Lizard Signals Adapt to the Environment: Habitat-Dependent Variation in Motion Signal Structure between Lizard Populations

Habitat characteristics influence the efficacy of animal signals, which means that populations of the same species occurring in distinct habitats are likely to show differences in signal structure as a form of local adaptation. This kind of variation in signal structure has been well-studied for sound and colour signals, including in several species of anoles, but had not been reported for motion-based signals until recently.

Jacky dragons (Amphibolurus muricatus) are Australian agamid lizards well-known for the complex motion-based displays performed by males. These displays comprise five distinct motor patterns utilised in sequence: tail flicks, backward limb wave, forward limb wave, push up and body rock (A. muricatus display video). A study conducted by Barquero et al. (2015) found evidence of temporal and structural variation in the core display of three populations of A. muricatus. These differences were not related to genotypic differences between populations, so they suggested they might be a consequence of local habitat structure.

The Jacky dragon

The Jacky dragon

Concurrently, Richard Peters and I were developing a methodology to accurately quantify the effect of background noise on the motion based signals of different Australian agamids (see Ramos & Peters 2017a; b). Our approach calculates the speed distributions of the motion produced by lizard signals and the environmental noise independently. It then compares these distributions to obtain a measure of signal-noise contrast. This is accomplished by recording lizard behaviour and reconstructing its motion in three dimensions before comparing it against the motion produced by the surrounding windblown plants, which are the main source of noise for motion based lizard signals. This methodology stands out from other approaches for quantifying motion signals because it does not assume that the camera is ideally placed when recording the displays, but instead provides an accurate representation of the motion from any angle or viewing position.

Building upon the work by Barquero et al. (2015), we applied our novel approach to a couple of populations of Jacky dragons with distinct habitat characteristics. Croajingolong National Park in Victoria (Australia) is densely vegetated coastal heath with tall grasses and shrubs on a sandy substrate. Conversely, Avisford Nature Reserve in New South Wales (Australia) is mostly open woodland with an understory of scattered grasses and small shrubs, and rocky outcrops spread throughout the park.

The habitats of (a) the Jacky dragon. (b) Croajingolong National Park, in coastal Victoria, Australia. (c) Avisford Nature Reserve, in New South Wales, Australia.

The habitats of (a) the Jacky dragon. (b) Croajingolong National Park, in coastal Victoria, Australia. (c) Avisford Nature Reserve, in New South Wales, Australia.

Our results revealed that lizards from the densely vegetated habitat (Croajingolong NP) performed displays of longer duration and introductory tail flick components, and also produced a significantly greater amount of high speeds. However, when we calculated the signal-noise contrast for both populations at their respective habitat, we found no difference. This means that the signals from both populations are equally effective when used within their intended habitat, regardless of their structural differences.

Differences in signal structure between populations. (a) Mean bout and tail flick durations for both lizard populations. (b) Mean tail flick to bout ratio for both lizard populations. (c) Average kernel density functions for both lizard populations.

Differences in signal structure between populations. (a) Mean bout and tail flick durations for both lizard populations. (b) Mean tail flick to bout ratio for both lizard populations. (c) Average kernel density functions for both lizard populations.

As mentioned before, our approach records animal signals and environmental noise independently, which allowed us to consider signals not only in the environment where they were filmed, but also in the habitat of the other lizard population. Consequently, to highlight the effects of the environment on lizard signals, we calculated signal-noise contrast for the signals belonging to one population in both habitats (densely vegetated vs. open woodland). As expected, both lizard populations performed worse in densely vegetated habitat, probably because the complex understory is producing greater motion noise and negatively affecting signal efficacy. Another way of looking at these data, but this time focusing on the displays rather than the habitat, was to compare the signal-noise contrast of both lizard populations in a single habitat. Lizards originating from the densely vegetated habitat produced higher contrast scores in both habitats, indicating that their displays are more effective overall.

Taken together, our results are consistent with the local adaptation hypothesis. Lizards from Croajingolong NP produce displays with longer durations and characterised by faster speeds in order to communicate effectively in a dense and noisy habitat. Conversely, lizards from Avisford NR have adapted to a less noisy environment and do not require such lengthy or energetically expensive displays. Such population level differences in signal structure due to habitat variation represent novel findings for motion-based lizard signals.

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