How Dr. Doom Beat Extinction Anxiety

UC Santa Cruz biologist Barry Sinervo’s groundbreaking lizard extinction research could predict the wrath of climate change—if he lives to complete it.

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — In three refrigerated closets set to precisely 15, 18 and 21 degrees Celsius, Barry Sinervo is using several dozen salamanders assembled in small plastic tubs to predict the future.

On one metal shelf is a contingent of surreal-looking “Mexican walking fish,” called axolotls, which have nearly vanished from the Mexico City canals forged by the Aztecs. There are also endangered Santa Cruz long-toed salamanders, and a black-and-red-spotted species native to the Sierra Nevadas.

“These are going extinct,” Sinervo says as he wrangles a lanky giant salamander. The cast of creatures changes often at the lab in UCSC’s coastal biology building, but the goal stays the same. “We gotta save them,” Sinervo says.

After more than three decades of tracking adaptations and extinctions, Sinervo is using the data he’s gathered on reptiles and amphibians to hone universal formulas that may also be able to predict extinctions for birds, fish and mammals.

But he also has a secret to avoid the cynicism and depression that might accompany his line of work: It gets easier after you come face to face with your own demise.

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