*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!

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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!

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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.

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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:

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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.

 

Vagrants

 

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!

Creature Feature III: Deception and the Heron

Here is the third installment of Creature Feature for The Hindu BLinkThanks to my friend and colleague, UConn EEB grad student Holly Brown for helping me collect facts about these lovely birds. Her own research on them is fascinating–she endeavours to understand how they use both physiological and behavioural means to overcome glare off the water’s surface while hunting. I hope to write about it some day! 

Great Blue Heron on the beach of Cabo Pulmo, Baja California, Mexico.
Great Blue Heron on the beach of Cabo Pulmo, Baja California, Mexico.