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.

Shades of Bumpus: Polar Vortex-Induced Natural Selection on Cold Tolerance in the Green Anole

Shane Campbell-Staton had fortuitously measured the thermal physiology of a number of populations of the green anole, Anolis carolinensis, the summer before 2014’s Polar Vortex. So, he went back and examined the survivors. And sure enough, in the most southerly populations, those most strongly affected by the cold snap, natural selection had occurred. Shane tells Scientific American all about it in this podcast. The nifty figure above comes from the University of Illinois’ press release.


More Information on the Knight Anole Invasion of the Turks and Caicos

We reported recently that knight anoles (Anolis equestris) have shown up in the T&C. Here’s more on the story from B Naqqi Manco, the Terrestrial Ecologist at the Department of Environment and Maritime Affairs, Turks and Caicos Islands Government:

Cuban knight anoles are currently known from two sites on Providenciales: Vicinity of Beaches Resort in The Bight and Amanyara Resort on Northwest Point. Both populations showed up after the importation of large trees for landscaping from Miami. The properties are both irrigated pretty heavily to keep the bigger trees going. The tree imports were brought in before the Department of Agriculture was fully operative, so unfortunately things got in at that time that probably shouldn’t have made it through.

I don’t have confirmation of the knight anoles breeding, but I know The Bight population has been spreading with individuals having been found on adjacent properties and in a nearby residential neighbourhood. I would be very surprised if they’re not breeding on either site. Unfortunately we don’t have the capacity to monitor them well but this is something we want to keep a closer eye on and it would make a worthwhile research project for a student or intern. 

Thus far, they have not been reported from any other island or cay. 

Book Review Rebuttal: Are Honduran Anoles Overly Split?

Two years ago, McCranie and Kohler published The Anoles of Honduras: Systematics, Distribution, and Conservation(available on Amazon for under twenty bucks and downloadable for free on the Museum of Comparative Zoology website).

In turn, two mostly favorable reviews were published. However, one of the reviews, by Levi Gray, did question whether a number of anole species recognized from small distributions in Honduras should be recognized as valid species, rather than just as populations of species that are widespread throughout Central America.

Writing in Zootaxa, Randy McCranie has now responded to this point, forcefully arguing that the species should be recognized and challenging his critics to present their own data if they feel otherwise. You’ll have to read Gray’s review and McCranie’s rebuttal yourself to decide what you think. Gray made his skepticism clear, he also did clearly call for more research to address the question.

More on the Lizard Species Whose Dewlap Differs from One Side to the Other


These pages have previously told the tale of Anolis lineatus, the species whose dewlap is different on one side compared to the other. Now the work has been published in Breviora. Like all publications of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, the paper can be downloaded from the museum’s publications webpage.

The research project was actually explained in a delightful video put together by the three joint first authors, all of whom are headed to college this fall.

curious case

A Green Anole That’s Blue

Photo by Carissa Wickens

Photo by Carissa Wickens

Eileen Wickens, who just finished the fourth grade in north central Florida, is a lizard-catching machine and particularly adept at nabbing blue-colored green anoles (Anolis carolinensis). Here’s the story, relayed by her mom, Carissa:

The teal lizards do seem rare as we have only seen a few. We had one at our house last spring and the photo I sent you was taken at our horse teaching unit in Gainesville. We were running an equine behavior trial that day (we’re actually investigating startle phenotypes and genetics in our Quarter Horse herd), and I saw the lizard as we were packing up our gear. My daughter is very good at spotting and catching them, so we will definitely keep our eyes out and would be happy to provide a specimen for your genetic research if we can. I’ve attached the photo of the lizard we had at the house last spring. The green anoles are scare in our neighborhood and on campus compared to the brown anoles (short snouts with distinct, dorsal diamond or striped markings). They seem to far outnumber the greens. 

From our brief observations of those two blue lizards this past year it does not appear they turn the bright green you see on the other Carolina Anoles, but it would be good to observe them for a longer period of time to be certain. 

Evolution 2017: Sensory Drive and Lizard Adaptive Radiation


The Sensory Drive hypothesis predicts that species will evolve communication signals that are effective in the particular light environment in which they occur. Anolis lizards are an excellent example: in dark habitats, they tend to have light-colored, highly reflective (and transmissive) dewlaps that are usually yellow or white in color, whereas in bright, open environs, dewlaps tend toward blue, black, orange or red. However, demonstrating that these dewlaps are actually effective at being visible in their particular habitats has proven surprisingly challenging.

Leo Fleishman has been a leader in this area and in a talk at the sensory ecology symposium at the evolution meetings, he presented new and exciting developments. First, in line with previous work, he showed that the spectral reflectance/transmittance of dewlaps is not particularly well-matched to that of the background. Rather, the same colored dewlaps appear to be maximally contrasting with the radiance of the background across all habitats:  basically all habitats have mostly green backgrounds, and red or orange stands out the best against the green background, no matter what the habitat.  So much for sensory drive, it would seem!

But more recent work saves the day: it turns out that habitats differ in the total intensity of light (number of photons coming down) they receive and that, furthermore, across species, dewlap intensity (total photons reflected and/or transmitted) is negatively related to habitat intensity (with one notable outlier, the enigmatic A. gundlachi). Under the relatively low light conditions of forest shade or partial shade, color discrimination becomes more difficult, and colors such as red and orange and other dark colors do not stand out well against the background, because they simply do not emit enough photons to efficiently drive color vision.  Yellow or white works better. Conversely, in intense light environments, there is enough light to easily see the darker colors, and these stand out well against the green background. Moreover, behavioral experiments confirm that in bright light conditions red stimuli are most visible against a green background, whereas in low light yellow stimuli are more visible.  Thus, even though most Anolis habitats have similar spectral properties, differences in total light intensity strongly influence what colors are most effective, and thus appear to have played a major role in the shaping the evolution of dewlap colors.

Leo Fleishman discusses color space in 4-dimensions, corresponding to the four cones in the anole eye. For each species, red dots are color of the dewlap and green dots are the color of the background, indicating that dewlaps stand out against their background.

Leo Fleishman discusses color space in four dimensions, corresponding to the four cones in the anole eye. For each species, red dots are color of the dewlap and green dots are the color of the background, indicating that dewlaps stand out against their background.

Are There Seven Species of Anolis distichus?


The latest work on genetic differentiation and species status within the Anolis distichus group has just been published by MacGuigan, Geneva and Glor in Ecology and Evolution. In line with previous work from the Glor lab, the study finds evidence for seven distinct evolutionary lineages worthy of recognition as species, and further finds that variation in dewlap color in some cases does not correlate with geographic isolation. Finally, geographic isolation seems to play a key role in genetic divergence.

Here’s the abstract, followed by a few comments:


Delimiting young species is one of the great challenges of systematic biology, particularly when the species in question exhibit little morphological divergence. Anolis distichus, a trunk anole with more than a dozen subspecies that are defined primarily by dewlap color, may actually represent several independent evolutionary lineages. To test this, we utilized amplified fragment length polymorphisms (AFLP) genome scans and genetic clustering analyses in conjunction with a coalescent-based species delimitation method. We examined a geographically widespread set of samples and two heavily sampled hybrid zones. We find that genetic divergence is associated with a major biogeographic barrier, the Hispaniolan paleo-island boundary, but not with dewlap color. Additionally, we find support for hypotheses regarding colonization of two Hispaniolan satellite islands and the Bahamas from mainland Hispaniola. Our results show that A. distichus is composed of seven distinct evolutionary lineages still experiencing a limited degree of gene flow. We suggest that A. distichus merits taxonomic revision, but that dewlap color cannot be relied upon as the primary diagnostic character.

The authors suggest that there are at least seven species within the distichus complex, but they suggest that it is premature to recognize them officially at this time. Nonetheless, Poe et al. in their recent Systematic Biology paper (hey! who’s going to write a post on this one?) recognize at least some of these taxa as distinct species.

Finally, I do have one tiny bone to pick. The authors state:

“Together these results suggest that dewlap color is not by itself a reliable diagnostic trait in the A. distichus complex, and perhaps in anoles more broadly.”

I take umbrage with the final statement, “and perhaps in anoles more broadly.” The distichus complex has always been recognized as the major exception to the idea that dewlap color variation relates to reproductive isolation. Consequently, demonstrating what has been suggested—with some evidence—for 40 years doesn’t necessarily argue against the role of the dewlap in reproductive isolation more generally. Now, you may quibble with the data underlying this general proposition, and it certainly is worthy of further study, but the results of this study confirm what was already recognized as an exception to this general rule..


Anolis ruibali: Everything You Need to Know


The following is taken from the Society for the Study of Amphibian and Reptile’s website:

Catalogue of American Amphibians and Reptiles

The Catalogue consists of accounts of taxa prepared by specialists, including synonymy, description, diagnosis, phylogenetic relationships, published descriptions, illustrations, distribution map, and comprehensive list of literature for each taxon. Over 900 accounts have been published since the initiation of the series in 1963. The series covers amphibians and reptiles of the entire Western Hemisphere. Previously, accounts were published as loose-leaf separates; beginning in 2013 accounts are published as on-line PDFs.  All accounts are open access and are available for free download at the University of Texas Library Repository.

Just this week, one of the latest catalogue entries is for the little known Anolis ruibali of Cuba, written by Robert Powell, Javier Torres, and Nils Navarro Pacheco.


Teid Lizard Eats an Anole

Poor Anolis, snack box of the jungle. Seems that just about anything will eat an anole. So, it’s not surprise to learn that the teid lizard Kentropyx calcarata joins the lizard of anole consumers. So report Franzini et al. in a recent report in Herpetology Notes. Anolis fuscoauratus was the unfortunate victim, the crime discovered by examination of stomach contents.

How Do Limb, Head and Tail Length Differences Arise during Embryological Development in Lizards?


Consider two lizard species that differ in limb length, with one species having relatively longer legs than others. During development, how does this difference arise? Do the limbs start at the same length when they first appear in the embryo, but grow at a greater rate in the longer-legged species? Or is the initial limb bud longer in the embryo of the longer-legged species, and then the rate of growth the same in the two species, preserving the initial difference?

Thom Sanger’s elegant work showed that the latter answer is correct for Anolis: the limb buds of long-legged species start out longer and then grow in parallel with those of shorter-legged species.

But does this finding also hold when comparing across a broader range of lizards? Robin Andrews and Sable Skewes decided to find out, comparing embryos of a chameleon, two geckos, and the brown anole.

The answer: the same pattern as within anoles! And it applies to tail length (but not head length) as well as limbs.


Evolutionary Predictability: Can We Predict the Color of One Lizard Species by Looking at Repeated Patterns of Geographic Variation on Other Islands?

Thanks to the work of Roger Thorpe and colleagues, Lesser Antillean anoles are renowned as an example of adaptive geographic variation. On many islands in the Lesser Antilles, populations in wet areas, where vegetation is lush, are green in color, whereas those in more xeric areas tend to be a drab gray, often with markings on their back. This pattern is repeated on many different islands, the convergent geographic variation thus making a strong case for the adaptive basis of anole coloration.

See Pavitra Muralidhar’s previous post for more information on geographic variation in Lesser Antillean anoles.

In a new paper in PLoS One, Thorpe takes this work a step further, asking whether we can use the parallel patterns seen across Lesser Antillean islands to predict the coloration of an anole species on another island. The focal species is Anolis bonairensis, which occupies the extraordinarily dry island of Bonaire (see our previous posts on this species).

The prediction: A. bonairensis should be grayer and drabber than populations of anoles that occur at the driest sites on Lesser Antillean answers.

The answer: yes! Just as predicted, Anolis bonairensis is one drab lizard. Score one for evolutionary predictability!


Anolis bonairensis is represented by the red circles. The x-axis goes from aridity on the left to the most mesic on the right. As you can see, A. bonairensis‘s color and patterning is well-predicted by variation in other species.

New Mainland Green Anole Recognized

Anolis biporcatus, one of the prettiest of anoles. Photo by Thomas Marent

Anolis biporcatus is, if I’m not mistaken, the largest mainland beta/Norops anoles, attaining a length of ca. 100 mm snout-vent. In addition, it has an enormous geographic distribution, ranging from southern Mexico to Ecuador. In a new paper in Salamandra, a team of New Mexican and Ecuadorian biologists headed by Janet Armstead have sliced off part of the species, raising the Ecuadorian/Colombian A. biporcatus parvauritus to species status. They make this decision based on a detailed analysis of morphology and molecular data. Their data also find deep genetic subdivisions within A. biporcatus in Costa Rica, suggesting that there may be more cryptic species awaiting recognition.

A key difference between the species is the color of the distal scales on the dewlap of males, white in biporcatus, black in parvauritus.

biporc male

Note, too, that like many mainland anoles, the males and females have very different dewlaps.

biporc females

Here’s the distribution of the two species: