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.