Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Mastering the Nuances of the Sea

In the morning hours, El Jefe drives the 2011 Chipojo Team to their respective cays. He knows the waters around Snake Cay so well that he has been offered adventure tour guide jobs by several local fishermen who have noticed his skills.

'Sorry, guys, maybe in another lifetime. Too much lizard chasing to be done.'

Monday, May 30, 2011

Perils of Lizard Watching

As you might know by now, we are committed to documenting the behavior of lizards under natural conditions, with the objective of understanding the proximate and ultimate mechanisms shaping the evolution of behavioral traits. To do so we spend a significant amount of time watching lizards, from sunrise to sundown. This means that we need to be up before the sun, and sometimes it is not easy to get out of bed. A picture is worth a thousand words.
However we all manage to be up early and ready to go. Believe me, we better be ready, because in some instances it is critical to move with the precision of a surgeon while filming lizards, particularly when you are surrounded by POSION WOOD. As Dave was yesterday. Poison wood takes no prisoners; you touch it and you pay the price, usually in the form of nice size blisters.

However, there's no need to feel sorry for us. Most of us love what we do.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Orchids and Curly-tails

Two days ago, Angie and Maria observed a curly eating the flower of a species of orchid native to the Bahamas (see picture of flower below). They were both very excited to share their observation, particularly because the curly repeatedly reached for the flower petals from a different perch than the one that the orchid was attached to.
Here is how Angie described her observation to me: "While searching for anoles I witnessed something unexpected. Maria had found her first anole accidentally when she was observing an orchid. I found a different orchid and thought that I might get lucky and find an anole nearby, but instead I noticed a curly-tail lizard perched next to it. I started to record the lizard’s information and when I looked up again it was chewing on the orchid. “Hey Maria… the curly tail’s eating an orchid- do they do that?!” I thought that it might have been a mistake but a few moments later the curly-tail leaned over from its perch and started chewing on the flower again. By the time it was done, the majority of the flower was gone. A little while later, Maria witnessed the same lizard biting the flower again. There aren’t very many anoles on cay Y5 and they usually perch very high; maybe they curly-tails have as much trouble finding them as I do."

When I heard this, I told them that it was "pretty cool" which it is. But in the back of my head, I was thinking that such an event must be very rare or that maybe the curly was simply trying to catch an insect and in the process also consumed part of the flower --although it does look like the curly at least reached for the flower twice. However, on the following day, I observed the identical behavior: a curly climbing up a perch, plucking the flower off an orchid. On this occasion the lizard grabbed the whole flower, tearing it off from the stem. Seeing the same behavior on two different days and in different areas of the cay came as a big surprise. The likelihood of observing a rare event two days in a row, by definition, is extremely low and therefore pokes holes in my original idea of a rare event.

A couple of recent reviews have addressed the possibility that lizards might serve as pollinators and seed dispersers. Data supporting these ideas comes from observations documenting that a number of lizard species include fruit and nectar in their diets. Interestingly, this phenomenon might be more common in islands. However, in our case instead of acting as pollinators, the lizards might be having a negative effect on the fitness of the orchids. Based on my observations, this species of orchids produces a relative small numbers of flowers during a narrow period of time --late spring early summer. Therefore, loosing their flowers to predation might be costly, in terms of reproductive success. Thus to determine how common this orchid-eating behavior might truly be, we began a pilot project today, which is being spearheaded by Maria and Angie. We will give an update of our success (or lack thereof) in a fortnight.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Research Update

If you have been keeping up with the Chipojo Lab's blog for the past several years, then you should be quite familiar with the work that is being done down here in Abaco. If you have forgotten, do not fret; here is a quick refresher: we are studying the ways in which Anolis sagrei responds behaviorally to the presence of one of its main predators, Leiocephalus curly-tail lizards. This project has involved hours upon hours of filming anoles in the field, coupled with hours upon hours of transcribing videos back in the lab (or house if you are Angie, Dustin, or Maria). All of this work has allowed us to begin to understand how anoles shift their habitat use, activity patterns, degree of social interaction, etc., when under the constant threat of predation.

In June 2010 Manuel and I filmed more than 100 head-bob displays of male A. sagrei in an effort to determine whether the presence of curly-tail lizards also impacts anole behavior on an even finer scale. Specifically, we predicted that predator presence might affect certain physical components, such as amplitude, of the 'broadcast' head-bob displays of territorial male anoles. Our preliminary results were quite interesting, so we decided to collect more data on head-bobs this year! Data collection is already going fairly smoothly, and our head-bob count is growing steadily each day. Below is a video of one such head-bob that was filmed several days ago. Below the video is an illustration (display-action-pattern graph) of how the lizard's head moves though time, with the red line highlighting the head movement of greatest amplitude.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Working in Paradise

When I tell my colleagues that some of my fieldwork takes place in the Bahamas, I usually get the following response: "Do you call that work? Let me know when I need to pack my swimsuit to join you." I have to say, I enjoy working here, most of the time. The area is packed with marine wildlife, and there is a decent amount of bird and plant diversity. The sunrises and sunsets are stunning and the water is crystal clear, which brings me back to my colleagues and their generous offer to help. There are a few wrinkles of our field site that can be disappointing to those interested in enjoying the beach. First, there are no beaches where we work. Our study site consists of a series of small islands, or more accurately, rocks formed out of limestone. Through time these rocks have been pounded by waves resulting in a uneven surface with many sharp, jagged points that make walking on them less than comfortable. Oh, and I nearly forgot, these rocks get extremely hot (up to 120 °F according to our temperature data loggers!). This heat might explain why most of our tennis shoes only last one season of fieldwork -- the soles literally melt. Also, the heat and humidity can lead to very impressive storms. However, no storms are big enough for Angie and Maria, who are happily walking toward one.

Second, we spend a nice amount of time walking with a decent amount of equipment, including backpacks and heavy Pelican cases, across (or in) a somewhat muddy sea-floor, which is riddled with jellyfish. Needless to say, you can even feel the stings through your clothes -- one of the instances where a swimsuit is not a particularly good idea. In case you are wondering: yes, we have boat. However, at low tide it is impossible to use a boat, and if you are in the field for 12 hours, you might get lucky and experience low tide twice on the same day. Below is Dustin triumphantly walking out of one of our cays and into the middle of the channel.

Finally, coming back to those gorgeous sunrises and sunsets, it turns out that they are also the peak-time for sand-flies, which means every morning when we are trying to get the boat ready, we are also fighting a dense cloud of sand-flies. Another reason why you want to wear long pants and long-sleeve shirts. In a nutshell, working here can be a little harder than a typical day at the beach. As illustrated by Dave's face as he approaches the boat.

However, each day brings a NEW ADVENTURE and we are glad to be here. Please come and join us, but you might want to pack working clothes instead of your bathing suits.

Not Mona, but still hot

Unfortunately, my plans to travel to the desert island Mona were sucked into a bureaucratic black hole and I wasn’t allowed to go, despite having all of the permits and permissions, etc. But have no fear, the science continues!! Yesterday I traveled to the Bosque Seco (dry forest) region on the south coast of Puerto Rico and collected two new species to run, Anolis poncensis and Anolis cooki. Staying in relatively cool northern Puerto Rico, I forgot how hot the dry forest gets. Luckily I had my new Kmart straw hat with teal trim to keep me cool. This versatile little number allows you to go straight from a hard day of field work to your favorite denture outlet or nursing home without having to change. I’m almost glad I forgot my field hat at home.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Data Update

Below is a summary of our current sample size. These numbers represent nine days of lizard chasing. Although we have a long road ahead, at the current pace we should be able to enjoy the 4th of July festivities. Please give a big round of applause to Angie, Dustin, and Maria for all the hard work.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A Budding Behavioral Ecologist

Descriptions of anole social interactions have a rich history. For example, in The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, Darwin describes in great detail the maleness of male anoles. In a similar vein, a paper written by Shufeldt (1883), published in The American Naturalist, used a flowery approach to describe signaling in A. carolinensis. More recently, in the early 1960's Tom Jenssen, Stan Rand, Rodolfo Ruibal, and Judy Stamps wrote a series of papers, addressing social interactions in anoles, which have become the foundation of the field. Even with this rich history, it is extremely difficult not to get excited when witnessing male-male combat in anoles, particularly if you are doing so for the first time (as illustrated by this short video clip recorded yesterday by Angela). This is Angela's first experience collecting behavioral data on anoles. Clearly she is having a blast.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Life in Paradise

Two staples of Caribbean islands are malta and a nice comfortable hammocks. Some members of our team are learning the Caribbean way of life quickly.
Today, Maria had her first taste of malta -- possibly the most popular drink of the Caribbean. She was so positively impressed by the richness and combination of bold flavors of malta that she will be bringing a six-pack of it back to Schenectady to share with her friends.

Dustin, on the other hand, has rapidly become an expert at napping in the hammock. For an Indiana native, he is quite good at it.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Meet Nolan

Angie, Dustin, and Maria were asked today what they liked most about this experience after being here for their first week. The answer was unanimous: “Nolan.” Nolan is the resident anole here at our beach house. His territory ranges across our back porch and he is always quick to display to us when we approach, as you can see here.

Nolan enjoys long walks on the beach, doing push-ups, and watching dramatic sunsets. If interested, he can be found in his conch shell.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Run Lizard Run II

As El Jefe posted below, I’m in Puerto Rico studying the thermal physiology of anoles. While Jefe, Dave and company are boating around the Bahamas and drinking Kalik at the beach house, I’m spending my days hunkered under a 60 watt light bulb in a windowless basement at the Mata de Plátano field station. It’s dark, moldy, and smells funny, but actually, I’m very happy to be there. It happens to be a great place to film lizards sprinting on a racetrack. And when I’m not in the basement, I have a great view of the lush Puerto Rican “karst” forest! Right now I’m working with the “grass-bush” species of anoles, but in three days I travel to Mona Island to collect the infrequently studied Anolis monensis, a “trunk-ground” anole. Mona is called the “Galapagos of the Caribbean”, so I’m looking forward to seeing it!

Bright and Early

Angie and Maria hard at work transcribing videos at SEVEN IN THE MORNING before what will be a long day in the field!
Such dedication makes El Jefe jump for joy.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Run Lizard Run

Alex is currently in Puerto Rico conducting fieldwork. As part of his project, he is measuring temperature dependent sprint speed on all the members of the cristatellus group. Take a look at his improvised laboratory setup, which includes, high-speed video (120 frames per second), lizard race-track, school desk and whiteboard.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Land Bridge

Over the last few years we have wondered if lizards can move between Y5 (one of our experimental islands) and a relatively small island located a few meters away. Usually, these islands are divided by a channel of approximately 2.75 meters wide and 1 meter deep. However, during periods of extremely low tide -- we are currently in one of those periods (see picture) -- a couple of land bridges are formed between the two cays.

Today, I got the answer to our question. I was conducting behavioral observations on Y5 and decided to take a quick look around the adjacent small island. To my surprise a curly was happily perching in the middle of the island. The curly had Tom's signature. In other words, it was marked by him last week as part of his population census which he only does on Y5. Thus, the matter seems to be settled, lizards are able to move between the two islands during periods of extremely low tide. For some of my colleagues this is another example of "The Principle of Unsympathetic Magic"

Thursday, May 19, 2011


We have had a series of exciting events over the last two days. Yesterday, we had a minor, or may be major, hiccup with the toilet. In a nutshell, instead of flushing it was more like a fountain shooting "water" over its rim. After a series of unsuccessful and somewhat messy plungers attempts, three different types of plungers to be exact, we were able to control the fountain in a less messy way. Another trip to town and a bottle of "draino" did the trick. At the moment the fountain seems to be under control. Today, we began the afternoon with a close encounter between the tire of our van and my backpack. The result of the collision, a crushed METAL water bottle and an extremely uncomfortable backpack frame -- it looks like backpack frames are not as hardy as a pelican cases! To finish the day, it is clear that operating fancy electronic gadgets is not one of my strengths. I expressed to the youngest member of the team my frustration with trying to delete a picture from her camera. And after receiving a 'give me a break' type of exclamation, I was reminded "you ONLY need to push the button with the symbo of the trashcan to delete a picture."

Guess Who

Can you guess who is the unexpected visitor.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011


Dave hard at work, teaching Angie, Maria, and Dustin how to extract and enter the data from the focal observations (i.e., videos). You can see how attentive Angie is to Dave's advice, while Dustin is in the background getting his computer ready. I have to say, Dave is a NATURAL at teaching, particularly in this type of improvised situations. He is cool as a cucumber and extremely clear. Fieldwork and teaching are clearly his calling.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Leiocephalus Diet

The diet of Leiocephalus keeps expanding. Today we discovered that they also prey upon the introduced house gecko (Hemidactylus mabouia). At Snake Cay, I caught an adult female curly, (SVL 78 mm) and while handling her, she barfed a blob of body parts, including a relatively undigested tail (see attached picture). Based on the size of the tail my best guess is that it was a juvenile gecko of approximately 35 mm SVL. Take a careful look at the tail and you should see the very distinctive triangular scales and the banded pattern characteristic of Hemidactulus mabouia.

"Need to Get a Bond"

Dave came in yesterday, and to his surprise and mine too, he was stopped at Customs. The crime: bringing in an OLD video camera, a few of boxes videotapes, lizards poles, flagging etc. -- the same stuff we have brought every year for the last 5 years without any problems. Every day is a NEW day in paradise. You should have seen his face when the customs agent told him "that he needed to get a bond" to be able to collect his luggage. After a series of long discussions, which included multiple times being told he needed a special permit to do a "photo shoot," we were able to collect the luggage ... but not without paying a hefty deposit, 45% of the total value of the OLD pieces of equipment! One more permit to get next year, WAHOOO!!!!!

Monday, May 16, 2011


The new team is here, and they are already having the famous Goombay Punch, from left to right, Dustin (Ball State University), Maria (Cornell University), Angie (University of Connecticut). Dave is also here, and because we will be here for a while, he decided to bring his exercise equipment, including a pilates ball.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

First Chapter Done

JBL and Jason have moved to greener and taller pastures (e.g. Staniel Cay). Which means that the first part of my field work is done. A relatively successful week, we were able to sample all the islands and collected a respectable sample size, nearly 140 lizards. All the islands have a relatively healthy population of lizards and we are looking forward for our next survey in 2013. For me and the new members of The Chipojo Team (Maria, Angie, and Dustin) and the returning expert Dave the fun is about to begin. The team will arrive Monday. Stay tuned to meet the members of the group and the developments of our project.

Poll: What Is This Contraption Used For?

Poll: What Is This Contraption Used For?
The third generation of one of my gadgets, custom made to collect data in a precise and repeatable way.

Friday, May 13, 2011


Our leader has achieved a NEW RECORD. He has scored a BIG ZERO on two consecutives days. Yes, not a single lizard in hand. It should be mentioned, that over the last two days we have visited a total of 10 cays and he has come empty-handed every single time. We have been working on this project for 7 years and I don't recall such a poor performance by any member of the team during this time.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A Lesson From The Master

I have had some difficulties with the ethernet connection the last couple of days, which has resulted in no posting. Please take a look at the video, illustrating how a MASTER catches anoles. I have to say our record is much better than the outcome of this video. So far, we have captured over 100 lizards. From those individuals we have have taken morphological (e.g., x-rays) genetic, and dewlap specs (see picture) prior to returning them back to their respective "houses" safe and sound.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Back In Paradise

Today was my first day back in Snake Cay. This is going to be an exciting field season. It is the 4th year of the experiment and we will be collecting behavioral data for approximately 4 wks. In 2009 we collected 120 hours of focal observations, and the goal is get another 150 hours this summer. The data from 2009, suggest that A. sagrei was beginning to change his habitat preferences, due to the presence of curly tails. This year we will have the opportunity to see if the anoles have completely changed their habitat used.