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.