Monday, July 2, 2018

Field Work in Paradise

This summer the Chipojo Lab has initiated some new projects at a fascinating new field site in the Indian River Lagoon on the Atlantic coast of Florida. We are working in the Indian River Aquatic Preserve which stretches for 12 miles along the Indian River Lagoon from Vero Beach in the north to Fort Pierce in the south, encompassing over 9500 acres of protected land. Florida’s aquatic preserves aim to maintain the natural beauty of Florida’s coastlines, managed for wildlife habitat, recreation, and cultural heritage.

A group of dolphins surface near one of our islands.

I am only slightly larger than a newborn 'tee.

Along the lagoon are countless spoil islands, which are small, man made islands that result when the debris dredged up to make the channel piles up and breaks the surface. These islands eventually become vegetated and have developed into unique wildlife habitat. Many of the larger islands are home to populations of green and brown anoles, which are the focus of our study. To get to these islands, as you might imagine, we needed a boat. For this purpose, the Chipojo Lab is now the proud new owner of El Lagartijo, a 14 ft aluminum jon boat that we brought with us all the way from Missouri. More about our ship later, though.

A beautiful mural on the local Manatee Center.

A vulture committee meeting we interrupted one morning.

The Indian River Lagoon is the most diverse lagoon ecosystem in the northern hemisphere,  containing a huge variety of habitats and species. During our time on the lagoon the last few months, we have been able to glimpse so many magical creatures. One important habitat are the expansive sea grass meadows, which a large proportion of the world’s West Indian manatee population calls home. We have seen manatees frolicking at one of our boat launches, Round Island, and just offshore of the islands we work on. Federally endangered wood storks nest in the lagoon, as well as many other migratory bird species. Our group has seen some boisterous nesting herons, committees of black vultures, ospreys carrying fish overhead, cormorants poking their long necks out from under the water, and pelicans diving in to catch their next snack. Dolphins also inhabit the lagoon, and we often see them catching fish and traveling past us in small groups. In addition to the majestic creatures described above, we have also seen some cool tiny critters as well, such as hermit, fiddler, and mangrove crabs, a Florida horse conch, and different sorts of fish jumping from the water. We have yet to see some cool species that call the lagoon home, such as diamondback terrapins and alligators. We are working on it, though!

Some manatees surfacing near the dock at Round Island.

There is nothing more beautiful than a calm, cool morning on the Indian River Lagoon, and I am so excited to have had this opportunity to work here.  

The striking view from the dock at the Indian River Waterfront Cottages, where we are staying.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Island Experiment on A. sagrei in Florida

Greetings from the southeast coast of Florida! My name is Stephanie, and I am working as a research assistant here with Levi and another assistant Leslie.  We have been working in Florida for about a month now and will soon start running our experiment once preparation has been completed.  For this experiment, Levi is testing learning in the brown anole, an invasive species here in Florida.  Since we are using man-made islands as experimental habitats, we have the capability to transport lizards to these areas and track their evolution. The goal for this project is to establish a database of brown anoles we put onto these islands as well as keep track of generations to come.

As of now, we have identified lizards and transported them to the islands.  We are in the process of surveying the habitats to check up on the lizards and make sure they are behaving normally and not being taken by predators.  We look forward to the commencement of this experiment and will give further updates as the project progresses.  Check back for more on the adventures of team El Lagartijo!

What a catch this little lady is! This is a female brown anole with a brightly colored dewlap and a red tinted snout

Leslie, Levi, and myself pictured as the subtropical storm Alberto passes over us

       Levi demonstrating his expert boating skills as El Lagartijo (our boat) glides across the Indian River Lagoon

Brighter is not always better

Those that follow the Chipojoblog are familiar with one of our core tenets: strive as best you can to design experiments under natural conditions. This philosophy reflects my own view that behavior should be studied in the field whenever possible. Our recent paper in Current Zoology,Visual playback of colorfulsignals in the field supports sensory drive for signal detectability,” is a prime of example of the power of this approach, in which an intimate understanding of the ecology and behavior of anoles was used to test a major prediction of the sensory drive hypothesis: are signals locally adapted? In other words, are dewlaps locally adapted to effectively grab the attention of an inattentive receiver?

Over the years we have published a series of papers supporting the hypothesis that dewlap diversity can be partially explained by selection to increase the probability of detection. However, until this paper, experimental evidence from the field was missing, in part because manipulating dewlaps of live anoles is not trivial. Furthermore, even if we were able to successfully manipulate dewlaps, there are still many other signals (e.g., body color, motion pattern, size and posture) that would be out of our control. This problem was solved by researchers working with acoustic signals a long time ago by figuring out ways to play the signal of interest in isolation in what have become known as ‘playback experiments.’ We stole a page from their book and constructed a remote-control dewlap apparatus, which provided an opportunity to display only the dewlap under natural conditions (see gizmo below).  Alex’s building and painting skills was key to the success of this gizmo. He was able to construct dewlaps with similar reflective and transmission properties of real dewlaps while taking into account the visual system of the anoles (please see papers for details). 
Control-remote dewlap display apparatus. A) Acrylic box within which electrical components were housed. B) Electrical components. C) The apparatus at a mesic site with a fake dewlap displayed.

Besides presenting the dewlaps in the field, we wanted to test the hypothesis that the dewlaps are locally adapted. Under this hypothesis, increased detection in one habitat comes at the cost of decreased detection in another habitat. This functional approach to test for adaptive value of a trait is commonly used as robust evidence to support selection favoring the evolution of the trait in question. In this paper we tested if the observed differences in dewlap brightness between xeric and mesic populations of Anolis cristatellus is adaptive. If so, dewlaps from mesic populations should be more detectable in mesic habitats and dewlaps from xeric habitats should be more detectable in xeric habitats. Furthermore, detection probability should decrease in the ‘wrong' habitat. Below are the results of the experiments.  In A. cristatellus individuals from xeric habitats have dewlaps which are darker, that is less brighter,  than individuals from mesic populations.
Responses of free-ranging A. cristatellus to fake dewlaps that mimic the brightness properties of real dewlaps.

Our findings support the sensory drive hypothesis and strongly suggest that the brightness  properties of A. cristatellus dewlaps are locally adapted via selection on signal detectability.  Furthermore, we have demonstrated that a brighter signal is not always the most detectable or effective signal. A common misconception, which is partially the result of not including the sensory system and habitat conditions as part of the analysis. Studies addressing potential functions and selective forces promoting the diversity of dewlaps found in anoles have flourished over the last decade,  nevertheless, these results are the best experimental evidence that we have to support the hypothesis that diversity of dewlap colors might be partially explained by local adaptions to habitat light conditions and the best smoking gun to support the idea that diversity of dewlap colors can be the result of local adaptations to habitat light conditions.  Additionally, our study once again underlines the need to measure both reflection and transmission when asking questions regarding the potential function of the dewlap because the two combine to determine dewlap coloration (brightness, coloration, etc.) in the real world.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

We Need Your Help

If you follow my blog, you may have noticed that my lab conducts a significant amount of research in Puerto Rico. As a Boricua, working in Puerto Rico provides me the opportunity to work with the flora and fauna that I have become familiar with since I was a little kid. Furthermore, the anoles from Puerto Rico have a long tradition in scientific research, and studies on them have paved the road for Anolis to become a model system in behavioral, physiological, and evolutionary ecology. In Puerto Rico, the general region around El Verde Field Station can be considered a hot-spot in anole research, and the station itself has hosted many of the pioneers of West Indian Anolis biology, including Stan Rand, George Gorman, Paul Hertz, Ray Huey, Ernest Williams, Judy Stamps, Harold Heatwole, and Joan Roughgarden to name a few. In fact, a Google search returned approximately 4000 anoles papers, for which some of the data was collected at El Verde. Like most of Puerto Rico, the field station was badly damage by Hurricane Maria. We, researchers that have worked at El Verde, are trying to raise funds to re-build and maintain the station, if you can help, it would be greatly appreciated.

The University of Puerto Rico was also badly damage, and the AAAS is raising funds that will be used to help the reconstruction of the science buildings. You can donate following this link.

Muchas gracias por la ayuda.  

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Team Perserverence

Greetings from El Verde—team Anolis gundlachi rides again! I am back at the station to observe the behavior of female A. gundlachi, joined by two fabulous helpers—Jessica and Phil. Phil joins us on a quick break from the Steen Lab at Auburn University. He’s met some A. cristatellus in Miami before, but he is enjoying getting to know some of the other species of anoles Puerto Rico has to offer, as well as many frogs and a whip scorpion! Jessica is our resident Coqui frog expert, and has become quite the lizard catching champion in our short time together. She will be starting a masters in the fall at the University of Rhode Island in the Kolbe lab—hopefully she won’t be tired of anoles yet?!

My team has a serious dose of perseverance this year. We are trying to stage territorial interactions with free living female anoles, and it is proving to be tricky and trying work. Jessica, Phil and I have tromped all over the forest staging trials—kudos to my team for staying in high spirits even when our lizards evade capture! I am thrilled to report that we have 19 successful trials to date. Here’s hoping we are able to move on to collecting some data on males soon!

Phil, Jessica, and Ellee: Fresh from the forest, and only a little damp.
I hope you enjoy the picture of us. This is us, fresh from the forest having encountered a torrential down pour. But have no fear, WE CAUGHT AND SAMPLED OUR LAST LIZARD IN THE POURING RAIN!

Monday, July 10, 2017

Fence lizard cognition

Welcome to another non-anole portion of the lab! Stephanie and I are currently studying problem solving in Sceloporus consobrinus, the Eastern fence lizard. We are using a similar setup to past testing of anole behavior by others in the lab but are instead testing a lizard native to Missouri. Our biggest challenge so far hasn't been the lizards--it's the weather! Testing lizards held in outdoor enclosures has brought variables we hadn't run into before, so trial and error is the name of the game so far. We think we're (sort of) getting the hang of it! Additionally, we are starting to explore the possibility that the lizards use their tails to produce vibrations that are detectable by insects, so we now have lots more to learn about making and setting up new equipment.

The fence lizards aren't as flashy as anoles, but they have their own splashes of color, especially the males. Another possible project will be testing how much of these blue and black patches reflect UV light. We hope to find out more soon!

 Number 26 is ready for her measurements

 Blue/teal patches on the sides of a mature male

Time to weigh them!
A gravid female

Thursday, April 27, 2017


Eddie, was awarded a Student Research Grant from the Animal Behavior Society. Eddie’s project will evaluate the potential contribution of head-bob displays to species recognition in anoles, and if hybrid populations exhibit head-bob displays that are distinct to the displays of the parental species.  
Eddie with one his study species, Anolis krugi