“I caught an anole lizard and tossed it ten feet or so out into the water. To my dismay, it popped to the surface, swam expertly back to the shelter of the trees, and climbed up a mangrove trunk. Well, I continued, suppose a full hurricane blew an anole so far away on open water it couldn’t get back. Our little experiment shows that it could swim to the nearest islet if it were not too far away.”
So wrote E.O. Wilson (1995 p. 271, Warner Books, NY) in his autobiography, Naturalist, reflecting on his island defaunation work with Daniel Simberloff. From his ‘little experiment’ (I can hear animal care committees cringing), Wilson postulated that anoles could, if they had to, disperse from island to island across open water. Whether anoles can cross water, however, isn’t that important. Rather, what’s important is that they rarely do. Anoles’ status as a symbol of island biogeography and adaptive radiation is largely due to the fact that isolation and the resulting low gene flow among islands set the stage for in situ speciation and adaptive radiation. In fact, much of what we (and island biogeography in general) owe to anoles, we owe because they don’t swim so well. And they don’t colonize new islands very often.
Or rather, they didn’t.
A new paper in Nature by Matt Helmus, with AA stalwarts Luke Mahler and Jonathan Losos, shows how human-mediated dispersal of anoles among Caribbean islands is reorganizing anole biogeography in a very predictable way. I suspect many who have worked on anole island biogeography, me included, have considered what to do about recent introductions and have often, like me, dropped them out of a dateset with the goal of trying to discern the ‘natural’ pattern. Helmus et al., however, saw the spate of recent anole introductions across the Caribbean as an opportunity, rather than a nuisance. Their great leap came from realizing that this reorganization of anole Caribbean biogeography should be predictable from the basic tenets of island biogeography theory.
Based on MacArthur and Wilson’s equilibrium theory, adaptive radiation theory and drawing on Losos and colleagues’ past work from 1993 and 2000, Helmus et al. predicted three patterns: 1) Species-impoverished islands (for their size) should have more exotics than more saturated islands, 2) The phylogenetic diversity of islands should increase due to exotic establishment, and 3) Human-mediated introductions should degrade richness–(geographic) isolation relationships. In short, they found evidence consistent with all of these patterns. Furthermore, they showed that economics that has replaced distance as the key determinant of island isolation. Needless to say, these are very exciting results that have supplied a key test, at biogeographic scales, of some classic theory*. It’s a must read.
This paper is also important because it shows how ‘blue skies’, curiosity-driven science can help us understand and, most importantly, predict how human activity will impact ecological systems. Did MacArthur and Wilson know, more than half a century ago, that their work would predict how increasing globalization and trade embargoes would affect modern biodiversity? I doubt it (cue someone pointing out in the Comments the exact line in the ETIB where they do predict this). However, regardless of whether they knew it at the time, this is exactly what their theory has done. As Helmus et al. state (p. 545): “Our results support the theory that it is the influence of geographic area and isolation on … speciation and colonization that fundamentally determine island biodiversity”. However, as they crucially find, what we now need to do is rethink how we define ‘isolation’. We can’t leave ourselves out of the equation any more. It’s economics, not geography, that matters now. Thus, not only does Helmus et al.’s paper test a long-standing theory, but it provides a clear example of the importance of fundamental scientific theory for understanding and predicting ecological dynamics in the ‘Anthropocene’.
In conclusion, the observation that humans are moving anoles — and other taxa — around faster than they could make their own way will come as a surprise to no one. But finding that the subsequent reorganization of life can be predicted by island biogeographic theory is fantastic (it should be pretty clear by this point that I like this paper. A lot). So if you haven’t read the paper, you should. I know it’s a terrible cliché to call a study ‘elegant’. So I won’t. I’ll call it damn elegant.
*I can’t help but mention that Helmus et al.’s findings were mostly based on good old-fashion OLS regression and ANOVA, and visualized using simple scatterplots – No fancy-shmancy statistical machismo here (phylogenetics aside). Just a clear set of predictions that could be parsimoniously tested. Chapeau.
Editor’s note #2: The paper grabbed the cover of Nature.
This, in turn, joins a long list of recent science journal covers sporting an anole: