Friday, July 15, 2016

It's All In The Little Things

 When you spend a lot of time learning about a single species, it is easy to start generalizing. You begin to assume that the individuals are more or less the same. Sure, there is a bit of variation here and there, but your brain seeks categories and determines rough averages:

“Most individuals are this big or that big.”
“In most cases, individuals will behave in this manner.”

But the more time you actually spend with the individuals in their day to day lives, the more you realize that the “bit of variation here and there” can be both substantial, and fascinating.

Deborah and I are trying to catch glimpses of this variation by observing the natural behavior of female Anolis gundlachi lizards. We know each of these lizards by “name”—they have unique IDs that enable us to identify particular lizards day after day. Over time, we get to know each of them. We start to see patterns.

Deborah's Forest "Escritorio"

Ellee's Favorite Observation Rock
We know who is always out—rain, shine, Ellee tromping past, they are always there, on that tree or this rock.

We understand that there are some lizards we will never glimpse until we sit on this rock, that far away, and watch a particular bunch of dead palm leaves with binoculars for 10 minutes. Give her that time and space, and sure enough, she will poke through the leaves and scamper over to the dead tree she seems to like.

And most annoying, we know which male is likely to tromp through the whole plot and mess up all the behavior observations as the females go skittering back into their hidey-holes. “Here comes O1/O2,” we sigh into our tape recorders. “Yep—yep she’s gone.” Poor, lonely O1/O2.

It’s the minor variation that makes things interesting. Why is this female out when the others have hidden? Why does this female run from this male, but the others don’t?

Collecting this kind of data is hard work. It takes time, practice, and a whole lot of patience. Losing lizards under rocks is frustrating, praying to the rain gods only seems to work on Tuesdays, and, on some days, lizards sit on the exact same perch all day long. But it’s the only way to truly capture that variation, and begin to wonder how it plays a role in the lives and history of the animals we all study.

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