50th Anniversary of Ecomorphology

The field of anole ecomorphology was born 50 years ago this month when Bruce Collette published his pathbreaking paper, “Correlations between ecology and morphology in anoline lizards from Havana, Cuba and southern Florida” in the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology. It was this paper that first explicitly detailed the relationship between morphology and habitat use in Anolis lizards and this was the start of the research program of Rand, Williams, Schoener and others that today has made Anolis a textbook case of ecomorphological diversification. Indeed, because the term “ecomorph” itself can be traced to Ernest Williams’ classic 1972 paper (see p.56 of Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree), in many respects, this month represents an important landmark in the development of the field of ecological morphology.

            So, what did the paper say? The summary says it all: “This paper has attempted to correlate ecology with morphology in six species of Anolis from southern Florida and Havana, Cuba. It is felt that with proper ecological data, valid correlations can be made that can lead to an appreciation of the significance of characters often used in taxonomic analysis. Also, light is shed upon the structural adaptations that allow related sympatric species to occupy the same geographical area without facing deleterious competition. It has been shown that selection has acted so that lizards will usually match the color of their natural background. Examples have been shown to support the idea that peritoneal pigmentation is connected with exposure to radiation. The value of long legs to terrestrial lizards has been shown. Short relative tail length has been correlated with arboreality. The more arboreal members of a group of sympatric species have been shown to be larger and have more lamellae than terrestrial species. Data have been presented to support the contention that increased numbers of lamellae are an adaptation to increased arboreality.”

            And who was this Bruce Collette? Surely, after such a perceptive paper, he must have gone on to a distinguished career in herpetology. Well, half right. Bruce Collette did, indeed, go on to have (and continues to have) a distinguished career, but in ichthyology (he is curator of the same at the Smithsonian). Before doing so, however, he had an abiding interest in reptiles and, conveniently, parents that worked in Cuba before the days of the Revolution. A perceptive young naturalist, Collette made nine trips to Cuba while an undergraduate at Cornell, collecting the data that led to the paper.

            AA asked Collette for any reminiscences of the paper. Here’s his response:

After each visit to Cuba, I wrote up my findings and, of course, developed new questions for the next trip. I used the Anolis research in a couple of courses at Cornell and then presented the information at my first scientific meeting, ASIH at Higgins Lake, MI in 1956 for which I won my first Stoye award. Ernest Williams then approached me and generously offered to publish my research. He said that he wanted to differentiate what I had done from what he and his students, especially Stan Rand, were doing. Stan and Rudy Ruibal reviewed the ms and I am eternally grateful for Stan’s help in clarifying what I had done and why.

            You might be interested that the research was ended because of Fidel Castro. My wife, new baby, and I were down in Cuba (and watched the last part of the revolution on TV) when Castro took over eliminating the chance for any more trips to Cuba so I had to finally finish the paper.

            In an earlier draft of the ms, I explained the rationale behind the study. I went out to collect lizards in Cuba and found that some ran up fence posts and tree trunks and some ran down. Why?

            I spent several years answering that and related questions but the editors deleted those phrases from the ms. Probably not scientific enough! But I think it is important to document why we do these things and I would welcome the opportunity of restoring the opening phrase to my paper.

            Then, there was the time at ASIH after a paper on differences in behavior of sagrei and carolinensis when I was talking with the author and after a while, he suddenly realized that I was THAT Bruce Collette. He must have thought that the paper was published so long ago that the author must be dead by then. And that was several years ago.

            The two most rewarding things about the Anolis study. First, my prediction that the introduced sagrei would force carolinensis up into the trees like porcatus in Cuba has been supported by later studies. And then, Stan Rand (who as a graduate student with Ernest Williams successfully edited my paper by showing me what I was really trying to say) opened an Anolis symposium at ASIH with the slide from my paper showing the distributions of the diferent speies in Havana!”

            One last note: Over a long and productive career, Bruce Collette has published many important papers on fish biology. Nonetheless, a quick Google Scholar search reveals that his Anolis paper is his third most cited work (and barely nudged out by #2).  One can only wonder where anole biology would be today had Bruce Collette not dropped down the evolutionary ladder.

UPDATE: Bruce Collette commented on this post: “I also wonder what my life would have been like if I had chosen the other fork in the road. I had completed my BS but needed to wait at Cornell for another year while my wife finished her degree. So I asked Ed Raney, Bill Hamilton, and Howie Evans if I could work on an MS degree in herpetology with one of them. They all turned me down wanting no more herp students. Ed Raney suggested I do an MS in fishes and I thought, OK, an MS in fishes and then on to Michigan or some place for a Ph.D. in herpetology. But the “MS project” turned out to be more than that so I skipped the MS and ended up with a Ph.D. in ichthyology.”

About Jonathan Losos

Professor and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. I've spent my entire professional career studying anoles and have discovered that the more I learn about anoles, the more I realize I don't know.

6 thoughts on “50th Anniversary of Ecomorphology

  1. This is wonderful in so many ways, but especially for the abstract–man did he nail a bunch of significant aspects of lizard biology!–and those axed sentences about how it REALLY all started.

  2. Great story. Howie Evans was still a regular at Cornell Herpetology meetings during my time there (2004-2008) and beyond.

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