Notes on “Listening Well: The Art of Empathic Understanding” by William R. Miller.

I love this book. I came upon it thanks to a recommendation from a dear friend, someone who is so similar to me in growth trajectory that we joke (but not really) about how they just give me all the advice they give themselves and it is always exactly the thing I need to hear. So when they suggested this book to me, part of me knew I needed to read it. But another part of me was wounded at the suggestion that I wasn’t a good listener already! Thankfully, the book is written for exactly those of us that think this.

The week that I decided to read this book was the week I finally—finally—took an honest-to-goodness break from work, possibly for the first time ever. I don’t mean just that I didn’t work. I mean that I stopped working and also, miraculously, stopped thinking about the work I wasn’t doing. It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but it was necessary. It was a moment of throwing my hands up, because every aspect of plodding along and working, working, working felt unmanageable. Every bit of doing work had been bleeding joy for months, years, and what remained was exhaustion. Stopping felt like the only thing I could do. (Thank a strong union for hard-won paid time off. Stand in solidarity with those of us who don’t yet have that.)

Because work has long been my coping mechanism for dealing with stress, dysfunction, and more, not working has felt like an acknowledgement of all the ways in which I’m healthier now—I no longer need to work to feel okay. But the question remained—what do you do with a coping mechanism that grew in dysfunction but that has been rewarded by the world you live in, those rewards in turn proving necessary (but definitely not sufficient; the rest is privilege) for building the safety and security in which I could heal? When I stopped working, I did not know what the answer would be. How am I going to work when I run out of time off?

Into this void of possibility came “Listening Well.” I found myself well-poised to make the changes the author was suggesting. (Not perfectly! That’s the work of a lifetime. But with consciousness and intention). Moreover, I agreed with the author that learning to listen well is more than just a set of skills worth developing. It changes how I exist in the world. And crucially, it gives the overworked part of my mind a foundation from which to engage with the world again, but healthily this time. It gives my logic part something to do, a calm and stable fixed point to return to as it works to unlearn longstanding patterns of obsession, rumination, and single-mindedness.

Because at the heart of listening well, according to Miller, is both noticing and connecting. It is meditative and communal. It’s about taking risks in engaging with another, where being wrong is beside the point. It is all about vulnerability without self-centeredness. These are all the directions in which I want to grow, as a person.

And so I have no doubt that these practices are going to shift how I am in my relationships (slowly! imperfectly!). I’m loving all the chances I get to practice them, in person within my social-distancing bubble, on the phone, by text. I’ve realized, of course, that I don’t always want to listen well—sometimes, I want to talk about me, lean into weird banter, distract from the conversation because I noticed or remembered something unrelated, or not engage at all. Nevertheless, this book has crystallized something very powerful for me.

And what I’m most excited about is what this practice of listening well could do for my work as a behavioral ecologist and soon-to-be-professor. Many aspects of being an academic— writing, editing, teaching, and mentorship, most obviously—are in no small part about listening well and creating from a place of responsive empathy. But so is the work of science itself—I want to observe the world, read papers, and understand ideas from this same place of generosity and curiosity that “Listening Well” centers. Science is the work of noticing, distilling, and extending ideas a little further, which is exactly the work of listening well. I want the science I do to make the room for both nature and my community of scientists to prolong the conversation.

With this approach as my bedrock, I’m starting to feel excited about getting back to work. I’ll let you know how it goes!

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Statement regarding recent retractions.

On January 17 2020, a paper by Kate L. Laskowski, Pierre-Olivier Montiglio, and Jonathan N. Pruitt was retracted for “irregularities in the raw data.” Today, another paper by Kate Laskowski and Jonathan Pruitt has been retracted. In the last two weeks, since learning about these retractions and the reasons underlying them (detailed by Kate Laskowski here), we past students, postdocs, and collaborators* of Jonathan Pruitt have been grappling with this professionally and emotionally fraught situation. We have all been engaged in a close examination of every piece of data we’ve ever been handed by Jonathan Pruitt. We have been working day and night to uncover all irregularities and communicate with the relevant journal editors;  issues that appear similar to those described here have already been identified in several datasets. Many of us have also published papers co-authored with Jonathan Pruitt for which we collected the data ourselves–we stand by the veracity of these data that we have collected ourselves, and the resultant papers. 

We would like to assure the scientific community that we are committed to setting the scientific record straight. This will take time but the right thing will be done. If the data and results of a paper are found to be untrustworthy or un-reproducible, it will be retracted. In the meantime, we ask for your patience and understanding as we navigate the difficult situation that we are now faced with. 

We welcome the entire community to alert us to findings that would help set the scientific record straight by approaching the paper authors directly, so that the situation can be processed through the proper channels at our respective institutions and with the journals.

Respectfully, 

Noa Pinter-Wollman

Nicholas DiRienzo

Colin M. Wright

James L. L. Lichtenstein

Ambika Kamath

*Several co-authors who have been fully engaged in this process are unable to comment publicly at this time. 

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!

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

I did not like “The Evolution of Beauty”

Richard Prum has written a book in which he claims that female mate choice for arbitrary male traits, “beautiful” traits, is an underappreciated, revolutionary force in evolution. On the face of it, I should love this book. It appears to challenge standard sexual selection narratives, it emphasizes the importance of natural history, it even tries to be feminist! Why, then, do I dislike it? Because it is disingenuous.

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How do you write a book on sexual selection and not even consider the idea that ornaments may signal environmentally-determined condition and not just “good genes”? How do you manage to not cite Doug Emlen? How, as I’ve mentioned before, do you claim that Fisherian runaway selection is “ignored” by biologists and then not discuss research on sensory drive in fish or frogs or lizards? How do you write a book on sexual selection in birds and not even mention Hamilton and Zuk’s classic work on ornamentation and parasite load?  Why, across your whole book, would you not distinguish between claims that are supported by the literature (you know, with a numbered footnote or endnote leading to a reference) and provocative statements pulled from thin air, making the reader repeatedly do the work of flipping to the end of the book to figure out which is which? After all this, how do you expect a reader to believe you when you say things like this:

Aesthetic evolution by mate choice is an idea so dangerous that it had to be laundered out of Darwinism itself in order to preserve the omnipotence of the explanatory power of natural selection.

I wanted to take this book seriously, but if it doesn’t engage with the literature it is seeking to critique, it does not deserve serious engagement. If, by failing to engage with others’ work on organisms that may not be birds, Prum ends up repeatedly reinventing all the wheels of our current understanding of sexual selection, it is not worth our time or effort to discern if he has in fact come up with something new. If, by setting out to prove himself an iconoclast, Prum mischaracterizes all of us who study sexual selection, he gains no credibility. Ironically, even as something of an adaptationist, I actually begrudgingly agreed with one of this book’s central claims–that we’d be better off considering runaway selection as a null model for ornament evolution–long before learning about any of Prum’s work. I don’t know what that says about Prum’s decision to be quite so combative in this book, and quite so dismissive of huge contributions from a large number of his colleagues.

Full disclosure: once this book started talking about feminism, I couldn’t bring myself to go on (I stopped after Chapter 5, a very mixed-bag chapter about Patricia Brennan’s wonderful work on duck sex). However, I made the mistake of skipping to the end, to see this paragraph:

On the other hand, feminists themselves have often expressed discomfort with standards of beauty, sexual aesthetics, and discussions of desire. Beauty has been viewed as a punishing male standard that treats women and girls as sexual objects and persuades women to adopt the same self-destructive standard to judge themselves. Desire has been viewed as another route to fining themselves under the power of men. Yet aesthetic evolutionary theory reminds us that women are not only sexual objects but also sexual subjects with their own desires and the evolved agency to pursue them. Sexual desire and attraction are not just tools of subjugation but individual and collective instruments of social empowerment that can contribute to the expansion of sexual autonomy itself. Normative aesthetic agreement about what is desirable in a mate can be a powerful force to effect cultural change.

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No. We do not need “aesthetic evolutionary theory” to patronizingly inform us women that we have sexual agency. And women’s sexual agency is not going to save the world–men, get your act together and learn about systemic power imbalances.

I firmly believe that how we study sexual selection needs to be shaken up, but Prum’s approach is most definitely not the way. Maybe there’s something profound in here that I’m completely missing. Maybe it’ll hit me in a few weeks or months or years and I’ll come back and finish this book. Until then, I’ll continue to hold in high esteem the women who have been pushing boundaries and asking difficult questions of the evolutionary biology establishment, women like Marlene Zuk and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty and Patricia Brennan and Holly Dunsworth and Joan Roughgarden and Erika Milam and Zuleyma Tang-Martinez. I recommend you do the same.

Defending Sexual Selection (!)

So I went today to a talk by Rick Prum, about his newly released book called The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s forgotten theory of mate choice shapes the animal world–and us. The talk was much like his New York Times piece, in which Prum seems to argue that our field has ignored Fisherian runaway selection, under which males evolve inexplicably showy traits (bright colours, loud sounds, and so on) that females prefer simply because females prefer them. Which is to say that the traits need not have any intrinsic value, either in and of themselves or as indicators of male quality.

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As much as I enjoy critiquing our current understanding of sexual selection, I found Prum’s characterization unfair, and found myself agreeing with large parts of this response from (gasp!) Jerry Coyne. To be mostly agreeing with someone with whom I have also disagreed vehemently, because we both disagree vehemently with a third person–what an exciting time to be studying sexual selection! To counter Prum’s claims that we look only for adaptive explanations for showy traits, Coyne shows this table from a 2009 paper by Jones and Ratterman with examples of empirical work on several non-adaptive models of sexual selection.

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A Google Scholar search for papers on sensory bias (an idea that seems a direct descendant of Darwin’s ideas on beauty) and sexual selection readily yields empirical examples, such as this 1990 paper from Mike Ryan and Stan Rand on female Tungara frogs’ preference for particular male calls that “emphasizes the nonadaptive nature of female preference.” They even open their paper with this quote from Darwin!

“. . . it is obviously probable that [females] appreciate the beauty of their suitors. It is, however, difficult to obtain direct evidence of their capacity to appreciate beauty”

-C. Darwin (1883 p. 413)

A quick scan of the bibliography of Prum’s book suggests that he doesn’t cite this work directly. The word “frog” doesn’t appear in the index. Nor does “swordtail fish,” or even “fish”, or a reference to this 1990 paper by Alexandra Basolo (the example at the top of my head for sensory bias) showing a pre-existing preference for long sword-like tails by female fish belonging to a closely related swordless species.

I’ll have more thoughts, I’m sure, once I’ve read the book, but for now, I’m mostly confused by Prum’s characterization of the field of sexual selection. I’d be the first to admit that what I think we know may in fact be an illusion, and I look forward to being convinced I’m wrong. I’ll no doubt have opinions on a book that Ed Yong has described as “explicitly feminist,” and this post is mostly a way to ensure that I do get around to reading the book and writing a more in-depth review. But for now, I’m skeptical.

 

 

*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.

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How do we know what we know? Sexual selection, in humans and in lizards.

Over the last few months, there’s been a slow-boiling battle underway between Holly Dunsworth and Jerry Coyne about the evolution of sexual dimorphism in humans, surrounding the question of why male and female humans, on average, differ in size. The battlefield ranged from blogposts to twitter to magazine articles. In a nutshell, Coyne argued that “sexual dimorphism for body size (difference between men and women) in humans is most likely explained by sexual selection” because “males compete for females, and greater size and strength give males an advantage.” His whole argument was motivated by this notion that certain Leftists ignore facts about the biology of sex differences because of their ideological fears, and are therefore being unscientific.

Dunsworth’s response to Coyne’s position was that “it’s not that Jerry Coyne’s facts aren’t necessarily facts, or whatever. It’s that this point of view is too simple and is obviously biased toward some stories, ignoring others. And this particular one he shares…has been the same old story for a long long time.” Dunsworth went on to propose, seemingly off the cuff, alternative hypotheses for sexual dimorphism in body size in humans that were focussed not on men but on women, as examples of the kind of hypothesis that is relatively rarely considered or tested in this field.

Though on the surface this battle may seem to be about specific biological facts (Coyne certainly tries to win by treating it that way), in reality this disagreement is, as Dunsworth argues, about the process by which hypotheses are tested and about how knowledge comes into existence. About which hypotheses are considered for testing in the first place. As a result, the two ended up arguing past each other quite a bit.

As I followed this whole exchange, I shook my head at the timing–I had a paper in preparation that was SO RELEVANT to the centre of this debate! That paper is now available as a preprint, so I can try to outline why I think that Dunsworth is right, and Coyne is being short-sighted. My argument has *nothing* to do with humans, however–I don’t know the human sexual selection literature well enough to weigh in on that. Instead, my argument is by analogy with our knowledge of mating systems in Anolis lizards.

Until relatively recently, it’s been widely accepted, on the basis of behavioral studies, that anoles are territorial and polygynous. This description is so prevalent, in scientific as well as popular accounts of these lizards’ biology, that anyone who knows anything about anoles wouldn’t stop to think twice about it.

Following a somewhat circuitous path (which you can hear about at or after my thesis defence on March 28th!), the main project of my Ph.D. ended up being an investigation of exactly this “fact”–are anoles really territorial? Genetic evidence, which has shown evidence for females mating with multiple males as well as complex spatial relationships between mating pairs, led me to wonder if territoriality was a useful description of these lizards’ mating system. And while an important part of my work is empirical, my best sampling was restricted to a single population of a single species. So a complementary and equally important endeavour has been reviewing all of the evidence we have in support of the conclusion that anoles are territorial. And an outcome of this endeavour has been realizing that even things that we *think* are well-supported scientific facts–like territoriality in Anolis–may in reality be based on very little evidence.

I’m not going to rehash the whole argument of the review paper (co-written with my advisor Jonathan Losos) over here. The gist is that the earliest studies concluded that anoles are territorial based on strange and limited data, but the idea caught on. Most subsequent studies, therefore, ended up assuming territoriality implicitly or explicitly. This assumption affected choices made in sampling design, analysis, and interpretation, such that it became unlikely that studies would consider important, or even be able to detect, behaviours that were not quite territorial but were still potentially important for reproduction.

To illustrate what we meant, I am going to excerpt a couple of paragraphs below (edited for out-of-context clarity and to remove examples). In this section,we argued that if studies are designed with the assumption, implicit or explicit, that individuals remain in relatively small, exclusive areas (i.e. they are territorial), then these studies end up being designed such that they will not detect, or won’t consider important, evidence suggesting otherwise:

Because by the 1970’s the consensus seemed to be that anoles are territorial, research at this time was not often designed to explicitly test if these lizards behave territorially, i.e. to show that they stay in the same place and maintain exclusive areas. Specifically, territoriality was an almost foregone conclusion in studies with a limited spatial and temporal extent of sampling.

If the sampling period of a study of social behavior is not long enough, then relatively infrequent but reproductively consequential departures from territorial behavior are unlikely to be detected often enough that they are considered signal and not noise. This includes not only occasional forays away from and returns to a fixed territory, but also shifts in territory location that may take place only a few times per breeding season—neither would be detected by studies with short durations.

Moreover, if a study of social behavior does not sample over a large enough area and a sampled individual disappears from the study site, researchers cannot know if the individual has died or simply moved. Thus, studies with limited sampling areas will be most likely to sample only those individuals who stay in the same place, that is, animals whose behavior appears territorial.

You can read the paper for details and examples of limited sampling, as well as other ways in which research choices were shaped by assumptions of territoriality. But in sum, because of this dependence on territoriality throughout research on anole social behavior, the facts we have come to hold about these lizards’ biology look very different than they may have if biologists had started out with different assumptions, or had clarified what their assumptions were. The upshot is that, at this point, we simply don’t know if anoles are territorial or not–they may well be, but we don’t yet have good evidence for it.

If you read the paper, you may glean that I now think that instead of arguing about whether or not anoles are territorial, it’s more fruitful to ask if territoriality is a useful way to describe behavior. In the case of Anolis, I don’t think it is. Others of course may disagree, and our disagreement could be resolved by testing predictions emerging from territoriality against predictions that do not depend on territoriality. But this would be very different from considering the predictions made by two hypotheses that both reside within a territorial framework. And this, I think, is Dunsworth’s point–which hypotheses we consider and how we decide to test them not only shapes what facts we have the capacity to discover but also depends an awful lot on what we think we already know. What we think we know in turn depends an awful lot on the particular trajectory that a body of research has followed. Consequently, the hypotheses that get tested do not emerge from a vacuum. All hypotheses emerge from assumptions, whether we recognize them or not.

While our paper, by design, deals primarily with assumptions about Anolis territoriality originating within science, it hasn’t escaped my attention that the existing description of these lizards’ social behavior are positively Victorian. This struck me most clearly when I explained my empirical research to non-biologist friends and family. “They sound so old-fashioned!”, I was told, which made me realise that this might well be because the science on which the descriptions are based originated in the social milieu where these now-old-fashioned ideas were a given *. It also hasn’t escaped my attention that most of the research that suggested departures from territorial behavior in Anolis remained unpublished in scientific journals, and that three of the four genetic studies showing female multiple mating were conducted by women scientists. These observations wouldn’t sway anyone who believes that science is 100% objective, and it’s certainly possible that animal behavior could conform precisely to Victorian ideals, but I think the coincidences are at least worth pondering.

In this world where the very concepts of knowledge, facts, and scientific expertise are under dispute, I fully recognize the danger of writing about how science can do an incomplete or even incorrect job of discovering truths about the natural world. But it isn’t doing science any good for us to ignore how our processes of discovery can be blinkered by unwarranted assumptions, assumptions that can originate either inside of science or outside it, from myriad sources of bias that afflict every single one of us. The future of science cannot depend on us pretending that we scientists are infallible.

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*Of course, none of this is new to sociologists or historians of science–check out, as just one of many examples, Erika Milam’s Looking for a Few Good Males ^

*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!

*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.

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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!

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

*New Paper*: “Facilitating discussions about privilege among future conservation practitioners”

Holly Milton Brown, Margaret Rubega, and I have a new paper out in Conservation Biology, in which we write about why and how conservation biologists and practitioners should and can discuss privilege in the conservation biology classroom. It’s based on an exercise that Holly ran when a TA for a graduate level conservation biology course at UConn, and we thought the exercise plan, and the motivation for it, would be useful to share with the community of biologists that teach conservation. Check it out!

As we were looking over the proofs a few weeks ago, we wondered if the release of this paper was timely. And we decided a couple of things. First, generally speaking, a paper about the consequences of disparities in socioeconomic status is not going to be untimely any time soon. But second, more specifically, there’s been a sense in the academic circles I inhabit of not being quite sure what to do to in response to the current political climate. Doesn’t the importance of our research pale in comparison with the societal challenges that undoubtedly lie ahead of us? What are we going to change about how we teach and mentor and conduct research? Where should we focus our efforts? Obviously each of our answers to these questions will vary, each of us reaching a solution that seems correct for us.

But two things are clear, to me at least:

Our paper lies at the intersection of these two things, and gives all of us biologists invested in conservation a concrete step that we can take to broaden the discussion of this intersection. Even if you don’t like the steps we propose, we hope that we can get you thinking about why and how to bring discussions of privilege explicitly into the conservation classroom.

Let us know what you think!

P.S. I loved this essay from Eric Anthony Grollman on being committed to fighting injustice and oppression in academia.