Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Feliz Navidad!

On Tuesday night, members of the Leal lab constructed our first entry for the annual holiday door-decorating contest hosted by Mizzou Biological Sciences. The lab has an illustrious record in door decorating, and we hope our contribution is up to par! Missouri is a little chilly for us these days, so we took it upon ourselves to add a sprinkle of island paradise to the department’s holiday festivities. There’s no snow, sleigh bells, or stockings, but we did build the 3D beach hut, starry night sky, and palm tree! No word yet from the judges, but we hope Santa appreciates the coconut and cookies we left for him and brings us all we really want for Christmas this year—completed construction on our fantastic new lab!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Fall Has Arrived

Fall has arrived at Mizzou, and the campus is bathed in an amazing collection of golden, orange, and red tones. The leaves of the tree behind us, which are a glowing palette of red and orange shades, are a perfect match to my Union College apparel. The building in the background of the photograph is Lefevre Hall, which will serve as "home" for our lizards in the near future. At Lefevre, two walk-in environmental chambers will provide the perfect conditions for keeping the lizards happy and will be the heart of the "CLCBC" Chipojo Lab Cognition Behavioral Center.
Brisk weather and amazing shades of reds
Manuel, Ellee and Eduardo

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

"Life Is A Flat Circle"

A long time ago, so long that I have forgotten the exact year, I moved from Puerto Rico to Saint Louis, Missouri, to join the lab of a young evolutionary ecologist at Washington University. This big move was partially prompted by the fact that my soon-to-be advisor was impressed with my lizard-catching abilities and promised me that as long as I was capable of catching more lizards than him, then I would be successful at getting a Ph.D. The rest is history: on more than one occasion I kept my side of the deal and collected more anoles than he did and he had no options but to sign my thesis. During the process Missouri became my second home.
 My advisor Jonathan B. Losos

After some time away from home, I am finally back in Missouri, now as a faculty member at the University of Missouri, Columbia. This is an extraordinarily exciting time for the Chipojo Lab, which currently consists of myself, Dave Steinberg, Ellee Cook, and Edward Ramirez. At Mizzou were are joining the  Division of Biological Sciences which includes a dynamic group of labs studying animal behavior and evolutionary ecology. We hope that our arrival here at Mizzou can broaden what is already an impressively broad research program in animal communication, which includes work on acoustic, vibratory, and visual signals.

Members of the Chipojo Lab and the Mizzou Tiger 

While this is an exciting time, it is of course also a very busy time. I will continue to post updates regarding progress made on lab renovations and all other interesting developments. Speaking of developments, our "smart" anoles were referenced in an article that appears early this week in "Der Spiegel," a news magazine in Germany, which included an electronic version with one of our videos.     

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Nasty neighbors—everybody’s got one

They’re noisy. They cause a ruckus. They tromp through the front yard. Everyone has an annoying neighbor—even anoles. And anoles are particularly grouchy homeowners. Many Anolis lizards are highly territorial, actively defending the area in which they live against the intrusion of other anoles. This behavior has been well studied in males—most are highly intolerant of trespassers, and will display at, chase, and in some cases, even physically fight with other males that wander into their territory. But what about females? Fewer studies have focused directly on female territorial behavior, and as a result, many exciting research questions remain unanswered.

For the past three weeks, I’ve been at El Verde field station in Puerto Rico trying to gain some insight into the territorial behavior of female Anolis gundlachi lizards. After a few frustrating days (I found maybe 10 females when I expected to see hundreds), I finally got the hang of it. With those days behind me, I settled into three small plots and (quite literally) stalked some female A. gundlachi. I’ve been keeping track of where females spend time, denoting where they perch within plots in relation to other females and males that reside in the area. I’ve also been observing their behavior, and trying to denote behaviors associated with territoriality in particular. From what I’ve seen, females are grouchy territory owners too.

Similar to males, females seem to perch consistently in the same areas within a habitat. Also like males, the females either keep a safe distance from others or suffer the consequences—I’ve seen many an intruding female chased from a favorite perch of the resident

And today I got the white whale—a full-blown, locked-jaws fight between two females. See the shot below, sorry for the terrible picture quality! 

Female A. gundlachi hash it out over--let's face it--a pretty lack-luster tree. 
I found these feisty ladies while wandering down a forest trail. They were obviously agitated, and so I stopped to film. After doing pushups at each other for several minutes, the females ran at each other and danced around the tree joined at the jaw for almost five minutes. Finally, one female literally ran the other off of the perch, chasing her down the tree and into the leaf litter. Oh, and our winner did a few follow-up pushups—just for good measure.

While I feel sorry for the battered trespassing female, it was exciting for me to see a territory dispute escalate so dramatically. I’ve collected territory data and observed several hours of female behavior, but nothing yet to this degree.

It’s been a great three weeks here at El Verde, and I look forward to analyzing the data I’ve collected on this trip. Ole ola!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Andale Andale Arriba Arriba

If you are my age, the saying "Andale Andale, Arriba Arriba" should immediately conjure memories of Speedy Gonzales and his ability to do everything REALLY fast.

Andale Andale Arriba Arriba 
It turns out that Speedy is not only a cartoon creation -- Dave is trying to emulate "Speedy" by flying to Puerto Rico last Wednesday, checking into Parador El Combate, and then instantly turning the room into his private laboratory.
Dave's set-up at Parador El Combate
As of today, he has already collected all the lizards he needs (30 male A. cristatellus) and completed half of his experiment, which involves measuring the visual grasp reflex of males to seven different stimuli. He will be back in Durham on Sunday, data in hand. As Speedy likes to say, "Andale Andale, Arriba Arriba." 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Can You See Me?

After a somewhat tortuous path, Dave's paper demonstrating signal modulation in response to predation pressure just came out in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. This study nicely illustrates the advantages of using a replicated design to conduct behavioral experiments under natural conditions. Such experiments are often characterized by unpredictability that can test the perseverance of any field biologist. In the case of this study, we had to endure tropical storms, the scorching sun, poisonwood, millions of sand-flies, and hundreds of horse-flies, in order to be prepared for the precise moment when a male Anolis sagrei would display. All of these nuisances were only exacerbated by a daily routine that included dealing with low tides that required walking in and out of islands carrying at least 20 pounds of video equipment. Kudos to Dave for collecting such a nice dataset. 

Dave feels fully hydrated after drinking two litters
 of his favorite "water"  

Dave walking to island (# 1) and wondering 
where is all the water
It has been long proposed that prey species should decrease the conspicuousness of their displays if predation risk is high. However, experimental data supporting this prediction are relatively rare, particularly for movement-based visual signals.  This study shows that A. sagrei can quickly decrease the amplitude of their head-bobs in the presence of the larger and predatory curly-tailed lizard. As illustrated by the figure below, anoles exposed to curly-tails decrease the amplitude of their displays by up to 60%. It should be noted that results presented in the study were collected in 2011, only three years after the beginning of the experiment. Therefore, the change has occurred relatively quickly. It is highly likely that this reduction in amplitude was already present in 2010; however, due to weather conditions we weren’t able to collect data for every island. 
Maximum amplitude of head-bob displays given by males Anolis sagrei  in the control and experimental islands
A second finding, which in my opinion can be a game changer in terms of how predation can impact individual fitness, is that a reduction in the amplitude of head-bob displays results in a much smaller signal active space (see figure). By integrating the motion detection parameters of the sensory system of A. sagrei, Dave was able to elegantly demonstrate that a reduction in the amplitude of head-bobs greatly reduces the signal active space of males on predator islands. For a territorial lizard that depends on signaling to attract females and to keep potential rivals away from its territory, a smaller active space should result in a reduction in reproductive success. This is an open question waiting to be answered! 
Differences in the active space of the signal between control and experimental islands. The inner circle corresponds to the active space in the presence of curly-tailed 
Another equally interesting implication of Dave's findings is the potential for changes in social dynamics resulting from smaller territory sizes.  For example, are males that were previously unable to secure territories now able to do so when the territory sizes of dominant males are reduced? Last but not least, are the results due to plasticity alone (i.e., modulation based on the perceived risk of predation) or is there some heritable variation in head-bob amplitude or accuracy of modulation that favors certain individuals? Our working hypothesis is that both of these likely interact. 

Popular press coverage:
Science News  


Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Bahamian Toast

After a couple of days out on the cays, I am happy to report that our experiment has survived the power of Hurricanes Irene and Sandy. On a number of cays, A. sagrei has bounced back to densities suggestive of viable populations. A great example is Cay #1, which had only two anoles last year, but now has double-digit lizards. One Pine has similarly recovered and currently supports thriving populations of both A. sagrei and Leiocephalus.   
Manuel paint-gun in hand, marking lizards as part of population density estimates at One Pine

To celebrate the continuation of our experiment, Jonathan gave a truly Bahamian toast by chugging a 2-liter bottle of Goombay Punch.
Jonathan celebrating the continuation of our experiment  

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Few Lizards and Bad Weather

Today was our first day out in the cays and our observations are mixed. Some cays appear to have extremely low population densities of anoles, and on a few others there is a high probability that A. sagrei populations are locally extinct. There is clear evidence that the surge from Hurricane Sandy, on some of our cays, was over one meter high, which is nearly as high as the tallest vegetation on some islands.
Note seaweeds nearly in the top of vegetation

However, it should be noted that the weather today was not the best for lizard catching: it was relatively windy and cloudy and included a heavy downpour. Because of the rain, tomorrow should be a great day for lizard activity, so we are holding out hope that our islands might be in better shape than today’s observations suggest. 
Dave and Jonathan having fun in the rain

Friday, May 2, 2014

We Are Back

Snappas an Abaco must visit grill and one of Dave Steinberg favorite relaxing spots.
We are back in Abaco and ready to begin our field season. If you are a follower of the blog, you might recall that last year we had serious problems due to hurricanes. The population density of anoles on a number of our study islands was very close to extinction levels. We are looking forward to tomorrow, our first day of this year's census, to get a better idea of the fate of populations. Have they bounced back or gone locally extinct? If the populations have increased in number, are there any phenotypic changes after passing through a bottleneck? Stay tuned for possible answers to these questions, which will be posted throughout the following weeks. 

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Good Luck In College

Gabrielle has finished her project in which she was evaluating the visual acuity of Anolis evermanni. This project was part of her senior thesis at the the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. To test the visual acuity of the lizards, she used the same behavioral paradigm that we developed to demonstrate associative learning and cognitive abilities in anoles. As is the case with most behavioral projects there were a few bumps in the road. Nevertheless, Gabrielle was always excited about what the lizards will do and it was great to have her as part of the team.  
Gabrielle and her "lizards" note, 
how the anole is attentive to the block