All posts by Luke Mahler

The “Rediscovery” Of Anolis Proboscis, And The Evolution Of A Viral Internet News Story


If you work on Anolis lizards, there’s a good chance you’ve been asked about the recent rediscovery of the long-thought-to-be-extinct “Pinocchio Anole” within the last week. As Anole Annals reported on October 7, this story has hit the big time. After being featured on the Huffington Post, the tale of this rediscovery went viral, receiving extensive news coverage worldwide.

The catch, as most Anole Annals readers are doubtless aware, is that the Pinocchio Anole wasn’t just recently rediscovered. It was rediscovered in 2005, and has since been the subject of field studies resulting in no fewer than five published works (six if you count “Finding Anolis proboscis,” Steve Poe’s 2010 Anolis Newsletter article about finding Anolis proboscis).

What gives? How can the central claim of such a major scientific news item be fundamentally incorrect?

I propose the following hypothesis: This story evolved to its current state by good old-fashioned natural selection. I think that an initially accurate web story was repeatedly and imperfectly replicated, and that as the story was picked up by increasingly larger news outlets, important details were lost or altered during transcription (perhaps selectively, since discovery makes good copy), resulting in the evolution of an incorrect news item.

If I have things right (it’s possible I don’t know all the details), the story started with an informational advertisement from the ecotourism company Destination Ecuador.

If you read that article, it’s pretty accurate with the potential exception of a single use of the word “re-discovery” to describe the event during which the Tropical Herping team found Anolis proboscis. The use of that word is admittedly a little strange and perhaps a bit unwise, but the article makes it very clear that the actual rediscovery of the species took place in 2005, and describes a successful scientific expedition to study the species in the wild in 2010. To me the point of this article is “with our ecotourism company, you can have a chance to travel with experts to see a weird, rare, recently-rediscovered lizard species.”

Next comes an article by Douglas Main on, which appears to be the original source of the viral news item. If you read the LiveScience article, it’s worded in a way that tells a narrative of very recent rediscovery (which is not really true) without ever explicitly stating it. Continue reading The “Rediscovery” Of Anolis Proboscis, And The Evolution Of A Viral Internet News Story

Research To Suffer As Chicago’s Field Museum Of Natural History Redefines Its Mission

As many readers have likely seen in recent news, original scientific research at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History is poised to take a major blow with the announcement that the museum is refocusing its scientific mission and will soon be scaling back its research activities. The Field is in serious financial trouble. In debt for the last decade and for years unable to balance its books, the institution has reached its borrowing limit and must find a way to resolve a 5 million dollar imbalance in its annual budget. For leadership through this growing crisis, the museum hired a new president and CEO, Richard Lariviere, who began his post in October. Last week, Lariviere and the museum’s board of trustees offered the first glimpse of their proposed solution: a 5 million dollar cut in annual operations expenditures, 3 million of which is to be shouldered by the museum’s science departments. Lariviere has stated that the Field plans to restructure its scientific mission, and that deep cuts in research staff – including the museum’s roster of tenured curators – could be expected. This is a scary prospect for the dozens of professional scientists who have built their careers at the museum, and very sad news for folks who, like me, took some of the first steps of their scientific careers there (I worked as a research assistant in the Division of Amphibians and Reptiles for a year after college; this experience shaped my decision to go to grad school, and led me to study lizard evolution!).

For the most part, the details of these upcoming changes have not been resolved, and will be the subject of internal deliberations in early 2013. Nonetheless, there are reasons for serious concern about the future of research at the Field. First, the museum is scrapping its four current research departments (Anthropology, Botany, Geology, and Zoology) in favor of a much leaner “Science and Education” department. In addition, a committee is currently taking preparatory legal steps necessary to lay off tenured curators, an action that is impossible under normal circumstances (to get this done, the museum must declare a state of financial exigency). These actions Continue reading Research To Suffer As Chicago’s Field Museum Of Natural History Redefines Its Mission

What’s In A Name?, Part II

Last week, I wrote a post on how the new classification for anoles proposed by Nicholson et al. 2012 might affect long term taxonomic stability for this group. That post generated some discussion, including, most recently, commentary by Kirsten Nicholson herself, explaining some of the reasons her group decided it was time to split up the anoles. Because that conversation is quickly becoming buried in the depths of Anole Annals, I wanted to continue it here on the main page. Also, I wanted to write some more to expand on some of the thoughts that prompted me to post last week, and I hope folks will continue to weigh in (note, the rest of this post will make a lot more sense if you first read my previous post, and the ensuing commentary). I’d like to make several general points:

1 – I think we can all agree that taxonomies should reflect accurate phylogenetic knowledge (I don’t think anyone here would disagree with this – let’s take it as a given that Linnean taxa should not be paraphyletic or polyphyletic).

2 – Beyond accuracy, I’m pretty sure there aren’t any rules governing the type or level of phylogenetic information that “should” be included in a binomial classification. Whether binomial names should reflect deep phylogenetic knowledge or shallow phylogenetic knowledge is a matter of opinion – I’d propose it’s completely subjective.

3 – The amount of phylogenetic information you can communicate in a binomial classification is trivial. It’s hard enough to represent phylogenetic structure across the depths of the entire Linnean hierarchy, and there’s almost no such information in Genus+species epithets. The goal of communicating finely resolved phylogenetic information probably should not be our main concern when dealing with genus names (so long as they are not phylogenetically inaccurate).

4 – Given that no one’s to say who’s right about what the appropriate phylogenetic scale of a genus is, and that Latin binomials are ineffective at communicating much of anything about phylogenetic information anyway, issues of stability are comparatively very important. It’s no small thing to propose a change for 88.6% (n = 343) of the scientific names of a group of species studied by thousands of people.

Since I think we can all agree that Linnean names should be applied solely to monophyletic groups, I’ll start with my second point, which is that there’s no “right amount” of phylogenetic knowledge that should be expressed in binomial names. Kirsten suggested we might all agree that “our classifications should mirror our phylogenetic knowledge.” I certainly agree with this statement in general, but I suspect I might disagree on some of the details. What sort of classification, exactly, would mirror our knowledge best? Should we assign genera to the smallest phylogenetic units about which we can be reasonably certain of monophyly, and continue to split them up into additional genera as we work towards resolving the entire bifurcating history of anoles? If so, we’ll probably eventually end up with a taxonomy that’s as finely parsed as that of the non-avian dinosaurs, where the genus:species ratio is 1:2 (I’m not even kidding – check it out…)! At this point, we’d have all sorts of cool binomials, like Nicholsonolis annectans and Mahlerolis gorgonae, but the genera would be functionally equivalent to species names (as they are in dinosaurs). This sort of reasoning (taxonomy should reflect ever-improving phylogenetic knowledge) is implied in the very title of the Nicholson paper, which seems to suggest that periodically, when the progress of systematics has advanced enough, “it is time” to reclassify everything (I think this contradicts the founding purpose of Linnean classification, but that’s another point). Anyhow, if this isn’t what it means for a taxonomy to mirror phylogenetic knowledge, then what exactly does that mean? Why 8 genera, and not 60, 16, or 4?

My main point here is that it’s a matter of opinion what kind of phylogenetic knowledge should be in a Latin name. One person might think that a genus should apply to the MRCA and all descendants of any two species similar enough to be confused by an experienced herpetologist (e.g., Anolis fraseri and A. biporcatus; see Williams 1966 for details). Another person might maintain that a genus should have 20 species max, no exceptions. Both are entirely matters of opinion, and such opinions abound when it comes to systematics. But since there are no official guidelines on the matter, I don’t think that such opinions can suffice to justify a disruptive taxonomic change.

I next wanted to criticize the logic of amending genus names to reflect systematic developments. The reasons are that (a) there’s very little phylogenetic information in Latin binomials, and (b) any change in the names of genera will result in a gain of some phylogenetic information (shallower information) at the expense of other phylogenetic information (the deeper stuff).

Linnean binomials contain next to no phylogenetic information. When we look at a list of scientific names, all we know is that congeners are more closely related to one another than they are to members of other genera, and other than that, they don’t tell us anything about phylogeny. To illustrate this, I created “binomial phylogenetic trees” for the Iguanidae (or Iguania, depending on who you follow..). I included all species in “Iguania” from the Reptile Database. Here’s what the traditional classification looks like, with Anolis highlighted in red:

Binomial “phylogenetic tree” of iguanian genera, following the traditional classification.

Continue reading What’s In A Name?, Part II

What’s In A Name?: Scientific Name Use For Anoles, By The Numbers

As should be evident from several recent Anole Annals posts and comments, Nicholson and colleagues published a paper last week proposing that “It is time for a new classification of anoles.” Among a number of arguments in favor of splitting up the genus Anolis, Nicholson et al. (2012) argue that use of a single genus name hinders scientific communication about these animals. This argument has generated a lot of discussion (e.g., a post by Sanger, and two different threads of comments found here and here), and I thought it might be useful to continue the discussion with a bit of information about the usage of anole names in the scientific literature.

In a comment on an earlier post, Duellman argued that a genus name does not simply exist to reflect systematic knowledge – it’s a (hopefully stable) handle that conveys information about identity to a very wide audience, from laypersons to college students to ecologists, conservationists, and systematists.  My impression has always been that this is especially true for Anolis – more so that for many other groups of organisms. For example, geckos are commonly known, even to scientists, by their common name “gecko,” and we find this term in paper titles and abstracts. I don’t think this is true for anoles – it seems to me that we more often simply call them “Anolis“.

To see if this is actually the case, I decided to pull some numbers from Web of Knowledge. I conducted a series of “Topic” searches for various taxonomic names, such as “Anole”, “Anolis“, “Gecko”, etc., and recorded the numbers of matching records for each search. Records include instances in which a term is found in the title, keywords, or abstract of any book or article recorded in the Web of Knowledge academic database. The numbers returned are reflective of my university’s library holdings (University of California), and will be different if conducted elsewhere; I also didn’t spend any time processing the results, but I don’t think that should qualitatively affect any results. Continue reading What’s In A Name?: Scientific Name Use For Anoles, By The Numbers

Anole PDF Scavenger Hunt

**UPDATE (July 17, 2012): Thanks to all the folks who have contributed literature – it’s a huge help! We’ve made good progress towards our first goal of obtaining all original descriptions of Anolis species. Here’s an updated “Most Wanted List.” We’re pretty close to knocking them out….


Anole bibliophiles and reference collectors,

The Anoline Lizard Specialist Group has a favor to ask, and one to return as well: We need your help assembling a digital reference library for Anolis literature.

Our goal? – To compile PDFs of every published piece of literature relevant to the taxonomy or conservation of Anolis lizards.

The reason we’re doing this is to aid in the IUCN Red List assessment process for anoles. Having ready access to this literature dramatically simplifies the task of conducting and reviewing species assessments. Also, as the IUCN’s “Red List Authority” for Anolis lizards, the ALSG will soon maintain an authoritative list of currently recognized anole species. Ready access to the anole taxonomic literature will facilitate this as well.

We already started this process, and we’ve made a good dent.  Like many of you, we’ve been amassing anole PDFs for years (albeit sometimes haphazardly).  We recently Continue reading Anole PDF Scavenger Hunt

Anoles and the IUCN

Anoles are well-known for a lot of reasons, but conservation is not one of them.  Possibly because of the abundance, hardiness, and visibility of the more common anole species, the group as a whole is often regarded as one that’s doing just fine.  To date, very few specific efforts have been made to assess the conservation status of anole species.*

Anole species vary, of course, in how they’re doing.  Although species such as Anolis cristatellus, cybotes, and limifrons seem to occur on every perch across broad distributions, species like A. fowleri and A. megalopithecus have only been located a handful of times in the wild despite some considerable efforts. Dozens more species are known from just a single locality, where they may or may not be locally abundant.  While a lot of rare or little-known anoles may simply be secretive or geographically restricted, some are very clearly endangered. Continue reading Anoles and the IUCN