On Minimalism (and so much more).

I have always wanted to live somewhere cute. I’m moving to Boulder in the fall, and I will be living in a cute attic. It is cute, but it is not large, and I’m realizing I have to get rid of quite a bit of my stuff to achieve the cuteness (plus, you know, livability) that I long for. This letting-go of material possessions (these clothes, those many books I’ll never read, that weird collection of twigs from some long-forgotten forest trail) has been both practical and spiritual, and I do feel lighter.

Concurrently, my digestive tract is on strike, protesting the labor conditions I have been subjecting it to. It appears that this worker, essential to my system, does not want me to eat most things. Its gentle requests have long gone unheeded (unnoticed, even) and so now it’s expressing its opinions through the mediums of nausea and bloating. This is somewhat challenging to me (the management), but I’m trying to do well by my digestive tract by listening to its demands. And so yesterday for lunch I drank cabbage juice and ate some deli ham. Later, I threw away a large volume of soup.

Standing in the grocery checkout line, or after a thrift store drop-off, I viscerally feel something my brain has known for a while: my new minimalisms are facilitated by being wealthier now than I used to be. It feels okay to let stuff go because I can afford to buy that stuff again if it turns out I made a mistake. I can afford to buy new and often expensive foods if it feels right in the moment, even though I don’t yet know if my digestive system will approve. Money can buy you the space to be wrong; it can buy you self-forgiveness.

The only place where, before now, letting go has felt safe is writing. Or more specifically, editing. If I can let go of stuff now, or shift and shrink the foods I eat, it’s because, thanks to over a decade of writing and editing, I can trust that when I bring intention to how I wield a cutting knife, when I first bring compassion and appreciation for all of something, then beauty can emerge from removal. Writing is an easy space in which to get comfortable with letting go, because words are cheap, the supply of words from my brain is seemingly inexhaustible, and good words can be found again. Plus, there is poetry, where concision can be everything and we know how to appreciate a certain sparseness. My cute attic will be poetic.

[I’m very into this idea, at the moment, of the ways in which our practices translate across and through our lives. Who knew that years of editing would help to fulfill my home fantasies?! What a delight.]

[This is also as good a place as any to note my long-brewing disdain for what I think is a trend towards writing that is too long for no good reason, both online and in print. I HATE IT! I also know that I write long shit, and saying this out loud will come back to haunt me, but I just…cannot.]

In this sprawling context, I found it interesting to read an article this morning about how the human brain (in its contemporary sociopolitical contexts) appears to gravitate towards adding rather than subtracting to solve problems (it’s a summary of some research; I didn’t read the original paper). Which is to say, we tend to add more structural support to a piece that’s falling over rather than removing and reconfiguring the pieces into something more stable, form a new committee instead of reckoning with how the old committee didn’t meet its objectives, say more and more instead of sitting in silence to listen. So many positive, potent words–creative, generative, growing–are about adding. While reading this article, I wondered about where our brains get to practice removal, and immediately thought of editing. “Editing is so much about subtraction!” I thought, “our brains can do this!” And the article concurs–indeed we can remove, when we are reminded that removal is an option.

Ultimately, I suppose that’s what it’s all about: options. We have choices about whether to add or remove, about how precisely to both accept and let go.

But the choices that we feel are available to us depend on our feelings of safety. Given my recent realization about the privilege of feeling financially secure that, for me, has been the precursor to letting go, I balked at this part of the article:

For instance, when people feel dissatisfied with the decor of their home, they might address the situation by going on a spending spree and acquiring more furniture — even if it would be equally effective to get rid of a cluttering coffee table. Such a tendency might be particularly pronounced for resource-deprived consumers, who tend to be particularly focused on acquiring material goods [Tully et al. 2015]. This not only harms those consumers’ financial situations, but also increases the strain on our environment.

I balked at the authors’ tone of smug condescension towards those of us that buy and keep things. Clicking through to the citation, I found that the original article does not employ a similar tone. In fact, the study is nothing like how it is represented in the above quote: the study focuses on people who feel financially constrained (which is different from “resource-deprived”) and specifically contrasts purchasing goods with purchasing experiences, a pretty different situation than the above paragraph extrapolates to. I am angered by how these authors misrepresented a research finding to make an uncompassionate and classist point, and I am letting go of this anger by writing about it.

Last fall, my partner and I made a planter box for my apartment window. We filled it with soil that we knew had seeds in it, we haphazardly transplanted in a vine or two, and later I planted seeds and cuttings from time to time but mostly let the forces-that-be populate this little plot of suspended earth. All kinds of things grew. At one point, the box was taken over by Oxalis. I expected this, because of where the soil had come from. I let their bright yellow blooms be for a month or two before deciding it was time to make room for the others. The timing was serendipitously perfect, and the others grew well. But the dried stems of morning glory, the dried marigold–they remain, and I will not remove them because they are not in anybody’s way and I will not accept that they are ugly. They can go when we all feel ready.

*New Pre-Print*: Why do we think that anoles are territorial?

Jonathan Losos and I have a preprint of a conceptual/review paper up on BioRxiv. It’s about the idea that Anolis lizards are territorial–we trace the historical path of research on this idea, asking how we anole researchers came to hold this idea and what the evidence for it actually looks like. If you’ve read about my fieldwork (and you can do so here!), you’ll know I believe that we currently *do not know* if territoriality is a good description of these lizards’ social lives. If you read this pre-print, you’ll find out *why* I think this.

This paper covers a lot of ground–we wade into the weeds of the definitions of “territoriality,” “site fidelity,” and “polygyny” (it’s not too painful, I promise!), we consider the consequences of sampling and analysis choices, and we pay attention to the fate of data and ideas. Though on the surface it looks like a paper about one type of lizard, we aim for it to come across as a paper about the scientific process as applied to animal biology.

I began working on what became this paper as a second year grad student. At the time, my obscenely ambitious plan was to review the evidence for Emlen and Oring’s (1977) hypothesis that resource distributions drive animal mating systems. Over the years I chiselled that plan down to something manageable–because the most persistent conclusion of this paper in all its iterations has been that we need to pay attention to organisms’ natural history, it made sense to restrict our review to the creatures we know best.

But this is exactly why feedback from folks who study a diversity of organisms would be incredibly useful to us! Is there any chance that research in your favourite organism has followed a similar trajectory? And, of course, if you study anoles, we most certainly want to know if you believe we’ve made a compelling case or not. Read the paper and tell us what you think, and thank you!

Thanks to Jon Suh for the photo!

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 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:


Creature Feature VIII: Jirds

To take your mind away from all the acerbic debate on my blog recently, here’s my recent piece for the Creature Feature column, about the wonderful Indian Desert Jird. Many thanks to Jugal Tiwari for sharing the photo that is in the article (photo below is mine). Compared to most people, I’m something of a mammal-skeptic, but it didn’t take long for me to become completely captivated by these animals, and I try to explain why in my article.

Jirds in my fieldsite in Kutch.
Jirds in my fieldsite in Kutch.

Robins and lizards…

Here’s my new post on Anole Annals, with video of an unusual interaction between a fan-throated lizard and an Indian robin. The Indian robin chases after the lizard, as though attempting to peck at the lizard’s tail. Most interactions between fan-throated lizards and robins do not proceed like this–at most, the lizards display at passing robins, and robins, in turn, usually ignore the lizards.

But my colleague Sreekar Rachakonda. has published this note on Oriental Magpie-Robins–he has observed magpie robins eating house geckos! Indian robins are a bit smaller than magpie robins, but perhaps they still attempt to feed on lizards? Judging by the usual interactions between fan-throated lizards and Indian robins, however, these birds likely don’t prey on lizards too often.

Indian Robin building a nest in Bharapar, Kutch.
Indian Robin building a nest in Bharapar, Kutch.




Red-Footed Falcon. Photo by Ariefrahman/Ron Knight from Wikipedia
Red-Footed Falcon. Photo by Ariefrahman/Ron Knight

Here is a piece I wrote last week for The Hindu BLink on vagrant birds. It’s part of a themed issue on the importance of One, including pieces about how single individuals navigate the world, and the impact they have while doing so. This is the first time I’ve written about an assigned topic, and the time frame from assignment to article was three days, so my method of writing diverged a bit from normal.

I knew nothing about vagrant birds two weeks ago. But the advantage of working in a diverse department of biologists, one that includes a natural history museum, is that I could simply walk upstairs to chat with the ornithologists, asking them what they think about vagrant birds. Most had fascinating stories of encounters with vagrants, some of which went into the piece (all crowded into one sentence towards the end).

I had a sense that birders were often excited about spotting vagrants, but wasn’t quite sure why. In my conversations, however, I learnt about “twitchers”–birders who chase down species to spot them and add them to a list of some kind. This could be a life list, a country list, a state list, a county list, and the more bird species are on the list, the better. But birders who care about more than ticking a species off a list are also fascinated by vagrants: one person described being impressed by the distance that vagrants travel, by just how far off course they managed to get. Another viewed vagrants as providing insight into the process of migration, sort of like how disease can offer insight into how the body functions normally. Both cited a specific example as illustrating these reasons: a Red-Footed Falcon, usually confined to Europe, that made its way to the East Coast of the U.S., the first time the species was spotted in the Western Hemisphere! This particular bird drew in many, many birders, each with their own reasons for wanting to see this special vagrant. The bird also got lots of media attention.

Birders watching the Red Footed Falcon at Martha's Vineyard. Photo by Julian Hough at surfbirds.com
Birders watching the Red Footed Falcon at Martha’s Vineyard. Photo by Julian Hough at surfbirds.com

A second thing that came up in my conversations that I found interesting was the feeling of uncertainty that sometimes surrounds the spotting of a vagrant. Some birds, like this falcon, stay in one place long enough that they can be identified and re-identified until everyone’s certain what species they belong to. But other birds aren’t quite as cooperative, flying off before their identity can be confirmed, before even a photograph can be snapped. And because vagrants are, by definition, in an unexpected location, it can be hard to convince someone else that you spotted a vagrant. There is always a similar looking bird that one expects to find in the that location, leaving the birder with just their own conviction that they saw something extraordinary.

Thanks to all the birders (Cassie Stoddard, Maude Baldwin, Peter Wilton, Alison Schultz, Jeremiah Trimble, Gabe Gartner, and Gautam Surya) who contributed their thoughts on vagrants!