There are lofty goals, and then there is the Encyclopedia of Life. In case you haven’t heard of it yet, the Encyclopedia of Life is an international initiative to provide free access to detailed information about all the world’s species. The Encyclopedia of Life, or EOL, has 180 content partners, information from nearly 1,000 collections, over 750,000 species pages and more than 600,000 species images. To date EOL has drawn over 5 million viewers from across the globe.
Two years ago I got to participate in this project by helping to write pages for Anolis species as part of a class project for Harvard’s Herpetology course. In all the unbridled enthusiasm and the sense of endless time that comes with being a young graduate student, I decided that doing a single species page would not be nearly as exciting as describing an entire clade of anoles. Because I knew I would be working extensively with the cybotoids, a clade composed of the trunk-ground anoles from Hispaniola that is so near and dear to my heart, I decided to write pages for the whole group. When I embarked on this journey my list included A. armouri, A. cybotes, A. haetianus, A. longitibialis, A. marcanoi, A. strahmi, A. shrevei, and A. whitemani.
And that’s where the excitement began. The more I dug into this group, the more I realized there was to learn. And my first major problem was that the taxonomy for the group was anything but complete. Several papers, especially those by Ernest Williams and Albert Schwartz, hinted at possible problems in the cybotoid phylogeny. For example, Schwartz (1979) wondered whether Anolis longitibialis and A. strahmi were distinct species, or might simply be geographically distinct morphological variants of a single species. Williams (1963) described A. whitemani from specimens that had previously been ascribed to the widespread A. cybotes, and added ecological data to support the idea that this new taxon was a distinct, xerophilic entity. Schwartz (1989) questioned the validity of A. haetianus as a distinct species, as there were no diagnostic scale or other morphological characters to define this species. Rather, A. haetianus and A. cybotes share overlapping variation. The two high elevation cybotoids, A. armouri and A. shrevei, were not only described as new species, but rather were described by Doris Chochran as belonging to an entirely new genus, Audantia. I talked about how the rules of taxonomic revision resolved this muddy issue in a previous AA post.
An excellent paper by Rich Glor and colleagues in 2003 provided the first comprehensive molecular phylogeny of this clade. Several important points emerged from this study. Anolis haetianus was found to be phylogenetically nested within a A. cybotes, and was most genetically similar to those populations of A. cybotes nearest to its sampling site. In combination with the morphological data available, the tentative conclusion is that A. haetianus may not actually be a distinct species, but these data await further confirmation. The two high elevation taxa, A. armouri and A. shrevei, were phylogenetically nested within A. cybotes, although they did form their own distinct groups. Either these taxa were considered nascent species, at best, or they would render A. cybotes paraphyletic, which is reminiscent of the Norops vs. Anolis debate. Finally, A. w. breslini merited elevation to full species status for a similar reason – it rendered A. whitemani paraphyletic.
The goal of EOL pages is to provide a readable species account that gives all the relevant information without swamping the reader in too many details. Moreover, they are intended to be the one-stop shop for people searching for information on different species. If someone wants to know what information is available for A. haetianus, it will do them little good to have to mill through the entire species account for A. cybotes to find the small tidbits on their taxon of interest. For these reasons, I decided to create pages for all the taxa and, where appropriate, discuss the taxonomic issues on those pages and on the A. cybotes page. I have not, however, created a species page for A. breslini, as Glor’s paper is, to my knowledge, the last account of this taxon, and so all the relevant literature on its ecology and natural history are from papers on A. whitemani. It is, however, the eventual goal for a separate page to be created for A. breslini as more information on this taxon becomes available.
Needless to say, the species pages were not finished during the Herpetology course! Even with tremendous help from Juanita Hopwood, a former Harvard undergraduate who is pursuing a career in science writing, and Luke Mahler, who helped edit and format the pages, we are only just beginning to publish them. Luke Mahler, along with Rosario Castañeda, is also working extensively with the EOL and with the Anoline Lizard Specialist Group (ALSG), a group he helped found through the IUCN, to synthesize as much information about anoles as possible, so as to better understand which species are threatened, and how we can protect them. Last year we published the page for Anolis longitibialis, the rock and cliff-dwelling cybotoid from the southwestern Dominican peninsula and Isla Beata. We have just finished submitting some new edits for this page and are awaiting their publication. Just last month we published the page for Anolis marcanoi, a cybotoid found along the rocky streambeds of the Ocoa River in the Central Mountains that has a flamboyant red dewlap.
The pages for A. cybotes, A. shrevei, A. haetianus, and A. shrevei are also finished and awaiting final approval and publication by the EOL. Anolis cybotes is rare among the cybotoids and even among anoles in that it is relatively well studied. As a consequence there was a wealth of literature to delve into for this species page. All said and done, the page for A. cybotes is over 7,000 words long! The pages for A. whitemani (including A. breslini) and A. armouri are almost complete. Writing these pages was an immensely rewarding experience, and I enjoyed reaching out to various scientists and natural historians for papers, photos, and tidbits. Hopefully, before long, the pages for the entire clade will be available for the whole community.