How an Indian wind farm is changing the colour of lizards

Not the best idea.
Not the best idea.
Image: Ashwin Kumar/Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
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Renewable energy may be greener than fossil fuels, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect the environment.

In fact, a biodiversity hotspot in India is already beginning to change because of the country’s push towards alternative sources of energy.

In the Western Ghats, a mountain range that stretches across six Indian states along the west coast, wind farms have reduced the abundance and hunting activity of predatory birds like raptors, according to a recent study by researchers from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru.

As a result, they say, wind turbines are creating a “predation-free environment” that is changing the behaviour and even the form of creatures lower down the food chain.

Among the most notable ones in this category is the Sarada Superba or fan-throated lizard.

The males of this species, found only in south Asia, have a flap under their throat that becomes brightly coloured as they reach sexual maturity, and they use this to attract partners.

A fan-throated lizard.
A fan-throated lizard.
Image: Krishna Khan/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

The site that the researchers studied was the Chalkewadi plateau in Satara district, near the Sahyadri Tiger Reserve and Koyna Wildlife Sanctuary in the state of Maharashtra. This plateau has had one of the largest and longest-running wind farms in the region. In their study, published earlier this week in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the researchers compared the site to other protected forest areas in the neighbourhood.

“The reason we picked this area is that the lizards that we studied are actually the most dominant prey in that landscape…And so we expected if there was going to be any change from having removed raptors, those lizards would experience a change. And that’s what we found,” Maria Thaker, co-author of the study and an assistant professor at IISc, told Quartz.

Lizard density was higher in areas with wind turbines, and these lizards demonstrated a reduced tendency to escape when they were approached, suggesting that they were getting used to an environment with fewer predators.

The decrease in predatory attacks has resulted in the species thriving in the area, which, in turn, could lead to increased competition for food. Thaker and her team found that male lizards near wind turbines were less intensely coloured than their counterparts from elsewhere, possibly because of the limited availability of beetles, which are among the lizards’ favourite foods and rich in carotenoids that help in pigmentation. The change in colouring, the researchers argue, could have consequences for sexual selection.

While the long-term ramification of all this is yet unknown, Thaker says, in theory, there could be a cascading effect at the insect and plant levels lower down in the food chain.

This is one of the less-talked-about results of India’s move to produce more renewable energy, which has accelerated under the Narendra Modi-led government. The government has set an ambitious target of 175 GW of renewable energy capacity by 2022. This includes 60 GW from wind energy, which has fueled the rise of wind farm infrastructure across India, including along the Western Ghats, a UNESCO world heritage site that is believed to host at least 325 threatened species of flora, fauna, birds, and reptiles.

While the study is focused on just one plateau, the environmental risks of wind farm infrastructure have been documented around the world, especially with regard to a diminishing of birds in the vicinity of large turbines. And even in India, the spread of renewable energy plants has already been found to dramatically affect the population of the endangered Great Indian Bustard in its last remaining habitat in Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Maharashtra.

But Thaker says these results don’t mean India needs to give up on wind energy.

“In the choice between wind turbines and fossil fuels, it’s always wind turbines,” she explained. “Let’s just be smart about where we put them. Don’t put them in areas that are unique or special or biodiverse, because we’ll regret it if those places change.”

Wind turbines should be placed atop buildings or in areas that are already irreversibly damaged by human activity, she suggests, instead of within India’s pristine forests.

Feature image by Ashwin Kumar on Flickr, licenced under CC BY-SA 2.0. Inline image by Krishna Khan on Wikimedia Commons, licenced under CC BY-SA 4.0.