Territoriality: Attempting a One-Two Punch

In my major Ph.D. project, I questioned the idea that territoriality is a good or useful description of Anolis lizards’ mating systems. When I began working on this question, I planned to primarily use an empirical approach, measuring the movement patterns and mating patterns of a population of Anolis sagrei in a way that didn’t depend on territoriality. But anticipating future criticism, I realised that because I’d be working in one population of one species, my empirical work could readily and reasonably be dismissed as an aberration without a broader foundation on which to place it.

This realization led to the historical review in which my Ph.D. advisor Jonathan Losos and I examined the history of research on Anolis territoriality. I’ve written about this historical research quite a bit before, but haven’t said much about the empirical work, leaving the two complementary halves of this project unintegrated. That’s partly been because the empirical work wasn’t published until recently. But it’s also because in contextualizing the problem tackled by the empirical paper, I have to basically recount the whole of the historical review. There really hasn’t been room to talk about both in a single venue, and there still isn’t, but I’m going to tell you a bit more about the empirical paper to balance things out. You’ve heard a little about it before–I wrote field notes about one of the males in this study (interesting addendum: U131 fathered none of the offspring of the females he encountered!) and about a tiny survey of green anoles that we conducted concurrently.

The empirical paper is now published, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B! Here’s an awesome press release about the study from UCSB that will give you the gist of it, but in short what we did was:

  • Catch and mark almost every lizard we saw, and then measure the spatial locations of as many lizards as we could by repeatedly surveying as big an area as we could.
  • Make a map of all the trees within our sampling area.
  • Measure the body size and estimate the population-level growth rate of males
  • Collect a subset of the females, bring them into the lab, and collect the DNA of their offspring.
  • Devise a mathematical approach to estimating encounters between males and females from data on their spatial locations. Combined this with the growth-rate estimate to calculate the size of males at their encounters with females.
  • Use DNA sequencing to figure out the likely fathers of the females’ offspring; we leaned on the estimates of male-female encounters to do so.
  • Use a clever and (I think!) pretty original approach to quantifying sexual selection on body size and movement patterns by comparing the traits of males that encountered females to the traits of the subset of those males that actually fathered offspring.

In sum what we found was that male and female movement patterns spanned larger areas and were more dynamic than many of us had previously imagined, that females encounter multiple potential mates, that at least 60% and possibly up to 80% of females  mate with multiple males, and that sexual selection acts on male body size as well as males’ spatial extent and the timing of male-female encounters. I’ll let you read the press release and the paper itself to learn more about what we found (here it is on BioRxiv, essentially the same paper but freely accessible)!

Viewed together, I hope the historical and empirical papers make a convincing case that we’ve been looking at Anolis mating systems in a limited way for a long time, and that other, newer ways of quantifying mating systems in ways that don’t depend on territoriality can yield both interesting and sensible results. I see this work as opening up an arena of questions, both in Anolis and in other taxa where mating systems have been described in a static way for a long period of time.

I’m very proud of this paper. I remember a phase of grad school when I found it impossible to convince people that this work would turn out interesting, or maybe it was just that my own self-doubt prevented me from seeing others’ interest and support for this research. It remains true that this is one study of one population of one species, and it may well be that I turn out to be all wrong. Perhaps new explorations of Anolis mating systems will eventually lead us back to territoriality. But even if that’s the case, I feel confident that, thanks to this work, we’ll be able to approach that or any description of Anolis mating systems with clearer, more skeptical, and more discerning eyes.

This won’t be the last you’ll be hearing from me on this subject of lizard mating systems; for one, there are responses to our historical review that are in the process of being published, and we’ll have a chance to respond to them. I’m very excited to engage in an actual scientific dispute, and will do my best to do so respectfully and productively, especially since I have on-the-record views about what makes such disputes annoying. But in terms of research, I seem to be heading in other directions, which I think will be related to this work but maybe not directly. So I wanted to make sure that I put down here, all in one place, what I see this project as and what I hope it will achieve. Let me know what you think!

One of our marked lizards for this study. Photo by Jon Suh.

*New Paper*: Flower Size and Shape Evolution Following the Transition to Separate Sexes

The main results of my undergraduate honours thesis are now published (open access) in the American Journal of Botany! A few thoughts about it below, and then, because I wanted an excuse to look through my photos, some pictures from the trip to Baja California with my wonderful undergrad advisors, Jill Miller and Rachel Levin, on which we collected the flowers for this work.

  • Lycium is a genus of poky, shrubby plants in the tomato family (Solanaceae) that’s distributed near-globally, in drier environments. Research on these plants has focussed primarily on their systematics, biogeography, and reproductive systems. Most species in the genus have hermaphroditic flowers, with a genetic way of preventing self-fertilization. But in some species, changes in the genome lead to the breakdown of this genetic mechanism, and this change is accompanied by the evolution of separate sexes. Lycium californicum is particularly interesting, because populations of this monophyletic species can have either hermaphroditic flowers or male and female flowers (see  the companion paper to this one, published last year in Annals of Botany for more details). This lets us examine, in the new paper, how selection may have acted on males and females to change the shape and size of their flowers from the ancestral hermaphroditic condition, using present day hermaphrodites from nearby populations as a close proxy for the hermaphroditic ancestor. IMG_1943
  • To this end, we collected hundreds of flowers, and I spent many hours hunched over a microscope listening to This American Life and measuring tiny floral traits. In making these comparisons, we had to take into account a stark environmental gradient in rainfall and temperature across central Baja California. IMG_1975
  • We found that while these abiotic environmental gradients influenced both overall flower size and shape, flower size dimorphism in L. californicum appeared to arise through selection for larger flowers in males but not smaller flowers in females. Axes of flower shape were related to sex (male/female/hermaphrodite) and sexual system (hermaproditic populations vs. separate sex populations). Working at GN
  • Someday I will use this paper as a jumping off point for writing more about differences between botantists’ and zoologists’ approaches to studying reproduction, and specifically how the people studying plants do a much better job of quantifying both sex and mating systems continuously as opposed to categorically. But those thoughts are still forming…in the meanwhile, check out the paper if you want to learn more details about this study, and here are some picture from fieldwork! This trip is when I learnt to love fish tacos, tidepools, and the West Coast light.









*New Paper*: Ecological Specialization in Individuals and Species of Anolis Lizards

Over at Anole Annals, Travis Ingram has written a really nice summary of my new paper with Jonathan Losos on ecological specialization among individuals within a population and among species within a community of Anolis lizards. I don’t want to add anything here about the science–for that, you can read Travis’ post or the paper itself (email me if you’d like a copy). But I do want to tell you a bit about how this study came into existence.

A male Anolis sagrei from one of the other sites we sampled in 2014

A majority of the data in this paper was collected for an entirely different purpose, namely tracing the movement patterns of individual lizards to test whether they depart from territoriality or not (further details on that project can be found here). To this end, we collected repeated observations of individuals’ locations, but like all good anole biologists, we also measured perch height and diameter at each observation, just because.

2014 was my trial field season for this project, and because I wasn’t yet convinced the project would pan out, we spread our efforts across multiple sites and ideas. About a month in, I realised I’d need to focus intensively on one site to get the requisite data, necessitating a 2015 field season for my main thesis project. At about the same time, postdoc Oriol Lapiedra came down to Gainesville to get his first taste of anole field work, and one evening over dinner, we were talking about whether anything could be salvaged from my 2014 data. Oriol realised that I had inadvertently collected the data to measure individual specialization in habitat use in a species of Anolis, a genus famed for habitat use specialization at higher levels of biological organization. So for the rest of the summer, my field assistants and I scrambled to measure limb and toepad morphology as well as the perches available to each individual, so we could ask if either morphology or habitat explained which perches individuals used.

The moral of this story is, I guess, to be okay with re-evaluating your plans at any point in the field season, and to talk early and often during fieldwork to your colleagues–their outside perspective may recast your seemingly worthless data into an unanticipated paper!

Me, with the people who made data collection for this paper possible–Sofia Prado Irwin, Rachel Moon, Christian Perez, and Oriol Lapiedra.

Quick Update: 2 New Papers and a Blogpost!

golden frogs (hylarana aurantiaca)
Golden Frogs in Agumbe, Karnataka

Hello! It’s been a while since I’ve written anything here, and probably will be a while longer until I write much more, as I’m busy with working towards finishing my Ph.D. But in case someone’s passing by and wondering what I’m up to, here are links to two papers of mine that have become available in the last month:

  • (With Sreekar Rachakonda) Some basic data on the interrelationships between morphology, microhabitat, and calling rates in a Western Ghats Golden Frog, Hyla intermedia [open access link].
  • Understanding variation in throat-fan morphology and display behaviour across Fan-Throated Lizards [link; PDF].

Because the paper on fan-throated lizards was in press before the publication of the new phylogeny of the group, I’ve also just written a post over at Anole Annals discussing my results in light of these lizards’ systematics. Let me know if you have feedback on any of this!

Sitana at Manimutharu, Tamil Nadu.

What Should We Do With Natural History Observations?

With the nostalgia that invariably accompanies year-endings, I’ve been looking over my writing in 2015, trying to pick out the pieces I like best. My personal favourite, by a long distance, is this post I wrote for Anole Annals, titled “Are Brown Anoles in Florida Really Driving Green Anoles to Extinction?” Here’s the first paragraph, just to give you a sense of what it’s about:

Tell almost anyone in Florida that you’re doing research on brown anoles (Anolis sagrei), and they’ll express some distaste for your study organism. “I don’t like them,” they’ll say, “they’re invasive. Aren’t they driving the native green anoles extinct?”* Everyone—literally everyone who has lived in Florida for a whilewill tell you how their backyards used to be full of green anoles (Anolis carolinensis). Today, they report, these green anoles have disappeared and been replaced by the invading browns.

Green anoles are increasingly elusive in Florida.
Green anoles are increasingly elusive in Florida.

The rest of the post goes on to discuss why these “backyard tales” may be unfounded. The main takeaway of the post is that, rather than going extinct, it is possible that green anoles have simply shifted upwards out of sight in many habitats where they co-occur with brown anoles. I present some data from an informal, small-scale mark-recapture study we conducted in 2015, and make inferences from both the number and the sex ratio of the green anoles we caught to suggest that the green anoles in that site, and likely elsewhere, are still around.

Why do I like this post so much? Because it combines data and logic and story telling to challenge a rather prevalent notion, namely the “usual alarmist hysteria [about] green anoles being pushed to extinction” by brown anoles. Because it was born from observing animals in their natural habitats. Because it spurred comments from biologists and non-biologists, plus an accompanying post from Jonathan Losos adding an evolutionary dimension to the argument that green and brown anoles can coexist. But most of all, I like the post because it appears in the one location where people who are interested in this question are most likely to find it—a blog dedicated to the biology of Anolis lizards, a blog that is followed by a large number of professional and amateur Anolis enthusiasts.

That got me thinking about the best thing to do with datasets like the one I wrote about. Could it have been published as a short note in a natural history journal? Possibly, but only after much more effort from me into manuscript preparation and formatting, and months in review, demanding further effort from editors and reviewers. Does a study this small, this tentative, need peer review? Not really, and when published in a place like Anole Annals, readers are free to post comments clarifying or criticizing the methodology and conclusions. Would its reach have been wider, its impact stronger, as a published paper? Almost certainly not. Whether a blog post or a paper, people will reach it via a Google Search. Does any of this make these data inconsequential? No. I know my post is very far from earth-shattering, but it’s a thought-provoking dataset to people who care about Anolis lizards, and in it’s current location and format, it reaches those people efficiently. Of course, Anole Annals didn’t emerge overnight—I know that it’s taken time and effort from many contributers to establish and run—but I suspect that effort pays high dividends.

As a natural history enthusiast, I love the possibilities that a blog like Anole Annals affords for changing how we go about collecting and disseminating the natural history observations that field biologists accrue. But anoles are a special beast—most genera of organisms do not have such an ardent following. Can this model be scaled upwards in any way? I wondered aloud about this on Twitter a while ago, and the consensus was that the Encyclopaedia of Life, or something like it, was our best bet (thanks to Felicity Muth for the suggestion!)

I don’t think I’m suggesting that we do away with natural history journals entirely, because there is certainly a need for more comprehensive and substantial natural history research, for which publication in a journal (and the associated credit it brings) makes sense. But I know that many of us field biologists have far more observations and datasets that don’t get submitted as papers to natural history journals. It seems a shame not to share these at all—if and when I stop studying lizards, I know I’ll miss the chance to talk about my study organisms’ natural history at a venue like Anole Annals.

*Fun aside: the quote isn’t made up; it’s from a conversation with the talented tattoo artist, Rich Mal, from Anthem Tattoo in Gainesville. I recommend that establishment highly, in case you’re interested.

A Week in the Life of U131

When you’re collecting data on the behaviour of individual animals over time, as I am this summer, your observations sometimes feel less like a collection of numbers and more like a collection of personal narratives. Of course, the data are both numbers and narratives, and when it comes time to analyze this collection of datapoints and understand the patterns that emerge from it, the numbers will be all that matter. But in the meanwhile, before I can look the bigger picture, I enjoy considering the individual narratives. And this week, I encountered a lizard whose story illustrates why it’s worth considering these narratives at all.

I first saw U131 last Wednesday, a full two weeks into sampling at my current fieldsite on the University of Florida campus. He appeared on a perch near the edge of the park, which borders a patch of forest. I’m not sure how far he travelled to get to this perch, but within the next day he had travelled a further fifteen metres to arrive at the weirdest section of my fieldsite.


These two logs and three tree trunks have housed at least fifteen different lizards over the last three weeks, including some of the largest males in the site. Why is this weird? It’s weird because the males in this area have shown no sign of excluding one another from the space around them—in other words, they aren’t being territorial. Still, I was skeptical that this already-crowded area could sustain yet another lizard. After all, lizards aren’t supposed to live in the reptilian equivalent of hippie communes.

But U131 seemed determined to grab a spot here. On Thursday, I spotted him locked in fierce battle with U36, a longtime resident of the logs. U36 has the red beads sewn into his tail, while the blur of yellow and black are the beads on U131’s tail.


An hour later, they were still fighting, and it looked like U131 was getting the worse of it.


The fight could have gone either way. While U131 is bigger than U36, which is almost always an advantage in an anole fight, U36 had the advantage of fighting on his home turf. I wasn’t too surprised when I saw, the next day, that U131 had wandered onward to a tree over 30 metres away.

DSCN0168But the logs must hold some allure, because by this afternoon, U131 had made the long journey back, and was busy displaying at another one of the area’s residents.


We’ll see, over the coming months, whether U131 hangs on at the logs or moves elsewhere in the site to encounter and interact with other lizards. By the end of the season, U131 will be just one datapoint among hundreds, an example of a large male who didn’t maintain a territory across the whole breeding season. We’ll know by then if his behaviour is the exception or the norm.

But for now, U131 exemplifies the importance of the individual example. While the aggregate of all the lizards we observe will show us what does happen, a single lizard shows us what can happen. We now know, thanks to just a week of watching U131, that large male brown anoles sometimes move among perches many metres from each other, wandering in a way that we do not expect from territorial lizards. Whether signal or noise, U131’s narrative expands what we know is possible in the world of the brown anole.

A Macabre Start to My Time in Florida

I’m in Gainesville for what I’m anticipating will be my last Ph.D. field season. I’m here to study the movement patterns of brown anoles (Anolis sagrei), trying to understand how their behaviour departs from territoriality to allow for female multiple mating. One of my goals is to observe lizards over a longer period of time than most previous work on anole territorial behaviour, which is why I’m here so early.

But Florida saw an unusual cold spell last week, and it’s still a bit too cold for widespread lizard activity. This morning I saw some evidence that the lizards venturing out in this weather may not be making the wisest of decisions.


I’m not quite certain how this brown anole died, but he did have just a single wound in his abdomen, from which his innards seemed to be spilling out. Maybe pecked by a bird or clawed by a cat (but then why didn’t he get eaten?)? Maybe accidentally squished by a person? Whatever the cause of his demise, this lizard probably couldn’t escape from it quickly enough. I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad omen for the rest of the season, but it’s an interesting one.

It’s worth noting that this is the first time I’ve seen a dead brown anole. Last summer in Gainesville, however, my field assistants and I saw several dead green anoles (Anolis carolinensis), none of whose causes of death were easily discernable. Here are a couple:


Questioning the Narrative of Antisocial Science: Featuring Lizards, Boats, and a Lawyer from Orlando.

There is a lot wrong with how scientists and the “public” perceive one other, and no shortage of commentators lamenting the state of this interaction. Just the other day, a survey showing substantial gaps between the opinions of scientists and non-scientists in the US on crucial issues of science and science policy revealed some real-world consequences of the misperceptions and miscommunications between these two groups of people.

I spend quite a bit of time thinking about widespread stereotypes of scientists, and what troubles me the most is this notion that we scientists are an antisocial bunch, that the best science is the work of lone geniuses toiling away in dark basement laboratories, emerging only to yell “eureka!” This stereotype obscures the complicated, fortuitous, and very human connections upon which science depends. Ask almost any scientist about almost any project he or she has worked on, and I’ll bet they’ll mention something—a chance conversation with a colleague, a collaborator’s unexpected talent, an offhand remark from a family member—that influenced their research. But these somethings that go beyond the staid, linear, and overwhelmingly solitary manner in which science is thought to progress aren’t often mentioned in the stories we tell about science. Would acknowledging the humanness of science help or harm the public’s perception of science? I don’t know, but at least we’d be telling it how it actually is.

Back in 2009, I was in college, looking to become a full-fledged field biologist. The best way to progress along this path is to learn on the job from someone further along than you, so I spent two summers working as a field assistant to a Ph.D. student conducting his dissertation research. This project, led by now-Dr. Yoel Stuart, was seeking to document the process of evolution by natural selection in action. The project was published last October, to much well-deserved media attention, and the results are already making their way into textbooks on evolutionary biology. This project is, by any standards, a scientific hit. And from my position on its periphery, I could see not just the hard work and good ideas but also the human interactions that were central to its inception and execution.

Peruse this publication’s list of authors, and you’ll see six names—already, the notion that important scientific advances are the fruit of a single mind is starting to crumble. Flip to the last page and look at the acknowledgements, and you’ll see a further twenty-four people (including me!) and six institutions that played a role in creating this piece of work. But these lists give you little sense of how interactions among all of these contributors—some planned, others spontaneous—lie at the heart of science. To build you a picture of some of these interactions, I spoke to the person at the centre of this project, lead author and my long-ago boss, Yoel Stuart. Before we get to his thoughts, however, we have to talk about the science (a slightly more technical description of this research can be found here).

A green anole perching low
A green anole perching low
Anolis distichus, a tree trunk specialist
Anolis distichus, a tree trunk specialist

The science of this project is built around an interaction too, between two species of lizards competing with one another. One lizard, the green anole (Anolis carolinensis), has spent millions of years in the southeastern United States with little interference from any competitors. Just a few hundred miles away in the Caribbean, however, dozens of closely-related species of anoles have battled with one another for generations, fighting for space in the trees, Some of these species have evolved to become very good at dominating a small portion of vegetation—twigs, tree-trunks, or narrow branches in the canopy, for instance. Ruling a small piece of arboreal real estate means becoming, through the process of natural selection, the best at surviving in that habitat—lizards that perched high in the trees, for example, had to get really good at clinging to what they were perching on, so that they wouldn’t crash to the ground. Individuals that perched high but weren’t great at clinging likely fell to death or injury more often than those that clung. The ones that lived and had babies, the ones whose genes persisted, were the ones with bigger, scalier toes—all the better for clinging with.

Brown anole, also perching low
Brown anole, also perching low

Sometime in the last hundred years, one of these Caribbean lizards, the brown anole (Anolis sagrei), made its way to Florida, where it came into contact with the green anole. In the arboreal turf wars, brown anoles had come to dominate at low perch heights, on tree-trunks and the ground. Brown anoles were therefore able to outcompete green anoles at lower heights and push them up into the canopy wherever the two species overlapped. The ability to cling suddenly became a lot more important for the green anole. Isn’t it thus likely that green anoles would evolve bigger, scalier toes in places where they perch higher due to the presence of brown anoles? It certainly is—that’s exactly what Stuart was looking for, and that’s exactly what he found.

But take a second to think about the story I just told you—it’s historical, invoking events in the past to explain patterns we see today. Today’s pattern is simply this: green anoles perch higher and have bigger, scalier toes where they co-occur with brown anoles compared to where they live on their own.  Are there stories other than the one I just told you, stories that don’t involve competing and clinging, that could explain this pattern? Absolutely. Maybe green and brown anoles co-occur only in weird environments that somehow cause the perch height and toes of green anoles to change. Maybe all the green anoles in populations where they co-occur with brown anoles are closely related to each other, and share some genetic quirks bequeathed to them by their ancestors, giving them funny toes and an unusual fear of the ground. Maybe the pattern is simply a consequence of chance. Disentangling these many possibilities took a huge amount of work, and explains why so many people were involved in this project. It also explains why it was over twenty years in the making.

The research in this paper includes at least two distinct parts, the first of which is an experiment conducted by co-first author Dr. Todd Campbell in the 1990s. Campbell introduced brown anoles onto small man-made islands that already had green anoles on them, in a place called Mosquito Lagoon in Florida, right next to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. He tracked the perch height of these green anoles for a few years after the brown anole introduction, and saw that they shifted to higher perches. Green anoles on islands without any brown anoles, however, continued to perch low, so Campbell could attribute the shift in green anole perch height to the presence of brown anoles.

An island in Mosquito Lagoon. Photo: Yoel Stuart.
An island in Mosquito Lagoon. Photo: Yoel Stuart.

Campbell’s research set the stage for Stuart to come along ten years later to almost the same islands, to measure the lizards’ morphology. Brown anoles had invaded some of Campbell’s “green anole only” islands by then, making further comparisons among his islands meaningless. Stuart had to find the few islands left in Mosquito Lagoon with green anoles but no brown anoles on them, as well as nearby islands with both species. With the input and hard work of the other authors (Liam Revell and Graham Reynolds, anole biologists from UMass Boston, Paul Hohenlohe, evolutionary genomicist from the University of Idaho, and Stuart’s [and now my] Ph.D. advisor, Jonathan Losos) as well as assistance from everyone mentioned in the acknowledgements, he set about measuring the green anoles’ toes and ruling out explanations other than the competitive interaction between brown and green anoles for the changes in the green anoles’ habitat and morphology.

Fundamental to this project’s success is the collaboration between Campbell and Stuart. Each of their research makes the other’s more compelling, elevating the complete project to top-notch science. In describing their relationship, Stuart emphasizes how open Campbell was to sharing his understanding of these islands and their lizards. And because his research followed so directly on the heels of Campbell’s, Stuart felt an added sense of pressure. “It’s this amazing system that he was very generous in sharing, and so I wanted to make sure that I did the work right and I did it well” Stuart said, when I interviewed him in October.

Consider the “amazing system” that Stuart and Campbell worked in. The islands in Mosquito Lagoon are similar in age, size, plant life, and animal life, as close to experimental replicates as one can hope to find in nature. This replication is important—a pattern of higher perches and bigger, scalier toes in green anoles on five islands where they co-occur with brown anoles compared to six islands where they live on their own is far more convincing than a comparison of just a couple of islands of each type. This island system is therefore as crucial a player in this story as any of the people. Stuart recalls how, in their first few interactions, Campbell tried to assess if he had the skills and temperament to work in this system. Fieldwork on these islands involves manoeuvring a small boat through often-choppy waters, in soaring temperatures and sweaty weather, in a lagoon named for its mosquito population. Campbell’s first question to Stuart was, “Are you a boat guy?” He wasn’t.

Notwithstanding the difference in their nautical capabilities, the two scientists began to see themselves as collaborators. As Stuart put it, “those early days we sort of clicked quickly because I think we had a good sense for how you do field ecology. It’s messy, you don’t always get the sample sizes you want, nothing’s ever perfect, but we both quickly developed a sense that despite that, we still thought this system would be promising.” Their continued interactions in the field proved invaluable to Stuart. “One of the best parts about our collaboration was that [Campbell] was usually able to spend a week out there every summer, and be somebody to bounce ideas off of in the field. Given how often the field experience is different from what you envision when you’re sitting in your office, having somebody out there with a lot of field experience to chat with is really helpful.”

Small boat in the sunrise
Small boat in the sunrise

That scientists collaborate so closely, sharing their thoughts, skills, and knowledge with each other to build better science, may not form part of the popular narrative of science, but such collaboration is certainly not surprising to those of us within science. However, when I asked Stuart if there was any one person whose contribution made this project substantially different, his answer initially took even me by surprise. “Jimmy,” he said emphatically “he let us use his boat!” Jimmy McCrae happened to have parked his trailer opposite the house we were living in, next to a boat dock in Mosquito Lagoon. In addition to inviting us to several dinners with his girlfriend Kay, taking us offshore fishing, and giving me a ride on his Harley-Davidson, Jimmy lent us his boat. Stuart’s boat, a small, rusty metal shell that chugged placidly across the lagoon with its rim often terrifyingly close to the water’s surface, could only take us so far. Compared to this precarious vessel, Jimmy’s boat was positively shark-like in speed and whale-like in stability. “I think if we were stuck in that small boat we wouldn’t have gotten as much data. We probably would have had smaller sample sizes per island, and I don’t think we would have [sampled on] Pine,” the furthest island, and one of the few in the lagoon with only green anoles and no brown anoles on it.

Offshore fishing with Jimmy in his boat.
Offshore fishing with Jimmy in his boat.

Being able to borrow Jimmy’s boat had trickle-down effects on my own path through science. It meant I could use Stuart’s small boat to go by myself to the nearby islands on which I was conducting a little project of my own, on the behaviour of green anoles. This first taste of independent field work made me a bit more confident that I had what it took to become a field biologist, and someday when I tell the story of how I became a scientist, I’ll make sure that the corporate lawyer from Orlando makes an appearance in my tale, as he should. I suspect most scientists’ stories include a Jimmy, but how often do we hear about them? Not often enough. I have a feeling that if non-scientists realised that science is an inherently social and collaborative enterprise, and that they too are often an integral part of its narrative, we might all get along a bit better.

Go read the Survey of Academic Field Experiences study!

As happens to any academic study that receives a lot of press coverage and blogger attention, the actual content of the Survey of Academic Field Experiences (SAFE) study by Clancy et al. (2014) has gotten a bit obscured in the ensuing discussion. I’ve played my part in this obscuring, by writing a blogpost that comments on an article that references the SAFE study without, at the time, having read the study itself. But in preparing to meet Katie Hinde, one of the authors of the SAFE study, I decided I had better actually read the paper. And I’m here to tell you that, if you haven’t already, YOU SHOULD GO READ IT TOO! It is incredibly well written–the authors neither under-sell nor over-sell their data. It raises what are, I think, the most important issues to consider when thinking about the environment that women in science experience. I’m going to mention each of these issues below, excerpting quotes from the paper (minus references), to illustrate how well the SAFE study deals with each of them.

1.  It’s open-access, which means that anyone with an internet connection can read it.

2. It emphasizes that microagressions and macroaggressions are linked in contributing to a hostile environment for women in science. This hostility is in turn linked to inadequacies in how scientists are trained:

Faculty, however, are rarely trained in the interpersonal skills of conflict management, negotiation, and resolution that would allow them to informally and formally confront personnel issues as they arise and before they can escalate. Prioritization of data-generation has the potential to contribute to the neglect – benign or otherwise – of team dynamics such that alienation, harassment, and assault may occur.

3. It recognizes that the detrimental effects of a hostile environment are not restricted to victims of hostility.

Bystanders to workplace incivility, particularly women, are demoralized even though they are not the direct targets of the perpetrator.

4. It emphasizes that perpetrators of assault in the field are more likely members of the STEM community (>70% perpetrators) than locals from near the fieldsite:

Conventional wisdom often attributes the majority of sexual misconduct to locals and cultural differences, an important consideration for, for instance, the international business workplace. Incidents perpetrated by locals certainly exist and are traumatic, but represented a small minority of cases in our survey.

Moreover, reporting a colleague likely has more severe professional consequences than reporting a local at the fieldsite:

Aspiring academics are exquisitely aware of the realities of finding and securing a position within small, highly specialized disciplines; as a result, targets and bystanders may be especially inhibited from reporting.

5. It acknowledges the importance of intersectionality, and emphasizes that the lack of diversity in STEM is a problem:

Our results cannot adequately speak to the experiences of people of color, or LGBTQ individuals because they are underrepresented in out fields and therefore our dataset…The lack of diverse backgrounds and perspectives may well constrain the range of research topics being addressed, slowing advances and achievements in science.

6. It draws attention to a possible link between the hostile environment faced by women in science and the “higher attrition rates of women in the sciences.”

7. Finally, it has this tremendously powerful visual representation of the problem we face. Spend some time really considering that each of these dots represents an actual person:

Figure 3 from the SAFE study. "Visual representation of respondents to the survey, their experiences, and who were aware of, made use of, and were satisfied by mechanisms to report unwanted physical contact."
Figure 3 from the SAFE study. “Visual representation of respondents to the survey, their experiences, and who were aware of, made use of, and were satisfied by mechanisms to report unwanted physical contact.”

It’s time to actually take action to make the STEM environment welcoming to women and minorities. I’ll write more soon about the actions I’m taking now, and planning to take when I go to the field next year. But action against a problem has to begin with understanding the problem, and an excellent way to develop your understanding of the problems faced by women in science, especially women doing fieldwork, is to read and really think about the SAFE study.