Anolis: The Most Written About Lizard Genus?

In the era of Big Data, we can ask questions that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.  Consider the types of questions we can ask using Google’s Ngram Viewer, which uses full-text searches of >4% of all books ever printed to characterize relative word or phrase usage over time (this approach was initially described in a 2011 Science paper about “Quantitative analysis of culture using millions of digitized books“).

Among the most important questions one might ask with the Ngram Viewer is “What is the most written-about lizard genus?”  I did some preliminary scouting to assess the relative usage of some of the lizard genera that I guessed would be the most popular. I quickly narrowed my queries to the five taxa – Anolis, Sceloporus, Varanus, Lacerta, and Gekko – that I think give the most interesting graphs for discussion. I excluded other potentially popular genera from my queries for for a few reasons. Iguana is very popular, but I eliminated it because it is often used colloquially to refer to lizards that don’t necessarily belong to the genus Iguana. Eumeces never appears as frequently as the other genera in my searches. Pogona is immensely popular as a pet, but usage of this genus name is still far below the others in my list.

Ngrams_1800_1900Lacerta jumps out to a big early lead and maintains a strong lead throughout the 19th century, thanks to its widespread use in Latin-language literature from the 19th century and countless books about the European fauna (Ngrams Viewer even provides links to the books or articles containing the phrase of interest!).

Ngrams_1900_2000In the early 20th century, Anolis joins the competition as one of the most popular lizard genera, and opens up a sizeable lead by the 1980s that it maintains until the turn of the 20th century.  Although Anolis is briefly surpassed by Varanus in the 2000s, it nudges back into the lead by the end of 2008!



There you have it folks, quantitative proof of the popularity of Anolis!  Have I failed to consider some genera that might be competing with Anolis in the lizard genus popularity contest?

19 thoughts on “Anolis: The Most Written About Lizard Genus?

    1. It seems that Agama is a word in some Austronesian languages, and my cursory perusal of the ngrams search linked above suggests many/most Agama results are from the dual usage.

  1. In your previous post you wrote, “Uta stansburiana, is one of the most widely-studied lizard species” yet you left it out here. Unless there is a confounding issue I am unaware of, it may be winning this popularity contest.

    1. I stand by my claim that Uta stansburiana is one of the most widely-studied lizard species. As I’m sure you’re aware, however, the genus Uta is not particularly species rich or well-studied. I didn’t think to include it in my analyses because I assumed that studies of a single species wouldn’t be enough to drive Uta‘s popularity above that of more species-rich genera. A simple search with the Ngram viewer suggests that I’m correct. Although the graphing function indicates that “Uta” appears more frequently than “Anolis” in the literature, this appears to be due primarily to books by or about people named Uta: Google Ngram with Anolis and Uta.

  2. Note that Google Ngrams viewer is case sensitive. I accidentally searched for “gekko” rather than “Gekko” in the figures shown in this post, but correcting this capitalization doesn’t really change the popularity of this genus relative to the others.

  3. Please note that there have been splits in the genus Lacerta. You see two downward slopes in the graphs for Lacerta, that co-incide with the acceptation of the split between lacerta/Podarcis (around 1970) and the later split in smaler genera like Timon, Zoothoca, Archeolacerta etc.
    It would be a very different picture if the eight genera -split would have been used.

    1. The nice thing about the Ngrams viewer is that you can test these sort of speculations. Use of Podarcis definitely picks up in the mid-1970s, but is never very widely used in the literature. I’m not very familiar with the taxonomic history of Lacerta, but based on what I’ve seen I think its unlikely that even searches for all of the taxa included in Lacerta sensu lato would rival Anolis in popularity on Ngrams. Any such searches will be complicated by the fact that generic names like Timon are going to be difficult to isolate because this word has other uses.

    1. I just checked Ngram and they were tops in the early 30s and then a resurgence in the 50s before they made way for Anolis and Varanus.

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