species for food or nesting sites. Or the incumbents may lack natural defenses against the invaders. The mountain pine beetle, for example, has invaded and destroyed huge portions of British Columbia’s lodgepole pine forests because the cold winters which used to kill off most of the beetles aren’t so cold anymore.

Some species are adapting and even evolving in response to climate change. Hanson describes how bears on Kodiak Island in Alaska have begun eating more berries as salmon populations in the island’s rivers have declined. He predicts this will have side effects on the island’s forests too, as the bears leave fewer nitrogen-rich fish bones to decompose on the forest floor.

What’s the connection? Trees shade the rivers and streams to help keep the water cool; salmon spawn in the cool water; bears feast on the salmon and leave their bones to provide nutrients for the trees that keep the water cool. What a beautiful cycle! I hope it lasts.

Here’s an example of evolution in response to climate change. Hurricanes have become more frequent in the Caribbean. On some islands, lizards with larger toe pads grip onto trees and shrubs more effectively making them more likely to survive the storms. These hurricane lizards are becoming more dominant in the population.

The examples illustrate one of Hanson’s larger points: climate change favors species that are generalists and those with more adaptability or plasticity. Specialists that depend on very specific conditions or food sources, like coral reef polyps, are especially vulnerable to changing conditions.

A Blue Jay carrying several acorns in its mouth.
“Jays Airlifting the Oaks”
Source: Pennsylvania eBird,

His overall message is cautiously hopeful. Our world is not static. Its geology, climate and environment are constantly evolving. Earth’s paleorecord shows many instances of rapid climate change. But it also shows the resilience of life: some species go extinct, but others survive and evolve with surprising speed.

Of course, this time is different, he says. Anthropogenic climate change is occurring much faster than ever before and it’s happening alongside other human-caused stressors like pollution and habitat loss.

Hanson warns that we humans are also subject to “move, adapt or die.” He reviews some historical examples, but you can see it happening today. Just look at the mass migrations of people out of drought-stricken regions, gradual changes in human behavior like the shift to electric vehicles, and increased climate-driven military and civil conflict such as the Syrian civil war. Climate change might not be the only factor behind these events but it’s certainly a contributing one. Hanson notes that military planners refer to climate change as a “threat multiplier.” I’ve read this idea before, especially in Michael Klare’s book All Hell Breaking Loose: The Pentagon’s Perspective on Climate Change.

So, we need to do everything we can to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Hanson urges us not to be concerned that our individual actions might seem small and insignificant. Small changes are exactly what plants and animals do all the time to adapt and survive. We can too.

I agree with this, but I also think it won’t be enough. We need massive systemic change in the way we work, live, consume and produce. Phasing out coal-fired generating plants, for example, can’t be done by individuals. It has to be done by societies and governments. To be fair, though, this is a topic outside the scope of Hanson’s book.

Unsolicited Feedback

Hurricane Lizards is a well-organized book that’s written in a light, approachable style. There’s a good balance of personal stories, interviews with leading researchers and scientific information. Hanson’s deep curiosity about the natural world and how it’s responding to climate change comes through in his writing. The book never drags.

It also aligns with others I’ve read in the past couple of years and, if anything, Hanson seems a little more optimistic. David Attenborough paints a more devastating picture of biodiversity loss in his book A Life on Our Planet, and Scott Weidensaul shows how habitat loss and climate change are hammering migratory birds in A World on the Wing.

Still, I learned a lot from this book. Hanson looks at how individual species are responding to climate change and uses them to illustrate broader planet-wide trends. While I’ve read about some of his specific examples in other places, the larger picture was new and valuable.

Thanks for reading.

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2 Responses to Hurricane Lizards and Plastic Squid

  1. I love the quote you shared about how much more practical animals have been in their response to climate change than humans have! We could definitely learn something there.

    I’m not always the most excited to read about climate change, because it’s depressing and I already generally understand the problem. This sounds like a good one though, with a fresh perspective and a little more optimism 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Harry Katz says:

      Thanks. Yeah, we have a lot to learn from nature.

      I agree they can be depressing but most of them do hold out some hope “if we act now.” Which, very slowly, we are starting to do.


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