The following was written by Amy Castle, an undergraduate and Summer Research Fellow in the Reynolds Lab at the University of North Carolina Asheville.
This past May, I had the opportunity to join Dr. Geneva and his team in the Cayman Islands to assist with his research on Anolis sagrei. Along with my mentor, Dr. Graham Reynolds, we were able to spend several days on both Little Cayman and Grand Cayman catching anoles, collecting data, and experiencing the tropics. This experience (my first in the tropics) provided me with an immersive education in both Caribbean herpetology and the ins and outs of working in the field. My adventure began when Dr. Reynolds and I flew to Grand Cayman and then took a small plane to Little Cayman, which is approximately 100 km northeast from Grand Cayman. Flying over these islands gave a good perspective of the topography and available habitat for the lizards. Most of the former island, which is only 16km long and 3 km wide, is lightly inhabited and dominated by tropical coastal coppice forest developed over a limestone base. On the ground, I quickly discovered that the anoles are everywhere!
Dr. Geneva’s research focuses on Anolis sagrei, in particular, the extent of variation in the species across its wide range. We were on Little Cayman to get data from this island as a component of a larger study, described in lots of previous AA posts (Eleuthera, Cayman Islands, Rum Cay, Concepcion Island, Ragged Island, Bimini, Mangrove habitat, and Great Isaac Cay).
These beautiful brown anoles were abundant day and night on the island and could be frequently found at eye level on the trunks and branches of mangrove and seagrape trees. They have brightly colored red-orange dewlaps, short snouts, and a smaller body size, especially when compared to their sympatric congener Anolis maynardi. Anolis maynardi, large green anoles native to Little Cayman, are often found higher in the trees and have green dewlaps with a yellowish tint.
During the few days we were on Little Cayman, the weather was really hot and humid. During the heat of the day, A. sagrei ventured deeper into the brush of the forest making it difficult to trudge through the trees without scaring them off. We were, however, able to capture them from several feet away by using an extendable fishing rod with a tied noose at the end. This was my first experience noosing lizards, but after a few tries, I was consistently able to catch individuals. At night, the anoles were much easier to capture. Using our lights and headlamps, we could simply pluck them off the leaves and branches where they were sleeping.
After finishing data collection on Little Cayman, we headed to Grand Cayman to obtain export permits. I had the opportunity to see much of the island, including the endemic Anolis conspersus. These beautiful anoles have a large degree of color variation across Grand Cayman, and we were able to see at least two of the major color morphs. I was also able to meet some great people (Jessica and Jane) at the Department of Environment, who mentioned that they were finding non-native anoles on Grand Cayman. This developed quickly into a project idea- one of my research projects so far this summer is examining the DNA of these unknown anoles to try to determine what species they actually are and where they came from. A little bit of forensic genetics!
This experience gave me an exclusive look into the world of Caribbean field herpetologists, and was really valuable as I am currently an undergraduate studying Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. I am particularly interested in the Cuban green anole clade, and my research with Dr. Reynolds focuses on Anolis fairchildi, an endemic species found on Cay Sal Island in the Bahamas. I am currently generating genetic data from this species and other members of the clade in order to examine the phylogenetic affinities of A. fairchildi relative to other Cuban green anoles. This trip gave me the opportunity to not only observe wild A. maynardi, a relative of A. fairchildi, but also to understand the complex relationships between sympatric anole species. It is one thing to study anoles “at the bench” in Asheville, but being able to join Dr. Geneva and his team in the field has really sparked my understanding of, and interest in, these fascinating animals.