The Evolution Of Caribbean Anole Neuroendocrine Systems

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What’s going on inside their heads? The four anole species of South Bimini, The Bahamas.

Whenever I stand in the forest on South Bimini in the Bahamas, I’m always struck by the similarity of these anoles to those I’ve worked with elsewhere in the Greater Antilles. Yes, that’s the whole idea behind the ecomorph concept, but as many have pointed out recently, habitat use and morphological convergence are only part of the story. Along with the classic divergence and convergence in body size and shape, the ecomorphs also show intriguing convergence in sexual size dimorphism and social behavior. It’s this latter aspect of the Caribbean anoles that interests me. How has this convergence in behavior, though it’s not perfect, happened? Have the proximate mechanisms that are responsible for anole behavior evolved in the same way on the various islands in the various ecomorphs? From a larger perspective we are asking, how do neuroendocrine systems evolve? That’s what my students and I are trying to figure out, and that’s why we’re in the Bahamas right now.

A few years back, Matt Lovern and I started a project examining circulating steroid hormone levels in four anole assemblages (The Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, and Jamaica). Based on a plethora of work in a variety of vertebrate species and their testosterone-behavior relationships, we predicted that we would find consistent intra-island differences among ecomorphs in testosterone (and corticosterone), with the ever-charismatic trunk-ground anoles showing the highest levels. Boy, were we in for a surprise. We did find species differences, and we even found consistent ecomorph differences, but not like we expected. Unlike the mainland green anole (Anolis carolinensis) and the introduced brown anole (Anolis sagrei) on the mainland (yes, the apparent difference in testosterone levels  between mainland and Caribbean brown anoles is probably a separate, interesting story!), trunk-ground anoles in the Caribbean have very low baseline testosterone levels. Twig anoles, on the other hand, are super-juiced with testosterone. I won’t give the whole story away, as we are working on getting it published, but the take-home message is that hormones are only part of the story, and testosterone likely plays very different roles in the behavior of the various species and ecomorphs. While this may not sound surprising to some, in some ways it is, because typically people only focus on circulating hormone levels to explain behavior, and testosterone levels tend to be pretty good predictors at a large scale. Although many proclaim that it’s not the hormones but the receptors, nobody has examined hormone receptor distributions in target tissues across a large number of closely related species. Again, that’s what we’re trying to do here in the Bahamas (and elsewhere).

We’ve been spending our time here on Bimini collecting brains for analysis of several potential regulators of social behavior in multiple brain regions known to be important in anole aggression and courtship behavior. My student Allison, who is here with me now, got some funding to spend the rest of the summer back in Minnesota sectioning and staining brains from the four ecomorphs here on Bimini. We’ve also been conducting “GnRH challenges” on these species to determine whether the baseline levels of testosterone that we’ve measured are as high as they can go. That is, when we physiologically stimulate the hypothalamus-pituitary-gonad axis to produce more testosterone, is it capable of doing so, and are there differences among species in that response? I’ll be spending the rest of my summer running those samples to find out. This will complement the social challenges that Matt Lovern and I conducted in the Dominican Republic last year on Anolis cybotes and Anolis coelestinus, examining whether social challenges result in increased testosterone. Stay tuned to see what we find!

About Jerry Husak

I am an Assistant Professor at the Univeresity of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. My research focuses on understanding how the processes of natural and sexual selection shape physiological and morphological traits. I study anoles to understand how endocrine systems evolve to modulate social behavior.

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