All posts by Jonathan Losos

About Jonathan Losos

Professor and Curator of Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard University. I've spent my entire professional career studying anoles and have discovered that the more I learn about anoles, the more I realize I don't know.

Blue Phase Anolis carolinensis Displaying


This fabulous photo of a blue phase Anolis carolinensis was snapped by Will Talley of the Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo. It appeared in the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s (AZA) monthly magazine, Connect, which sponsors an annual photo contest, and this photo was celebrated as one of the best entries.

Will kindly gave us the backstory: “I was biking down Hawthorne trail outside of Gainesville Florida and got to the Alachua Lake overlook. That’s where this guy was. I saw him on a section of the platform, got my macro lens out. As soon as I got the camera close he seemed to see his reflection and start displaying. It happens quite often with animals seeing their reflection, it seems.”

Will sent along another fine herpetological photo as well, and you can check out some more of his work on Flickr.

alligator munchin'

Cool Old Drawings of Anolis punctatus

The Biodiversity Heritage Library just tweeted this figure from


Abbildungen zur Naturgeschichte Brasiliens /

Title Variants:

Alternative: Recueil de planches coloriées d’animaux de Brésil


Wied, Maximilian, Prinz von, 1782-1867

It’s Plate 44, labelled, as you can see, as Anolis viridis and A. gracilis, but according to the tweet, they are both A. punctatus, male above and female below.

Hooray for U.S. – Cuba Talks!

Anolis bartschi. Photo by Shea Lambert. Check out his previous post, with more photos.

The long-running U.S. embargo has failed to topple the Castro regime in Cuba, but has done a good job of stymying research on anoles. Despite its great biodiversity, less is known about the Cuban fauna and flora than other Caribbean islands (despite the great efforts of Cuba’s excellent scientific establishment). I can speak from personal experience in saying that even though scientific research is one of the exemptions in the U.S. embargo law, getting permission from the U.S. and Cuban governments to work there has often been difficult. Recently (and probably still the case, though the U.S. government’s interpretation of the law is constantly changing), graduate researchers, in particular, have troubles because they are not considered “full time professionals” and thus not eligible to travel there under the research exemption.

Let’s hope that all restrictions are lifted soon so that the marvelous biodiversity of Cuba can be observed, studied, and conserved.

Anolis vermiculatus from another Shea Lambert post.

Another Anole Competes with Hummingbirds

Anolis aeneus in Trinidad. Photo by Clayton Hull.

Anolis aeneus in Trinidad. Photo by Clayton Hull.

Previously we’ve posted several photos [1,2] of green anoles supping from hummingbird feeders. Here’s another species doing the same thing, Anolis aeneus dining on sugar water in Trinidad. I wonder how many other anoles do this as well.

Many thanks to Renoir Auguste for bringing this to our attention.

Research on Lizard Communication: An Article on Manuel Leal

From the Division of Biological Sciences, University of Missouri:

Manuel Leal (center) with two of his graduate students, Elle Cook and Eddie Ramirez, standing in front of the Mizzou tiger

It takes quick reflexes to catch small, colorful lizards called anoles. Manuel Leal has mastered the task, which involves lassoing the lizard with a dental floss noose suspended from a pole. The only quicker reaction may be that of the Division of Biological Sciences when it learned the evolutionary biologist might be persuaded to join the Mizzou community.

Leal has been studying anole lizard behavior for over two decades, with the objective of understanding the mechanisms that shape the evolution of behavioral and physiological traits, and their role in promoting species diversity. He spends a significant amount of time catching and researching lizards on the islands of the Bahamas, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico, where hundreds of species of anole can be found. His studies have appeared in top scientific journals including Science, Nature, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B, The American Naturalist, as well as featured in the New York Times, The Economist, National Geographic, Der Spiegel (Germany), The Daily Mail and in a Canadian TV series “The Nature of Things” a well known series hosted by the inimitable David Suzuki and on NPR and CBC Radio.

So what was the lure of Missouri, where anoles can only be found in pet shops? Leal says he was attracted to the diversity of labs studying animal behavior and evolutionary ecology at MU. “We hope that our arrival here at Mizzou can broaden what is already an impressively broad research program in animal communication, which includes work on acoustic and vibratory signals and evolutionary ecology,” he says.

The faculty were also a huge draw for him. “My colleagues here take the same organismal approach to science that I do. They address really strong theoretical problems, but they keep in mind the natural history of the organism. It’s a group that fits well with how I enjoy doing science.”

Leal completed his doctoral studies at Washington University in St. Louis with world-renowned evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos (now at Harvard). After his doctoral studies, he secured a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship, which he conducted at Union College in New York. He then accepted his first faculty position at Vanderbilt University prior to being recruited to Duke University. In addition to his top-flight research credentials, Leal enjoys teaching courses on the evolution of animal behavior, herpetology, and sexual signaling. He officially joined MU’s faculty as an associate professor this past September.

So Many Species, So Little Time

One of Leal’s current projects focuses on the role of communication in reinforcing species boundaries in communities of anole lizards.

“Male anoles use a visual signal that consists of the display of a colorful throat fan, called a dewlap. Anole species that are found in sympatry — that is, are members of the same community — can be easily distinguished by the color or pattern of their dewlaps, which is unique to each of the species. This signal allows lizards to easily detect, recognize, and mate with members of their own species, and to avoid interbreeding and unnecessary competition with other similar species,” says Leal.

Leal holding an anole and looking at its dewlap color

The questions he asks are, how do anoles detect and discriminate dewlap colors and patterns displayed by different species? And how do differences in habitat lighting affect these capabilities? His studies incorporate both lab and field research and span a variety of subjects, from physics and sensory physiology to cognition and computer modeling.

Leal is also interested in understanding the cognitive abilities of anoles as a possible behavioral driver of evolutionary change. In 2011, Leal captured worldwide attention when his lab showed that anoles exhibit problem-solving skills usually associated with mammals and birds. Leal found that anoles can solve novel problems, remember solutions, and “unlearn” incorrect approaches.

While many people are surprised to learn that lizards are brainier than we once thought, Leal’s response is, of course they are.

“The ability to learn or behave in a way that is advantageous should be very common,” says Leal. “It doesn’t make sense for a lizard to not be able to learn something new, because its environment is constantly changing. The alternative — that everyday they start from scratch — just makes very little sense.”

A “Boots on the Ground” Approach to Science

Results that make sense at the organismal level is important to Leal’s approach to science. His broad research program is characterized by developing an intimate understanding of his study organisms, knowledge that provides the basis for pursuing a hypothesis-driven line of research. He says he tries to teach this approach to his students.

a green anole peeking ove a leaf.

“I tell my students that we are the boots on the ground,” Leal says. “Theoretical predictions need to be tested. In order to be tested, you need somebody that is willing to do the dirty work, somebody that wants to be working at the scale that really represents the organism and to ask, ‘okay, does this really matter?’”

A lot of Leal’s research involves documenting the behaviors of anoles in their natural environments. In practice, this means hours of filming anoles in the field, coupled with even more hours re-watching and transcribing these videos back in the lab. A fair amount of time is also spent catching anoles and collecting morphological data, such as dewlap color, body length, weight, as well as detailed documentation of many aspects of their habitat.

Got Boricua?

Leal says there are many reasons why anoles are a great system for studying evolution. There are hundreds of species, they have colonized a diversity of habitats, and they exhibit a wide range of complex behaviors. But the number one reason for him, he says, is because they are found in abundance in Puerto Rico — the place Leal calls home.

“They’re back home in Puerto Rico, and I can go back to the warm weather whenever I want,” says Leal.

Leal says he spent his Puerto Rican childhood catching all sorts of critters in the (forests or jungles), including anoles. His abilities paid off when one of his biology professors at the University of Puerto Rico, Richard Thomas, invited students to help him collect snakes with him.

“I said, I’ll go! That’s what I like to do. Then I started working with him and then I did my master’s with him,” recalls Leal.

Then, while working on his master’s degree, Leal met Jonathan B. Losos, who was so impressed with Leal’s lizard-catching abilities that he encouraged him to do his doctoral work in his lab.

“He promised me that as long as I was able to catch more lizards than him, then I would be successful at getting a Ph.D.,” laughs Leal. “The rest is history.”

Leal talking to kids around a table

Planting Seeds of Knowledge

His lizard-catching skills aside, Leal says he credits his scientific career to scientists, like Thomas and Losos, who encouraged him to pursue his interests. As the first person in his family to be lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to college, he says he didn’t really know much about academia.

“I had no idea you could make a living studying lizards. Even to this day, I often stop and think how amazing it is that someone pays me for being dirty and catching lizards. That’s cool,” he says.

Leal wants to inspire future biologists in the same way he was inspired. One way he does this is through an online blog — — where he posts regularly about his lab’s adventures in the field, their tinkering in the lab, and their latest research findings. (Chipojo is the common name given to large anoles in Cuba). Readers also are treated to plenty of stunning photographs and videos of lizards taken by Leal and his students, while also picking up a handful of Spanish words and phrases and insights into Puerto Rican culture. As his former professor once did, Leal also invites a couple undergraduates every year to join him in Puerto Rico and the Bahamas to collect data on lizard behavior.

At home and at his field sites, Leal frequently pays visits to elementary and middle school classrooms to talk to kids about lizards and about doing science; he also hosts the occasional high school student in his lab. Sharing his passion for science and for lizards with younger generations is only part of his goal.

“I want to open doors, like people did for me, and to show kids that if I can do it, then they can do it too,” says Leal.


Written by: Melody Kroll

Great New Book on Tuatara

Arboreality in tuatara. Who knew?

Arboreality in tuatara. Who knew?

A few months back, AA noted the publication of Tuatara: Biology and conservation of a venerable survivor, written by Alison Cree and published by Canterbury University Press (available for purchase here). The Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand asked me to review the book, and here’s what I said in the most recent issue (photos from the book, but not in the review):

Oh, tuatara, why do we love you so?

In 2003 I had the thrill of a lifetime, getting to stay for five days on Stephens Island, where toots (as I was told they are called by a mischievous Australian) were so abundant that you had to be careful where you stepped. When I retell the tale of living amid the rhynchocephalians, my listeners swoon with envy. Never have I met someone not visibly impressed that I have actually held one in my hand.

But what is it about Sphenodon punctatus  that inspires such emotions? Let s face it: the spiny back (the literal translation of the Māori word tuatara ) is not the prettiest of animals. And at face value, it doesn t seem extraordinary; it looks, to those not in the know, rather like a dowdy lizard, a smaller and duller iguana.

The famous third eye of the tuatara. Pictures of this are very hard to find .

The famous third eye of the tuatara. Pictures of this are very hard to find .

A so-called third eye, unusual chewing mechanism and lack of intromittent organthe tuatara certainly has its fascinating idiosyncrasies. But its trademark feature, its real claim to fame, is its antiquity. Or, to be more precise, the antiquity of its lineage, for the tuatara is the sole surviving member of the Rhynchocephalia, a group of reptiles that evolved about 250 million years ago. It flourished mightily in the Triassic, then petered out, all but disappearing along with the dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous. All, that is, but for the tuatara, the last member of the sister group of lizards and snakes, somehow, for some reason, hanging on only in New Zealand.

This history has led the tuatara to be dubbed a living fossil. But if there s one message Alison Cree wants readers to take away from her fabulous new book, Tuatara: biology and conservation of a venerable survivor, it is that the tuatara has been miscast. Far from being a survivor from the Age of Dinosaurs, an old, ill-adapted species that has managed to persist, unchanged, in its antipodean hideaway, the tuatara is a model of evolutionary adaptation, a thoroughly modern species well adapted to its current conditions, or at least to the conditions it experienced up to the arrival of humans, rats, cats and dogs.

toot postcard

The postcard legend reads: “This was the first and only living animal for countless ages on the face of the earth.”

Indeed, misinformation is pervasive. Cree reports that 73% of first-year university students in New Zealand think that the tuatara is more closely related to dinosaurs than to lizards, no doubt a consequence of its living fossil appellation. And even professional herpetologists (well, at least this one) will be surprised to learn that the tuatara s fossil record extends not to the Cretaceous, but only to the late Pleistocene (although Cree notes that a recent palaeontological find may extend the record back into the Miocene). Things were worse a century ago. George Boulenger, curator at the British Museum and perhaps the leading herpetologist of the early twentieth century, called the tuatara the oldest existing reptilian type; Otago University Museum curator William Benham described the tuatara as the most ancient reptile on earth, ancestral to crocodiles and turtles. None other than the famed palaeontologist George Gaylord Simpson referred to toots as immortals one of the most remarkable examples of evolutionary stagnation with essentially no evolution in 140 million years. Unfortunately, this view also pervaded the popular press, which often portrayed the tuatara as an outmoded relic of a time long past, a species no longer able to cut it in the modern world. Tuatara  will put an end to these misconceptions.

Indeed, this book is everything you d expect from Cree, one of the world s foremost experts on tuatara biology. Continue reading

Cuban Wildlife Documentary, Starring Anoles, Re-posted

Here’s a new, working link for this video, and here’s what we said about it a year and a half ago:

We’ve been privileged to see a number of great videos of Cuban anoles recently [1,2], and here’s another, an hour-long documentary on Cuban wildlife in Spanish entitled “Cuba. La Isla Salvaje del Caribe.” It goes without saying that the anoles steal the show. There’s an excellent 2.5 minutes of anole footage beginning at the 38:46 mark, highlighted by lovely shots of a male A. allisoni and video of Chamaeleolis (also homolechis, sagrei or a close relative, a pale-dewlapped grass anole, porcatus and lucius). In addition, just before this, there’s a nice depiction of how Cuba was split into three islands when sea-levels were higher.

Oh, and here’s the video in English:

Chamaeleolis Videos

Surely among the most extraordinary anoles are the six (or so) species in the genus Chamaeleolis. They’re sometimes called false chamaeleons, and for good reason–at a distance, you might mistake one for a chameleon. Not much is known about their natural history, but in a paper more than a decade ago, Manuel Leal and I showed that they behave in many respects just like chameleons, mostly in terms of their slow, jerky movements. They’re also renowned for their snail-munching ways, and we’ve had some great posts on that in the past.

Recently, the Anoland Facebook page posted a video of a C. guamuhaya eating a blueberry (above). Great stuff. I went to Youtube and found that the cinematographer, Torsten Kunsch, posted another video of possibly the same animal slowly dewlapping (below). In turn, this led me to consult Youtube for other Chamaeleolis videos. There are a bunch, though not a huge number, all seeming to be of captive animals. If I recall correctly, a documentary on Cuban wildlife that we screened a while back has some footage of wild individuals. More is needed!

David Wake, Organism-Based Research, and the Rise of Evo-Devo

In two recent papers, philosopher of science Jim Griesemer of U.C. Davis discusses how David Wake’s salamander-based research played a key role in the unfolding of evolutionary developmental biology and the advance of evolutionary biology.

Griesemer’s theme is that in contradiction to much of what we are taught about how science is conducted, organism-based research programs are fundamentally important by providing a means of crossing disciplinary boundaries and linking different fields. He illustrates this thesis by discussing Wake’s career-long focus on plethodontid salamanders.

One paper, published last year in Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, is a general treatment of the role of organism-based research programs in evolutionary biology, whereas the other explicitly discusses the role Wake’s program played in the development of evo-devo–this paper just appeared as a chapter in a new book on the famous Dahlem conference on evo-devo in 1981 (both papers may be accessed by visiting Griesemer’s webpage, scrolling down and clicking on the appropriate paper’s link).

I think one point in particular captured the essence of the papers. Quoting Wake from a 1982 paper: “it will be increasingly important for morphologists to work as developmental biologists, biomechanical engineers, mathematical biologists, molecular biologists, and even population and community ecologists. Not for a moment do I advocate departing from morphology to these areas. Rather, I believe that instead of making morphology relevant to these areas, it is morphologists who must take the lead in making neighboring disciplines relevant to morphology.’’

The papers make fascinating reading and I highly recommend checking both out. I’ll paste the abstract and part of the conclusion of the 2013 paper below.

But before doing so, I need to address one point. Some Anole Annals readers may wonder why we are using our precious pages to report on papers by a salamander biologist. There are two answers. The first, of course, is that following the lead of Ernest Williams, many anole biologists take a similar, organism-based approach to studying diverse evolutionary questions. Indeed, Wake’s work has been an inspiration to many of us in the field, from anole evolutionists to anole developmental biologists to anole natural historians.

But if that’s not enough, consider that Wake was co-author on the description of a remarkable new genus of Central American salamander named Nyctanolis and pictured below. The biology of this endangered species (N. pernix, the only species in the genus) is little known and we can only speculate to which ecomorph it belongs. Moreover, the species description was published in the festschrift honoring Ernest Williams. Clearly, David Wake is an honorary anolologist and we suggest that there is nothing left to know about salamanders and thus he should start working on anoles.

Nyctanolis pernix. Photo by Tim Herman

Abstract of Griesemer. 2013. Integration of approaches in David Wake’s model-taxon research platform for evolutionary morphology

What gets integrated in integrative scientific practices has been a topic of much discussion. Traditional views focus on theories and explanations, with ideas of reduction and unification dominating the conversation. More recent ideas focus on disciplines, fields, or specialties; models, mechanisms, or methods; phenomena, problems. How integration works looks different on each of these views since the objects of integration are ontologically and epistemically various: statements, boundary conditions, practices, protocols, methods, variables, parameters, domains, laboratories, and questions all have their own structures, functions and logics. I focus on one particular kind of scientific practice, integration of ‘‘approaches’’ in the context of a research system operating on a special kind of ‘‘platform.’’ Rather than trace a network of interactions among people, practices, and theoretical entities to be integrated, in this essay I focus on the work of a single investigator, David Wake. I describe Wake’s practice of integrative evolutionary biology and how his integration of approaches among biological specialties worked in tandem with his development of the salamanders as a model taxon, which he used as a platform to solve, re-work and update problems that would not have been solved so well by non-integrative approaches. The larger goal of the project to which this paper contributes is a counter-narrative to the story of 20th century life sciences as the rise and march of the model organisms and decline of natural history.

Part of Concluding Section: Continue reading

Anole Film Festival

Well, not quite, but thanks to Twitter, AA has learned of two new anole films. The first is about Anolis roquet from Martinique and illustrates the tremendous geographic variation of this species. But…it’s in French. Can anyone help us out and tell us what it’s all about? (Editor’s note: additional films have been added; go to the “playlist” in the upper left and choose number 6).

And let’s not overlook the lovely, multichromatic Anolis grahami. In the following Youtube clip, we see one of these wondrous beasts being colorful and running in Bermuda, where it was introduced a century ago.

Does the Fairchild Botanical Garden in Miami Have the Largest Community of Introduced Anoles in the World?

An iguana at the Fairchild Botanical Garden. Photo by Diana Robinson.

AA contributor James Stroud thinks it might. In an informative recent article in the Garden’s magazine, The Tropical Garden (go to page 28), James discusses the species, which range from the glorious red-headed agama to six–count ‘em, six!–introduced anoles, along with the native green. Of course, introduces species are not a good thing, but at least they’re quality species! You can also read more about them in a recent AA post by James.

Red-headed agama at Fairchild. Photo by James Stroud.

Cuban Spider Chows on Brown Anole

spider eats anole

More spiders eating anoles (for previous aranean saurivory, see this and that). This time it’s a brown anole, A. sagrei (also, this time), falling prey to a ctenid spider in Cuba. This one’s particularly gruesome–the head’s already digested away and eaten! The authors are Elier Fonseca Hernández and Tomás M. Rodríguez-Cabrera and the paper’s just out in the most recent issue of IRCF Reptiles & Amphibians.

How Many Geckos Can Fit on One Ceiling?

ceiling geckosx

Everyone knows that geckos are anole wannabees, but here in Asia, there are, sadly, no anoles (except introduced brown anoles in Taiwan and Singapore). So, in their absence, an anolologist is forced to count geckos. Fortunately, in some places, they’re not hard to find. Just how many are there on the ceiling of this building near Khao Sok National Park in Thailand?

How to Pronounce “Anole”: the Video

The second most viewed Anole Annals post of all time is “The proper pronunciation of “anole”” which has been viewed 9,938 times (just 121 views behind the all-time leader. *You’ll have to guess what that one is about. Or click here.).

Well, now there’s a video answering the same question and, frankly, I’m not sure everyone will agree with the answer.


*This post was initially drafted several months ago. In the intervening time, the leading post has gone on a tear, and now is ahead by 1,610 views! Go figure.

Brown Anole Colonizes Canada

Let’s hear it for global warming! Ryan Vince Photography’s Facebook page reported that this brown anole was found in Ontario. Probably still too cold there for the festive anoles to survive, but who know’s in a warming world? Here’s what the FB page had to say: “This little hitchhiker is a Brown Anole that has somehow made its way from Florida all the way down to Ontario, Canada (2000km). I found him in a mulch pile at a local aggregate facility. It seems that he had managed to make it through two sets of wood grinders and now resides in a Vivarium here with me.”

And this isn’t the first report of the festive one getting to Canada. Recently, we had a post reporting brown anoles not only in Canada, but Denmark. Next: the World!!!