Thursday, August 11, 2011

Thanks Kai

In the month that I was able to work with Mr. Powell in Dr. Leal’s lab, I gained an extremely enriching experience. While biology at school had always been of interest to me, reading textbooks and watching Power Points can never quite compare with working with real, live lizards. At school, the most hands-on work with animals I ever did at school was with C. elegans, and in all honesty, it wasn’t quite the same. Working with the anoles, I was able to see just how complex they were, and how I, like many others no doubt, had previously underestimated their cognitive abilities. Previously, I wasn’t even aware of so many species of anoles, and had only ever heard the word “anole” in passing.
It wasn't only from working with the anoles that I was able to learn. One of the greatest things about working with Mr. Powell was being able to learn so much, not only about the anoles themselves, but also about their habitats, the way they and many other animals adapted and evolved, and even a little of how the brain works, both in lizards and in humans. I was fortunate in that I had the opportunity to read several research articles spanning several topics that Mr. Powell gave me, and also to discuss my numerous questions regarding those articles. Those discussions not only helped me understand the articles, but also gave me the chance to get many of my questions regarding various aspects of biology answered.
My learning experience at Duke was one that I will unlikely forget. Such a learning experience would be impossible to come by in high school. I am extremely grateful to Mr. Powell and Dr. Leal for giving me the opportunity to work with them, and of course for teaching me so much about anoles and so many other aspects of science. While I am still uncertain about which area of knowledge I wish to pursue, my time here has definitely strengthened my interest in biology.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Hasta Luego

Well, everything good must come to an end, and our island hopping tour is nearly over. Between Puerto Rico and Jamaica, we managed to collect data on 12 species. Not bad when considering that we have faced a nice number of equipment glitches, which Leo has been able to solve. In fact, we began our island hopping tour with a nice number of gadgets, including two spectroradiometers, two fibers and one light meter. At this moment, we have three spectroradiomenters, four fibers, two light meters, one calibrating light, one constant light just to name a few of all the gadgets that slowly have been added to our arsenal. Not to mention the fact that Leo had the great idea of working in a RAIN FOREST, and for the last two days we have had plenty of rain. Last but not least, kudos to Brianna, Beatriz, Dave and Vasyl. They provided significant help in many aspects of our trip, from data collection to cooking. All proved to be adept lizard catchers, hard workers, and were stoic in the face of biting insects, attacking plants, scorching sun and (most difficult of all) seemingly endless hours of non-stop rain. Please see below for a satellite image of today's weather.

El Verde is dead center in the middle of the "vaguada"

In their own words

Beatriz Romero Cordero
(Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Mayaguez, 2011)

These last two weeks at El Verde Field Station in the company of the Anolis lizards and our team have been a truly unforgettable experience! After what could have been a potentially awkward beginning (4 men and 1 woman – me, in an apartment, and the language differences between us), I quickly realized that this stay would be awesome, because, well… they are awesome! And that’s just the way it turned out to be.
We collected data on various species of endemic Anolis lizards, such as A. krugi, A. cristatellus, A. evermanni, A. gundlachi, A. stratulus, and A. pulchellus. Lizard catching also proved to be an enjoyable experience, where I learned that catching lizards with a noose isn’t as easy as it looks. Nevertheless, this made every success an opportunity to celebrate (victory dance included).
I really enjoyed learning to identify and spot the lizards, watch their behavior and their colorful dewlap displays, understanding how the different measurements were taken, and working as a team with Dr. Leal. It’s always a great feeling to know that you’re contributing to someone’s work, and I’m excited to see how the results turn out. For me, this experience has been an enlightening one, which I feel has ratified my interest to become a graduate student. I had been to the rainforest before, being from the Island, but going with people who were knowledgeable in every tree and bird species that we encountered gave me a different insight of the rainforest, and it helped me see and think about more than just its beauty. I’m extremely grateful for Manuel and Leo for giving me this opportunity to work beside them, and especially to Manuel for kindly answering my endless questions and for graciously dealing with my lack of cooking skills. I’ll truly miss the teasing, the morning singing, our outings, the interesting lizard conversations, and overall, some truly wonderful people who showed me what life in the field is all about and opened up my mind to new opportunities. I leave El Verde hoping that this isn’t an “adios”, but only an “hasta luego”! Buen viaje, amigos!

Vasyl Hereha (Union College, 2012)

Doing fieldwork the El Yunque rainforest was definitely an experience that I initially stressed about, but proved to be quite enjoyable. I had reason to stress as I have not previously done fieldwork, nor do I often travel outside of New York state. Coming to Puerto Rico may technically mean that I stayed in a US territory, but I felt like I was in another world. The wildlife was unique and beautiful and the people that I have had the pleasure to work with helped me to feel relaxed and continue laughing throughout the trip. The rain may have been a hinderance to our work and sometimes kept us out of the field, but the down time was made enjoyable by being around such interesting people as Professor Leal, Professor Fleishman, Beatriz Romero Cordero and Dave Steinberg. I'm very thankful to all for being given this opportunity.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Anole in the rough

Today some members of the team mixed 18 holes of golf with data collection. It turns out that the Río Mar Resort and Golf Course, has one of the most challenging golf course in the island. Which includes a very dense "hierba de guinea" the preferred habitat of A. pulchellus.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Buen Tiempo

The rain hampered our abilities to collect a single data point yesterday. Today, we drove to "El Bosque de Cambalache" located nearly the town of Arecibo, where we found blue skies and a vibrant sun. Needless to say we were all very happy, particularly Leo who yesterday night began to contemplate the possibility of coming back during December to finish data collection. At Cambalache we collected habitat light and dewlap spectral data for A. cristatellus. With cristatellus in the bank, we have finished sampling three species. Thus, even after loosing one day, we are at a relatively good pace, and should be able to finish our target of six species by the end of the trip.

As a side note, today Beatriz began her training in the "art" of noosing lizards. All I have to say, the lizards better take notes, she is extremely good.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Déjá vu

It seems logical that when you do research in the Tropical Rain Forest, as we do, to expect some rain. Nevertheless, when your work is completely dependable on electronics that are unable to handle the rain (another problem that Ocean Optics might want to tackle), two days of rain is a little much. For us, we begin to feel a little cranky, because based on our long track record working here at El Verde as the say here "cuando río el suena, es por que agua trae." Now that we have the luxury of having access to the ethernet, the crankiness can increase dramatically when the forecast (see picture below) suggests even more rain. I missed the good old days, when there was no ethernet, and your hope for sun the next day was never crushed until the next morning.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Jaz Cuban Style

Cubans are well known for their ingenuity in times of need, which can include keeping really old cars functional by making their own parts or building one of kind motorcycles.

I believe that our current modifications of the Jaz Spectral System can rival most of the Cuban home-made inventions. We are currently using a state of the art home-made cooling system (design by Leo Fleishman), consisting of ice-pack(s) (wrapped inside plastic bags) perfectly placed between the computer and the spectroradiometer inside the pelican-case to be able to keep the Jaz from overheating (hope that Ocean Optics is taking notes about this problem). The number of ice-packs is determined by the habitat, partially shaded (preferred habitat of A. krugi) one ice-pack, full sun (preferred habitat of A. pulchellus) two ice packs. Needless to say, Leo is already working on the next generation of the cooling system.

(Jaz cooling system, patent pending, for orders please contact our refrigeration expert, Leo Fleishman)

As a side note, Chivo left today. His trip was extremely successful, including collecting data on head-bobs of population number seven of A. cristatellus for his BIG project evaluating geographic variation in the display patterns of A. cristatellus. Plus, performing experimental manipulations to test the effect of distance on the amplitude of head-bobs. It is hard to blame him for wanting to take a break from dealing with me on a daily basis for two months.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ceibas Centenarias

Today's post has a very special meaning to me. When I was an undergrad at UPR Rio Piedras, working under the watchful eye of Richard Thomas, I asked Richard for the names of people whose research I should become familiar with. I have to admit, at the time, I had no idea that I would be given the opportunity to actively participate in research, and I couldn’t even comprehend that Academia was feasible for someone like me. I loved fieldwork and was relatively good at it, but doing research was for smart people -- that was not me. Two of the names at the top of his list were Raymond B. Huey and George Gorman. At the time, I remember reading the papers of Dr. Huey and Dr. Gorman many times, and always wondering myself how a person can have so many great ideas, resulting in such a huge number of interesting papers. Also, I always wondered what the likelihood was that I would have the opportunity to meet them or, even better, help them in the field. Both Dr. Huey and Dr. Gorman were at the top of my list of "academic idols." At the time, and even today, every time I go back and read a paper by Ray I encounter a new small or sometimes GIGANTIC insight into the field of thermal physiology that Ray was able to figure out way ahead of most people. In the case of George, not only did he publish a significant number of papers, he did so in a relatively short period of time and across many areas. In my humble opinion, George was ahead of his time in being what now is called an "Integrative Biologist". I should point out that Paul Hertz and Brad Lister will be joining George and Ray in a couple of days, rounding out the group of Ceibas Centenarias -- a gathering that has resulted from a recent NSF-funded grant -- congrats.

Check this out: I am here in the field with both Ray (left) and George (right); and better yet trying my best to help them find anoles.
Last but not least, for those who are relatively young and experiencing the nice amount of research that is currently going on with anoles, please take the time to read the early FOUNDATIONAL papers. For most of us, our current success was paved by the work done by: Ray, Gorman, Paul Hertz, Tom Schoener, Stan Rand, Tom Jenssen, Judy Stamps, Rodolfo Ruibal, a very select group, most of whom have a direct connection to Ernest Williams, who a few decades ago placed Anolis on the scientific map as a great system to address questions from a diversity of angles. As they like to say in Jamaica, "respect, man, respect." As a side note, students in my lab are required to read "old" literature, and the complete folders from Ray, George, Tom, Stan, Leo Fleishman (he is a little younger, but the JEFESISIMO of anole color vision and motion discrimination), Rodolfo, Paul and Judy, are at the top of my MUST READ papers. Yes, they also read the papers by Jonathan, but only after reading the generation that came before him.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

We are back

This is are old news, well, one day old, but such is life at El Verde!!!!!
As I wait on the plane in Charlotte, NC (which by the way is already 1hr late due a downgrade of the original jet to a smaller plane that will result in at least 30 people missing their flight), I am beginning to get a little anxious about my next stop. I am heading to "La Isla del Encanto,” Puerto Rico, to continue our research addressing possible factors favoring the extraordinary diversity of colors and patterns of the anole dewlaps. For the next few days, El Verde Field Station will be our center of operations. El Verde can be a hectic place this time of the year, usually packed with students and researchers, which can create some logistical difficulties. Nevertheless, going back home is always fun, particularly because Puerto Rican lizards have been very kind to me (and to Leo too). In fact, "los lagartijos Boricuas" have served as the building blocks for most of our ideas on mechanisms shaping signal evolution. For this trip, our goal at hand is to measure the habitat light and dewlap spectral properties of A. cristatellus, A. evermanni, A. gundlachi, A. krugi A. stratulus, and A. pulchellus. Yes, I know we have done this before, but remember the rule that I mentioned in my first post from Jamaica -- for us, everything needs to be done two or three times before we can come to an agreement that it appears to be done correctly.

Please meet the two new members of the team, Vasyl Hereha (Union College) and Beatriz Cordero (Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Mayagüez) enjoying the luxury of having wireless ethernet at El Verde. All I have to say, a few years back you were very lucky if the phone land-line was working. Clearly I am getting old.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Chipojolab Goes Viral

If you are familiar with my blog, you have noticed that my posts mostly cover our fieldwork and/or lab experiments. However, today I would like to make an exception to share the news that the Chipojolab has gone viral. To my surprise, the results of our study evaluating behavioral flexibility (or as we jokingly refer to it, brainy lizards) have received a "little amount" of media attention. Below are few sites covering our "story".
1) Anoles Annals
2) Science News
3) Nature
4) Science
5) The NY Times
6) The Economist
7) BBC News
8) LiveScience
9) New Scientist
10) Der Standard, Austrian newspaper
11) Deutsche Presseagentur dpa (German News Agency)
12) Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC, TV, Catalyst section)
13) Globo
14) National Geographic
16) El Nuevo Dia
17) CBC.CA.Radio (interview is nearly at the end of part two)
19) BBC_Mundo
20) Lifesciencelog
23) The Spiegel
24) Today Azerbaijan (my guess is that anoles are not very common in Azerbaijan)

As a baseball fan I believe that the "Ten Run Rule" might be applicable to coverage of this story.

Behavioural flexibility and problem-solving in a tropical lizard
Manuel Leal* and Brian J. Powell
The role of behavioural flexibility in responding to new or changing environmental challenges is a central theme in cognitive ecology. Studies of behavioural flexibility have focused mostly on mammals and birds because theory predicts that behavioural flexibility is favoured in species or clades that exploit a diversity of habitats or food sources and/or have complex social structure,attributes not associated with ectothermic vertebrates. Here, we present the results of a series of experiments designed to test cognitive abilities across multiple cognitive modules in a tropical arboreal lizard: Anolis evermanni. This lizard shows behavioural flexibility across multiple cognitive tasks, including solving a novel motor task using multiple strategies and reversal learning, as well as rapid associative learning. This flexibility was unexpected because lizards are commonly believed to have limited cognitive abilities and highly stereotyped behaviour. Our findings indicate that the cognitive abilities of A. evermanni are comparable with those of some endothermic species that are recognized to be highly flexible, and strongly suggest a re-thinking of our understanding of the cognitive abilities of ectothermic tetrapods and of the factors favouring the evolution of behavioural flexibility.

If I have grabbed your curiosity and you would like to read the paper, this is a link to it. Also, below are a few movies of the "brainy lizards" in action. Yes A. evermanni's brain is small, as illustrated by the picture -- a testament that size is overrated.

Sorry for all the shakiness of the first movie, a little too much coffee in the morning. However, this one has a strong sentimental value because it shows the second successful trial. I was not smart enough to record the first trial, which might also explain the shakiness. At least to me, both video #1 and 2, illustrate a somewhat unexpected result. Look closely at the way the lizard is dislodging the disc, it is using its snout as a lever, which is a complete novel behavior, not the modification of a natural striking behavior. This is what is commonly used as a benchmark of high levels of behavioral flexibility, in birds and mammals.

I would also like to stress a few points that are not in the paper, but that nevertheless played a major role in the development of this line of research.
--This has been a labor of love. For many years I, and over the last couple of years, Brian, have invested a nice amount of energy in developing methodologies to evaluate the cognitive abilities of anoles. We have built a nice number of gadgets, from remote-control choice boxes to PVC mazes. After all of our toils, we have come up with something surprisingly simple that works. As a side note, our next door neighbor and cognition consultant, Rindy, provided valuable insights into how to implement this methodology.
--My “friends,” who are quite familiar with anoles, constantly told me, "what you are doing is a waste of time; there is no way that anoles will perform behavioral trials for food." However, I am a little stubborn and this time it seems that I might have been correct.
--This methodology was developed in response to reviewers who criticized a grant proposal by pointing out that there was not a clear behavioral test to evaluate if anoles are able to discriminate colors or patterns. To my surprise, we now have the methodology, and just recently the grant. It looks like this time Lady Luck was on our side.
--Last but not least, if you like this paper, I highly recommend that you stay tuned. We are currently working on a series of manuscripts addressing cognitive abilities and brain evolution in anoles.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Hasta Luego

Leo and Briana, Blue Mountains
After nearly 2 weeks, our visit to Jamaica has come to an end. This was my first direct experience with Jamaican anoles, and I am positive it will not be the last one. E.E. Williams (1970's) and more recently J. Losos (1990's) suggested that the relatively small number of species found here might be related to the fact that Jamaica is a relatively "young" island. With that in mind, a couple of observations strike me about Jamaican lizards. First, compared to the other Greater Antilles, the dewlaps seem to be less differentiated between members of the same community. Second, my impression is that the thermal niches of A. garmani, A. grahami and A. valencienni are relatively broad. This might also be true for A. opalinus, which to my surprise is a "shade-loving" species that I found from sea level up to Blue Mountains. These observations beg the question: is the relatively low species diversity of Jamaican anoles due to lack of differentiation in dewlap design and/or thermal niche? In a few months, we might have an answer for how similar (or not) the dewlaps of Jamaican anoles are in color space.
Next stop on our island hopping tour: Puerto Rico.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Why Does Transmission Matter?

Today was our last day of data collection. Overall our trip was a successful one; we achieved our goal of collecting habitat spectral and dewlap data of the six dominant members of the Jamaican anole community.

Also, over the years I have stressed that the amount of light transmitted through the dewlap can contribute greatly to signal detection, by increasing overall brightness. This is particularly relevant for species that inhabit relatively shaded forests, as is the case of Anolis lineatopus. Under shaded conditions the expectation is to find relatively bright dewlaps. One mechanism to achieve high brightness is to have high transmission, which would result in a sudden bright signal against the relatively dark background. This sudden increase in brightness is known as the "Gelb Effect," which is commonly studied in humans to evaluate the role of luminance in signal perception. Because a picture is better than a thousand words, the above photograph of a male A. lineatopus flashing its dewlap is a nice illustration of the Gelb Effect. Note: if I had taken this picture using a flash, the Gelb Effect would not be present.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Planting seeds of knowledge

Today I had the honor of giving an informal talk about our research to a group of children -- approximately twenty kids, age range from five to seven -- participating in an Eco Camp here at Discovery Bay. It was great; the kids were really excited to learn about lizards, which is not typical in Jamaica. Most Jamaicans, particularly woman, are extremely afraid of lizards and would not get close to us while we are handling them. My talk was mostly about the natural history of the Jamaican anoles, including the very famous "croc lizard" (Anolis valencienni) and the "green lizard" (Anolis garmani). For the kids, the highlights of the talk were the videos of anoles displaying and my imitation of a head-bob display. All I have to say is that Jamaica has a nice crop of potential biologists.

Robin's Bay vs. Discovery Bay

For the past two days, we have been sleeping in Discovery Bay & collecting data in the hills above Priory. Although we have experienced some success in the field, I must say that I prefer the tranquility of Robin's Bay (see picture above) to the hustle and bustle of Disco Bay & its surroundings. Maybe I should be grateful for the supermarket, Coca-Cola in glass bottles, and the Ultimate Jerk Center, that can be found on this part of the island, but those are all just luxuries that can never take the place of a calm and relaxed atmosphere. Robin's Bay deserves respect, man.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Trip Update

We just finished our five-day stop at Robin's Bay, where we stayed in what the locals call the "the concrete monstrosity," or as Leo likes to say, the setting of The Shining. The hotel was a gigantic "resort" in which we were the only customers for the entire time, and we consumed all their food and beverages, including the delicious and extremely salty "smoked pork chops" and veggie chunks (a.k.a. vegetarian goat).

In terms of research, we collected habitat light measurements and dewlap spectral data on six species. There are only seven species of anoles in Jamaica, so we are very pleased with our sampling. A few personal notes: A. valencienni is extremely common and can be found perching not only in twigs, but also on fence-posts in cow pastures and Heliconia leaves. I am positive that valencienni should not be in the exclusive family of twig anoles.

Also, A. garmani is as common as any trunk-ground anole in the other islands of the Greater Antilles. This might explain why Trivers used garmani for his very famous study on size dimorphism and sexual selection in anoles (published in Evolution 1976). Garmani also has a relatively small dewlap, nothing to be proud of for a giant anole.

Finally, after twisting Leo's arm, we had the chance to visit the Blue Mountains, home of some of the world's most expensive coffee. Leo was not sold on the idea of driving up a relatively narrow road without guardrails, particularly with a Puerto Rican at the wheel. I have to say, the road can be a little treacherous, and in some instances my "friends" got out of the car to "take photos" while I drove through some very narrow stretches. Anolis opalinus was very common along the road and quite beautiful.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Eureka !!!!!!

After years of building gadgets, we may have hit the jackpot. It is too early to declare victory; however, we might be getting very close to finally having a reliable field method for measuring the reflection and transmission of anole dewlaps, as illustrated by the photo of A. valencienni. We have also collected spectral data for A. lineotopus, A. grahami, A. opalinus, and A. garmani.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Jamaica Team

After a long day of traveling, the team is finally here and assembled: Leo "El Jefesisimo", Brianna, Dave, and myself. Out of respect for the elderly, Leo is our "leader" and my job is to catch lizards. Basically nothing has changed for decades.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Here we go

As I wait for our plane to Jamaica, memories of the first time I met Leo come flooding back to me. At that time Leo was working with anoles in Puerto Rico, and he was in need of a reliable lizard-catcher. I volunteered for the job because catching lizards was one of the few things that I was good at. That was the beginning of a great friendship and a long collaboration. Over the years we have measured hundreds, most likely thousands, of dewlaps, taken habitat light spectral measurements in some very nice and not so nice places, published a few papers, and had a lot of fun!!!!!!! some times. However, we have failed to achieve our goal of elucidating the possible forces shaping the diversity of dewlap colors and patterns. Today, we are beginning our most ambitious project, or as a reviewer told us "a tour de force," in which we will be measuring dewlaps and habitat conditions of anoles from Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and a series of small islands. As a side note: between the two of us, we already have data from all of these places. However, as has been the signature of our collaboration, the data need to be collected at least 2 times before we usually agree that is correct. The field data will be combined with a series of behavioral experiments, which have already began. This is going to be a fun project.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Ethologists in Training

As you might know by know, the summer is a busy time for us, both in the field and lab. Kai Rau, a raising senior at Biotechnology High School, has joined the Chipojo Lab. Kai is giving us a hand in the lab. She is helping Brian with a series of behavioral experiments to evaluate the cognitive abilities of anoles. Stay tuned for an update of her work.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The end of a successful trip

I've just finished my last day of running lizards (on this trip)! Overall, it was a great success. When I left to come down here, thermal performance curves had been measured for only three species of Caribbean anole, and now we have data for eight! Below is one of my sprint videos. This particular example is the Puerto Rican A. gundlachi running at a body temperature of 35C. This is a high-elevation, cool-climate species, but, nonetheless it can run very well at such a high temperature. Music by Ghostface Killa and Rat-a-tat.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Hasta Luego

Yesterday was our last day at Snake Cay. After six weeks of "Paradise," it is time to say "hasta luego." Both legs of the trip were extremely successful. The second leg has been a lot of fun and full of surprises, from a nice number of unexpected observations to getting "barked at" by talented undergrads. Kudos to Angela, Maria (a.k.a. Miss W), and Dustin; they did a great job collecting focal observations! The final count - an impressive 552 observations (or approximately 183 hours of observations) - is a nice data-set that should help us to better understand the behavior of anoles. Dave "El Chivo" also had a very successful trip. He was able to collect spontaneous displays from individuals on all of our cays; this is a lot harder than it sounds. To give you some idea: imagine watching a lizard continuously for 6 hours and coming back empty-handed. Well, this is not a rare event when you are working here in beautiful Abaco, where population sizes can be quite small and the abiotic conditions (e.g., wind speed, presence of predators, changes in tides, temperature) are not the most conducive for lizards to display. It is just a matter of sticking with it day after long day to get the number of displays you want.
... and now the REAL fun is about to begin! In a few months we should have an idea on what our data look like, and hopefully we will have a couple of papers to write. Also, please stay tuned, we will back on the air in two weeks from the tropical island of Jamaica. This is the next stop on our journey across the West Indies for our other main project on the evolution of dewlap color in anoles. Hasta Pronto!!!!!!

Sunday, June 12, 2011

In their own words

Angela Les (University of Connecticut, 2013)

After one month of working at a new job in a new place, a person may feel one of two ways: excited to return home or forlorn to contemplate abandoning the way of life that they have become so accustomed to. I am in the latter category. There will be a lot that I will miss; the lizards, for example. Rather than growing to resent them for perching in the most uncomfortable locations and for running under rocks repeatedly, I developed a strong appreciation and respect for them. I will also miss our work site. Many people commute in cars across highways; we commuted in “The Leaping Lizard” boat across cerulean waters teeming with wildlife.
For some people, fooling around at work means going on Facebook; for me, it meant chasing after Sergio the stingray. Of course, it will be surreal to wake up and not find Nolan, our resident anole, flashing his dewlap at the horizon. Finally, there are the people. Manuel, Dave, Dustin, and Maria have taught me so much throughout the month: about ecology, different ways to cook plantains, how to drive a boat, but also much more… and they have given me many memories and new knowledge that I will bring back to Connecticut with me. They might need to drag me out of this country on June 13, but as we say here: “Such is life.”


Maria Campano (Cornell University, 2010)

Working as a field assistant studying the ecological and behavioral effects of the introduction of Leiocephalus carinatus on Anolis sagrei on several cays within Snake Cay in Abaco has been an all-around amazing experience. During my time filming anoles, I have been very fortunate to observe and record several rare events; my favorites of which include a male A. sagrei making several (unsuccessful) foraging attempts on a small berry (“Pobrecito!”), and a successful copulation between a pair of A. sagrei that lasted a solid fourteen minutes before interruption by a jealous male. Angie and I also discovered that L. carinatus may have a preference for pine pink orchids (Bletia purpurea) and have been involved in a side project surrounding this observation.

In addition to the two species of lizards that we have been studying, the area is home to a plethora of plant and animal life that we have been able to enjoy. While filming lizard behavior, we have been visited by many beautiful species of birds, some juvenile reef and nurse sharks, stingrays, and sea turtles. The area itself is serene, both at our field sites and near our house. I have enjoyed every minute of being here.

I, of course, cannot summarize my time here without mentioning Nolan, the conch shell-inhabiting anole that resides on our porch. Nolan has made quite an impact on our team members and will be missed greatly upon our departure.

Thank you, Chipojo team 2011, for making this an unforgettable opportunity.

Dustin Owen (Ball State University, 2013)

My internship in the Bahamas was one of the better experiences of my life. The best part about it was the fieldwork. You definitely can’t beat observing herps for hours on end, and getting paid for it on top of that. Manuel and Dave were quick to answer any questions I had about the local animals (mostly herps), and there were a lot of them. I was able to learn many fascinating things about the local fauna and even see many of them first hand, which is just not something you get to do in the classroom. We were also shown and educated on the local culture, which was very different and interesting for me as I have never been to the Caribbean before. If I had to pick one thing about it I was not satisfied with (aside from drowning my camera) it would have to be the time. I have a feeling there is so much more to learn and experience, as well as other cool projects to work on, and you just can’t do it all in 30 days. I am very thankful for this opportunity, and feel that it helped me greatly on my road to becoming a future biologist. This experience was definitely one that I will never forget.

Acutus a button

I recently spent a couple of days on the island of St. Croix to capture Anolis acutus, a species endemic to the island and closely related to the trunk-crown anoles of Puerto Rico. It was a great trip, and there were lizards everywhere. I stayed at an organic farm in the "mountains", and, as part of the deal to stay there at a very low price, when I wasn't catching lizards I helped the owners pick fruit and hoe their gardens. I had a good time doing it, and I never had to go to the grocery store! Now I start my last round of sprint trials before heading back to NC.

Exceptional Hunters

If you have been keeping track of our trip, you know by now that Leiocephalus is a major player in our study. I have commented before on a few aspects of their behavior, including their foraging. The movie below (exerts from a longer movie), courtesy of Dave, shows that Leiocephalus are exceptional hunters. Having the behavioral flexibility to forage on bugs, lizards, flowers, and fruits is already pretty impressive. But this observation tops all the previous ones. Furthermore, if you had thought that anoles might be able to escape from the jaws of a Leiocephalus, you might need to reconsider. The video clip is from a curly-tailed lizard that was foraging at the intertidal zone and came a across a "mangrove crab". Mangrove crabs have somewhat square & hard carapace, can move relatively quickly, and can use their claws effectively. However, curly-tails are the "tigers" of the cays, although their diets might be a little more diverse.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Tools of the trade II

A recent discussion with JBL on the pros and cons of different methodologies used to measure dewlap spectral properties has prompted me to write this post. I would like to begin by stating the obvious: you should take my words with a grain of salt. None of my graduate students have followed in my footsteps to work on dewlap color, which might speak volumes about their perception of my expertise on the subject.

As a post-doc I had the honor to learn how to collect spectral data from "El Jefesisimo". However, by no means should Leo be blamed for my lack of skill. Over the years we have built a nice number of gadgets with the objective of getting those elusive "perfect" measurements. In the case of dewlaps, I am referring to a nicely extended dewlap, in which the surface is flat (i.e., scales are not irregularly arranged due to way the dewlap is being expanded, thus avoiding the possibility of specular reflection), the dewlap is not pressed against any surface (to avoid the problem of having different distances between the probe and the surfaces of the dewlaps), and the dewlap is not over-extended (which can result in an increase in brightness … and by the way, lack of full extension or compression of the dewlap results in the opposite problem -- you may begin to think that you have a dewlap that is darker than it really is). Note, in the case of the anoles dewlap the pigments are not limited to only the areas between scales, as illustrated below by a histology prep of the dewlap of A. cristatellus pigments are also present within the scales.

As I learned very early on in my attempts to measure dewlap color, one of the major pitfalls of using a spectroradiometer (yes, the correct term is spectroradiometry, not spectrophotometry) is that those gizmos don't come with a "garbage" detector. Therefore, they suffer from the “garbage in, garbage out syndrome”. In other words, the quality of data is directly correlated with the quality of the surface being measured. You will always get a spectrum by measuring any surface; the question is how good of a representation is that spectrum. I have convinced myself that the best method to hold the dewlap is by having it extended with a gizmo like the one shown in the photo below. It is not perfect, but is as close to a natural extension that I have been able to achieve. Also, I can easily control (and actually see) the location of the probe without any need to guess.

I have also tried holding the lizard by hand and expanding his dewlap sideways and take spectrums by using the probe-holder sold by Ocean Optics to hold the probe in place. There are two problems with this. First, it is impossible to accurately know where the probe is located (I don't like that). Second, the holder is so heavy that it tends to change the surface of the dewlap (i.e., scales can change their arrangement and the dewlap gets a funny looking bend on the area on which the holder is located) I am not a big fan of those two possible sources of noise.

The other important component needed for measuring dewlaps is the light source. If possible, my preference is to use a Xenon-Arc lamp. Those are great, a nice continuous spectrum similar to sunlight and with sufficient energy across all the relevant regions of the spectrum. Moreover, in the lab I can use a radiance probe, which is more accurate than a reflection/backscattering probe. However, it is impossible to bring those to the field. Thus, in the field I mostly use a xenon-flash -- not the best -- but it does a relatively decent job. If you are using flash, then you must use a reflection/backscattering probe. A note about using those probes: they are composed of multiple fibers, and the light source must be connected to the outside ring, while the recording fiber (a single center fiber) is connected to the spectroradiometer … not the other way around! The probe is designed to create a somewhat diffuse light spot and to collect data from the center of the circle. This means that, in reality, you are only sampling the center of the circle. Which should be equally illuminated by the diffuse source. Also, in the case of reflection/backscattering probes, the distance between the probe and the surface must be kept constant because measurements are sensitive to distance. It probably goes without saying that the diameter of the circle will change as a function of distance to the surface being measured and thus the measurements.

This may simply be the deranged rambling of a grumpy old man, but I hope it is of some help.

Friday, June 10, 2011


The lousy weather continues. Yesterday we had a productive morning, but during the afternoon big dark clouds decided to make their presence felt at Snake Cay. Today, more of the same, a storm is seating right above us and there seems to be no end in sight. It is going to be down to the wire to get those last few observations.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Cocinando con Maria y Angela

We had bad weather this afternoon -- windy, completely overcast, and relatively cold -- which put our data collection on hold. However, the bad weather provided an opportunity for El Jefe to teach Maria and Angela how to prepare some authentic Puerto Rican cuisine. The lesson of the day: the highly popular and easily prepared "tostones." Both Maria and Angela quickly became experts at making tostones.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Tools of the trade

After a few years of collecting behavioral observations under natural conditions, our "tools of the trade" have evolved with our methodology. We currently use mini-DV camcorders. After a period of testing, we are very pleased with our current set-up. I am a fan of Canon. So far our camcorders have sustained a considerable amount of "not so friendly" treatment, and they keep clicking. I should probably point out that I don't get any free equipment from them, although I wouldn’t mind being sponsored by them. Also, I like the fire-wire option, which allows for easy and fast playback on computers. You can call me old fashioned, but I am not a fan of the new digital hard-drive cameras. When you are recording hundreds of observations as we do, tapes provide a much friendlier way to store the data.

We have two distinct combinations of equipment. For our work on time-budgets, our “set” consists of (a) a mini-DV camera, a small compact camera with a manual focus option that is admittedly somewhat awkward, but useful for the occasional need to focus in on the lizard; (b) three extended life batteries, total recording time 10 hrs; (c) lightweight monopod with quick-release plate; (d) plenty of empty tapes, we can fit 4 extras inside our cases; and (e) a trusty water-proof & impact-resistant Pelican case. You might think, “there’s no need to use a mono-pod with such a small camera.” Well, think again. When you are trying to follow lizards for an extended period of time, anything that helps to increase the steadiness of the footage is a must. In addition, the set contains a Rite-in-the-rain notebook, tailor’s measuring tape, and mechanical pencil. This is a small compact set, which fits inside most backpacks and can stand the daily pounding, including occasional ocean spray, rain, heat, and the occasional drop of the backpack or Pelican case.

For our work on the physical properties of head-bobs displays, our equipment gets a little more complex. Again, we use (a) a Canon -- this one is our work-horse, with Hi-Definition recording and manual controls (such as the focusing ring that is quick and reliable); (b) sturdy tripod – you can’t get good videos for this type of work with out a stable tripod because the slightness shake prevents accurate quantification of head movements; (c) sturdy quick-release tripod head -- after using a few different types, we have found that the ball- type works best as it’s easy to use and carry around; (d) extra-batteries -- enough for 12 hrs of videos; (e) a large Pelican case that is big enough to fit the camera, tapes, batteries and tripod head; (f) an anemometer -- this one has a separate Pelican case; (g) a digital range finder, which is also transported inside its own Pelican case, and (h) our trusty ping-pong ball. This set is a little heavier than the other, weighing altogether approximately 20 - 25 pounds. However, again, we have found what seems to be strong enough to survive in the field, here under salty conditions or in the rainforest, while also collecting high quality data. Note, this set is approximately ten times more expensive than our focal observation set. Thus, if you are not interested in very fine details, there is no need to go overboard with something like this.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Foraging Extravaganza

In anoles, as is the case for most reptiles, most of what we know about their diets comes from studies of stomach contents from museum specimens. Over the last three weeks, we have observed brown anoles capturing a diversity of prey items. Below are a couple of video clips of anoles foraging on prey items that I found somewhat surprising. The first one shows a male foraging at the intertidal zone during low tide. Our observations indicate that anoles commonly visit the intertidal zone where they forage for marine isopods. YES, marine isopods, which I am guessing might have a high salt concentration, which raises interesting questions about possible physiological mechanisms to deal with salty prey. The use of the intertidal zone occurs more often in cays where curly-tailed lizards are absent.

In the second video, a male brown anole is foraging up in the "canopy" and tries repeatedly to eat a small berry. Interestingly, or maybe not, we have observed this behavior (i.e., foraging for fruits) on islands where curly-tails are present.

Monday, June 6, 2011

New Captain

Meet our NEW captain in training.

Maria is currently driving with a restricted permit. However, she is a fast learner, and her abilities to navigate the waters of Snake Cay are improving very quickly. Although, she needs some extra practice on how to navigate in low tide, as illustrated by the picture below.

Sunday, June 5, 2011


The head-bob displays of anoles have been studied for decades. In the early 1970's, Tom Jenssen's pioneering work began to unravel the intricacies of these motion signals. This work was followed by research conducted by Leo Fleishman (A.K.A. "Jefesisimo"), who elegantly demonstrated that head-bobs are designed to be conspicuous against background vegetation movement. Dave's research is building upon the work of Tom and Leo by evaluating the plasticity of head-bobs, along with possible mechanisms that anoles might employ to increase the likelihood of being detected by conspecifics. Today's video illustrates one such mechanism: note (in slow motion) how the anole is pushing so vigorously with his forelimbs that both limbs leave the perch! This behavior results in extremely high amplitude displays, which should be easily detected by conspecifics.

Also, Dave has a new field assistant, look carefully and you should see the assistant standing next to Dave and ready to run down any misbehaving anole.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Got you!!!!!!

The anoles are learning the hard way that there is no place to hide when Angie is conducting focal observations. Think you can run under a rock and feel safe? Think again. That is "a piece of cake" for Angie. She'll just take the camera off the monopod, get down to the ground while holding the camera with one hand, and continue describing exactly what's going on. In case you are wondering, it takes only a few seconds to complete this maneuver.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Look Who's Bobbing

Although most of our research revolves around the behavior of anoles, we are also interested in understanding the behavior and ecology of Leiocephalus curly-tailed lizards. Compared to anoles, our current understanding of the behavior and ecology of curly-tails is extremely limited. My observations suggest that most curly-tail individuals are inquisitive with very bold personalities. Also, their social displays are very different from those used by anoles. Below is a short video clip of one of their advertisement displays, which typically include a series of push-ups and head-bobs given with the back arched. Curlies, like anoles, also have a "dewlap" like structure, which is usually kept extended during the displays. However, the "dewlaps" are tiny and nothing to be proud off when compared to the mighty and glorious Anolis dewlap.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


The mating behavior of anoles has been mostly studied in two species, A. carolinensis and A. sagrei. In the case of A. sagrei Richard Tokarz and his students have conducted a significant amount of research on multiple aspects of their mating behavior. One of my favorites is the research demonstrating that males are able to recognize and remember the females they have mated with, even after not having any sort of visual or physical contact with those females, over a period of few days. Today, Maria joined the ranks of those who have "enjoyed" watching mating behavior in anoles. No words are needed to describe Maria's excitement, just watch the video and listen to her play-by-play description.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011


A good number of videos are already transcribed, and we have a few "LIZARD-ISMS" to share with our followers.

"It's going to be difficult to get this lizard on video without falling into the ocean ..... but I'm going to try."

"Jump, Jump, Jump, Run, Jump, Oh my God, Jump ......."

"There's a branch in my stomach and it's probably poisonwood."

"No, no .... there was a noise after the spitting out spider webs."

"Jeeze, there's another male! They're everywhere!"

"I'm getting a leg workout right now."

"I can feel the sweat rolling down my back .. it's gross."

"Alright, you better stay here for at least 5 minutes or you're going to die......just kidding ..she's too cute to harm."


Today I drove from the south coast of Puerto Rico up to the El Yunque rain forest to collect a couple of new species to run. This took me past the famed Guavate lechoneras, so I stopped in for lunch. This is my favorite place to eat in Puerto Rico, and it didn't disappoint. Roasted pork, rice, and sweet plantains. DELICIOUS! And here is a link to a video where you can see the place ( It's towards the end of the clip.