This post was written by Miguel Angel Webber, an undergraduate in Michele Johnson’s lab at Trinity University.
The parietal eye, a photosensitive organ located on top of lizards’ heads, has long been thought to play an important role in regulating lizards’ circadian rhythm and body temperature. The eye detects UVB rays, mediating the release of melatonin from the pineal gland and evoking a behavioral response. Samantha Adams, an undergraduate at Marosh Furimsky’s lab at Westminster College, PA, conducted a study on bearded dragons (Pogona vitticeps) and green anoles (Anolis carolinensis) to examine the effects of masking their parietal eye on their thermoregulatory behavior. Adams took individuals from each species and set up a testing arena, placing a UV-B light-only source and an infrared heat-only source on opposite sides. She then tracked the amount of time each lizard spent under either lamp, doing so before masking the parietal eye, while the eye was painted with black non-toxic paint, and again after uncovering it.
Adams found that bearded dragons rely heavily on the eye for thermoregulation – while lizards ordinarily spend less than 20% of their time basking underneath the heat source, lizards with their parietal eye masked spent the vast majority of their time under the heat lamp. Additionally, all of her bearded dragons experienced erratic locomotion in the day post-masking, running so frequently from side to side of the cage that she had trouble characterizing the lizard’s lamp preference. Once the black paint was removed, lizards took one to two weeks to resume ordinary behavioral patterns. However, she found that the green anoles in her study seemed unaffected by the experimental manipulations; lamp preference was unchanged by covering the parietal eye, and anoles spent roughly 25% of their time under the heat lamp in both the control and experimental treatments. The anoles displayed none of the erratic locomotor patterns Adams found in the bearded dragons, and other than a qualitative account of more time spent being brown, the lizards seemed unperturbed by the black paint on their parietal eye.
Adams’ results shine a new light on the parietal eye, long thought to be a structure essential to all lizards that possess it, as a potentially vestigial structure in green anoles. Future work is necessary to understand any other roles the eye could serve in anoles, but the stark difference with bearded dragons in this study helps illuminate the wild evolutionary path of our favorite lizards.