Category Archives: Uncategorized

SICB 2018: Body Color, Behavior, and Temperature of green anoles

GreenBrownThe color change from a bright, vibrant green to a dull, muddy brown is one of the most characteristic qualities of the green anole (Anolis carolinensis) (I am aware that some dewlap enthusiasts may take issue with this statement). Given the dramatic differences between the colors, Daisy Horr, a Junior in the Johnson Lab at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX, wondered how social behavior and body temperature may influence body color, and whether these relationships differ between males and females.

IMG_6003First, Daisy observed green anole social behavior in Palmetto State Park, TX, and found that males exhibited green body color more frequently than females, and males that performed more pushup and head bob displays also changed colors more frequently (between green and brown). She also found that females were more often green during social interactions.

Because green anoles are ectothermic, more commonly known as cold-blooded, ambient temperature plays an important role in nearly every aspect of their lives. Therefore, there might be a relationship between body color and thermoregulation. Daisy spent a lot of time searching the Trinity University campus for green anoles, and measured body temperatures, the temperatures of the perch on which she found them, and the distance to the nearest alternative perch (a measure of exposure). While she did not find any association between body color and temperature, she did show that males used warmer substrates than females, and that males were typically more exposed (greater distance to the nearest perch). Additionally, she found that males are generally greener than females throughout the day.

Daisy plans to pursue graduate school after she finishes at Trinity University, and we all hope she continues to contribute to anole research! Graduate advisors, you don’t want to miss out on a fabulous researcher!

(This post’s author’s diploma from Trinity University does not affect his assertion that Trinity graduates are among the best minds in biological research.)

SICB 2018: Plasticity in thermal physiology is important for adaptation to urban heat islands in Puerto Rican anoles

Effects of urbanization pose major challenges to biological systems globally. One example that impacts the thermal environments of urban areas is the urban heat island effect, where urbanization creates an environment that is hotter than nearby natural areas. In Shane Campbell-Staton’s talk “Temperature-mediated shifts in performance and gene expression between populations of the Puerto Rican crested anole in natural and urban habitats” he sought to investigate divergence in thermal physiology and gene expression between urban and natural populations of anoles in Puerto Rico.

In situ, he investigated whether there were differences in urban and natural microhabitats, lizard thermal tolerance between urban and natural populations, and if there were differences in thermal physiology if this was a plastic or genetic response. He found that urban microhabitats were warmer, and that lizards from urban environments maintained function at higher temperatures when compared to their natural environment counterparts. This increase in thermal tolerance is a plastic response in the urban lizards. He then investigated the transcriptomics to investigate if there is evidence for temperature-mediated selection in urban heat islands, and found that selection on ancestral plasticity may play a role in acclimation to urban heat stressors. Future work includes identify genes involved in this accommodation. Amazing things to come!

SICB 2018: Fighting for food: Does food insecurity influence agonistic in the brown anole?

Leah Elkhoury with her poster at SICB 2018.

Leah Elkhoury, an undergraduate student in the Fokidis Lab at Rollins College, investigated whether access to food would increase agonistic behaviors in the notoriously aggressive brown anole. First, to see if fasting would affect brown anole aggression, she tested wild caught brown anoles by feeding control lizards a regular diet and fasting treatment lizards for either 24, 48, or 72 hours. The treated anoles were then size-matched with a control lizard and placed in an enclosure, where their agonistic displays were recorded and analyzed.  The results of that portion of the experiment indicated that fasting does not increase agonistic behavior.

Next, lizards were separated into two groups: one with predictable feeding schedules, and one with a randomized feeding schedule for one month. This lizards then were tested for aggression in a similar way to the first experiment. The anoles were then sacrificed, and their blood was tested for stress steroid, fat mobilization, and fat deposition. Their brains were then collected and regionally divided to in order to measure stress steroid. Interestingly, lizards in the unpredictable feeding group exhibited more dewlap flashes, one of the brown anole’s agonistic behaviors. They also showed an increase in fat deposition and plasma corticosterone (stress steroid).  Though there were no differences in corticosterone between brain regions.

These exciting results show the “choices” brown anoles make about energy allocation under stress, and Leah plans to continue to ask questions about the link between feeding and aggression. We can’t wait to hear about her work in the future!

SICB 2018: Physiological Traits Predict Behavioral Activity of Female Lizards

One of the most challenging things an organism will do throughout its lifetime is balance its energy budget. Energy is used to grow, develop, reproduce, survive, and how animals allocate that energy will forever be a fascinating question to biologists. If you have more energy, then in theory you should be able to be more active and be a “fitter” individual. For most lizards, excess energy can be represented by fat stores, so if individuals tend to store more energy, then they should be less able to put energy into other reproductive or physiological traits. This was the idea tested by Marzieh Rouzbehani of Trinity University, working in the lab of Michele Johnson.

They studied two anole species: crested and bark anoles (Anolis cristatellus and A. distichus) and found that the two species exhibit different energy-physiology relationships. They found crested anoles with larger eggs had more fat stores, and that crested anoles with larger eggs did not exhibit activity tradeoffs. Bark anoles on the other hand exhibited no relationship between egg mass and fat stores, but found a trend where bark anoles with larger egg masses had lower activity levels. In addition for both species, they found no relationship between hematocrit (the volume percentage of red blood cells in blood) and activity levels, and their work emphasizes the complexity that is species-specific physiological dynamics for female anoles. Different anole species are likely to have different physiological traits influence their behavior and activity in different ways. Fascinating stuff!

SICB 2018: Predicting Climate-Induced Distributional Shifts for Puerto Rican Anoles

Anna Thonis, a Master’s Student in the Lister Lab at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, used distributional projection models to predict future ranges of anoles in Puerto Rico. There are ten species of anoles in Puerto Rico, and all of them are predicted to be faced with range shifts in the coming years due to climate change, as Puerto Rico may be faced with both warming and drying out in the future.

Thonis used population occupancy data collected by Lister from 1976-2012 as an input for her models. Using climate models and open source software, Thonis projected anole populations for 2050 and 2070. Based on these models, there will be an average reduction of the most suitable of anole habitats of 29.5% by 2050, and 8 of 10 anole species in Puerto Rico face habitat reduction. In 2070, the models predict and increase in habitat reduction, with a 39.6% reduction in the most suitable habitat and 9 of 10 species of anole facing habitat reduction.

Though these models sound dismal for anoles, Thonis hopes that future work with distributional models can help inform conservation decisions as climate change processes. More detailed models may be able to inform decisions on where protected habitats for anoles should be placed.

SICB 2018: Do back-pattern morphs in female brown anoles differ in morphology, behavior and natural selection?

Sometimes, males and females of the same species differ in traits linked with their ability to survive and reproduce. These differences, called sexual dimorphisms or polymorphisms are quite common in lizards, including anoles! Female brown anoles have a polymorphic back pattern while males are usually of a single pattern. A lot of work has tried to uncover why this back pattern polymorphism exists in nature and what advantages it offers these lizards. Rachana Bhave, a Ph.D. student with Robert Cox at the University of Virginia were interested in determining just how these male and female-like morphs of brown anoles differ in their morphology, behavior, and which traits influence survival.

Using a captive island population in Florida, Bhave et al. captured all of the lizards on the island and measured differences in morphology between the morphs, finding that female-like morphs tend to have higher survival as juveniles but not as adults. These morphs differed in their growth rates but did not experience different selective pressures, indicating perhaps a very complex control regulating the back pattern maintenance in this population. They also found that while female-like morphs tend to display at a higher rate, there weren’t any differences in the morphs probability to attack. They plan to integrate more physiological data such as growth or performance metrics to try and uncover the governing factors responsible for maintaining this back-pattern polymorphism. Awesome stuff to come!

SICB 2018: Environmental Factors Affect Aggression in the Brown Anole

Male-male competition is one of the most widespread phenomena in lizards. Males compete for access to critical food resources, territory space, and female lizards, making a male’s ability to win competitions against other males critical to survive and reproduce. However, how the behavior of a male can vary depending on what social environment he grew up in, the abundance of certain predators or competitors, or the density of other male and female lizards. Therefore, determining what environmental factors influence the behavior of male lizards as they attempt to procure resources necessary to survival and reproduction is a critical question in biology today.

From Virginia Tech, (now a Ph.D. student with Shawn Kuchta at Ohio University) Emily Watts and her collaborators sought to understand what environmental factors influence the behavior of male brown anoles (Anolis sagrei). They used males reared in a common garden from four different populations in the Bahamas to try and determine if genetic or environmental factors influence the aggression differences among males of different populations. Using male-male competition experiments and mirror experiments (where a single male perceives himself as a rival), they tested the hypothesis that males reared in a common garden will not differ in aggressive behavior. They found that aggression varied significantly among populations when using mirror tests, but they found support for their original hypothesis when using male-male competition experiments. This work highlights that aggressive behavior of males is shaped by a multitude of pressures from the environment, to genetics, and ultimately how and where a lizard develops to adulthood. More is to come as they continue to increase the number of their experimental trials with more Anoles!IMG_3929

The Brown Anole: A Proud Texan

From the pages of the San Angelo Standard Times:

Wild About Texas: Brown anole got to Texas as fast as it could

Living in the day and age where memes on social media are the prevailing means of communication does have a FEW benefits. I can almost always count on having a good laugh daily at something someone has posted.

Just the other day, I saw a meme that stated, “I was not born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!” As a naturalist, all I could think about when I saw this posted was one particular species of lizard that has found its way here, and that species is the brown anole.

The brown anole (Anolis sagrei) is one of two species of anoles that currently reside in Texas, but this species is not native to this state. First established near Houston in the 1970’s, this species was known only from areas around Houston, San Antonio and Brownsville as late as the turn of the century.

However, now it can be seen in and among most metro areas within an imaginary triangle that pinnacles in the DFW area, east of I-35 and west of I-45. It has only recently been observed (2016) in the Metroplex, and there have not been enough observations to verify whether there is a breeding population there or not. Even more recently, a smattering of individuals had been reported from a nursery in the city limits of Midland and these observations have been verified.

Originally native to the Bahamas and Cuba, this species has been introduced and is thriving in areas outside of Texas as well. It is arguably the most common lizard observed throughout the southern 2/3 of Florida, and it can also be seen throughout the eastern seaboard of Mexico.

The habitats that this invasive lizard prefers are settings in densely vegetated areas. Although occasional specimens are discovered basking and foraging in short shrubs and trees, the vast majority of sightings are of individuals in terrestrial settings. It is the propensity for living among ornamental plants and shrubs that has enabled this species to thrive in the warmer climates outside of its natural range. Therefore, many Brown Anoles are observed living around landscaped human habitations such as houses and even businesses.

The brown anole is among the most plainly colored and yet most intricately patterned lacertilian species in the United States. Unlike the native green anole (which can vary in coloration from green to tan to brown), this anole is always a shade of brown. The scales on the back are small and granular in appearance and texture, and females are often plainly patterned, adorned only with a light stripe that runs lengthwise down the spine. Males on the other hand are patterned with an intricate array of lightly outlined dark wedges and blotches along the spine.

Both species have varying amounts of dark striping that extends behind the eyes. Males have a brightly colored dewlap that, when extended, is dark red. The limbs are long, and are often colored patterned with dark stripes or bands. The head is not nearly as elongated like the green anole and is not noticeably separated from the body, and the tail, which is colored like the back, is about one-half of the 8-inch total length.

Brown anoles, like other lizard species, are “cold-blooded”, or ectothermic. This means that it does not generate heat from the inside of their body, as mammals and birds do, but rather is dependent on outside sources for heating and cooling. It is active during the early mornings and late afternoons from early April to October, and like many other reptile species it avoids the hottest part of the day by resting in shaded areas. However, the fact that it resides primarily in tropical areas, it is often active throughout the year.

This species of lizard is an opportunistic carnivore, feeding primarily on small insects such as moths, butterflies, crickets, grasshoppers, beetles, and the like.

The brown anole is oviparous, which is a fancy way of saying that it lays eggs. During the breeding season, which typically begins in early spring and extends into late summer, males will attempt to attract females by extending his bright red dewlap (a flap of skin underneath the chin) while bobbing his head up and down in a “push-up” manner.

Following successful copulations, the female will begin to lay clutches of a single egg. By laying an egg about every two weeks, a female can lay as many as 12 eggs in a season. These eggs are laid in areas of high humidity, and typically will hatch in about five weeks. The two-inch long hatchlings are smaller imitations of the female, and are capable of fending for themselves immediately.

This lizard species is a gregarious basker and will often allow people to get rather close as it relies upon its coloration for protection. However, once it feels an intruder has approached too close for comfort, it will quickly dart for cover among the leaf litter.

Michael Price is owner of Wild About Texas, an educational company that specializes in venomous animal safety training, environmental consultations and ecotourism. Contact him at wildabouttexas@gmail.com.

Night Time Activity by the Brown Anole in Guatemala

Night time’s not just for sleeping in the festive anole.

Everyone knows that anoles are diurnal, active by day and snoozing by night. Yet the rascals are opportunistic–light up the night, and they’ll take advantage to extend their carousing and foraging. We’ve had reports on such behavior before [1, 2] in the green and knight anoles (and there are more reports in the literature); now such behavior is reported in the brown anole from Guatemala, in a recent paper by Brown and Arrivillaga published recently in Mesoamerican Herpetology.

New Anole from the Tropical Andes Named after Jonathan Losos

A group of Ecuadorian herpetologists led by Omar Torres-Carvajal, in collaboration with Steve Poe, described two species of anoles from the Andes in southern Ecuador. The study was published a few days ago in the Journal of Natural History. One of the new species is unique among known species from Ecuador in that it has a blue dewlap. It was therefore named Anolis hyacinthogularis, from the Latin words hyacinthus (=blue), and gula (=throat).

AnolisHyacinthoANAN

The second species, a short-limbed lizard commonly found on twigs as far as eight meters above ground, was named after Jonathan Losos. Most people visiting this blog know who this person is, so there is not much I dare mentioning about him, except that Ecuadorian biologists were lucky enough to have him as a guest a couple of years ago, and several Ecuadorian students and scientists have been inspired by his monumental work with anoles. Besides his obvious academic merit, Jonathan has a unique sense of humor and it’s just fun to be around him in the field. Who else refers to an aye-aye as a “sinister cross between Albert Einstein and Yoda”? (Improbable Destinies). Thank you Jonathan for your work!

 

Journal of Natural History, 2017. doi:10.1080/00222933.2017.1391343

Journal of Natural History, 2017. doi:10.1080/00222933.2017.1391343

Anole Annals 2018 Calendars Now Available!

conspersus

Thank you once again to everyone who participated in this year’s Anole Annals photo contest! As usual, we received tons of great photos, and we’re ready to announce the results. First up, the grand prize winner, is the above photo of Anolis conspersus, taken by Thijs van den Burg. The second place winner is below, Anolis oculatus montanus, by Gregor Weidlich. Congratulations!

oculatus montanus

The rest of the winners are listed below, and their photos can be seen in the 2018 calendar here! Click the link to order your calendar.

Congrats again to all the winners, and happy holidays!

Winning photos:
Anolis conspersus, Thijs van den Burg
Anolis oculatus montanus, Gregor Weidlich
Anolis luteogularis, Thijs van den Burg
Anolis carolinensis, Nick Herrmann
Anolis huilae, Cristian Castro Morales
Anolis allisoni, Arnaud Badiane
Anolis wattsi. Geoffrey Giller
Anolis allogus, Thijs van den Burg
Anolis porcatus, Jesús Reina Carvajal
Anolis nubilus, Colin Donihue
Anolis grahami, Nathan Wright
Anolis porcatus, Arnaud Badiane

Are You Attending SICB 2018? Blog for Us!

The end of 2017 is nigh, and soon people will be traveling home to spend time with loved ones, eating a superfluous amount of cookies and sweets, and of course, working on that poster or talk for the 2018 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) meeting in San Francisco, California. The 2018 SICB meeting in San Francisco held from 3-7 January is going to be one of, if not, the largest SICB meetings ever with nearly 1950 abstracts being submitted! SICB is one of the largest national conferences for biologists, where an incredible diversity of research is presented each year. And of course, SICB meetings are home to several Anolis presentations, with approximately 40 or more talks and posters this year featuring anoles.

Every year at SICB, the Anole Annals tries to cover as many of the anole talks and posters as we can, and this year is no exception! AA relies on conference attendees to blog about all of the awesome anole work being presented, with a strong focus on undergraduate and graduate research. If you’re a student or student researcher attending SICB, blogging for AA is a fantastic way of getting experience in communicating science with a broader audience. In addition, if you are presenting work on anoles at SICB this January and want to help us blog, we’ll return the favor and cover your work for the blog! Anybody can join the AA family- undergraduates, graduate students, postdocs, and faculty. If you’re interested in blogging for AA at SICB this year, please shoot me an email at anthony.gilbert09@gmail.com or leave a comment on this post and we can get you going. We can provide assistance, examples, and answer any questions you may have when it comes to blogging for AA. Here is an example post from a previous SICB meeting. Thanks all!

Sneak Preview of New Smithsonian Channel film on Anolis Lizards

From the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture webpage:


Film Screening: Sneak Preview of Laws of the Lizard + Q&A with Filmmakers

Date:

Monday, December 11, 2017, 6:00pm

Location:

Geological Lecture Hall, 24 Oxford Street

People holding lizard

When scientists ask big questions about the laws of nature, they sometimes seek out improbable partners—such as lizards—to find the answers. In their new documentary, Laws of the Lizard, award-winning filmmakers Nate Dappen and Neil Losin partner with scientists to tell the surprising story of anole lizards.

During a year-long quest that took them from tiny Bahamian islands and Caribbean rainforests, to metropolitan Miami, Dappen and Losin capture cutting-edge science, new anole species, and never-before-seen behaviors. They quickly came to understand why Jonathan Losos, Harvard evolutionary biologist—and anole lizard expert—humorously says “Any study you do is more interesting if you do it on anoles!”

Join us for a special preview screening of Laws of the Lizard—coming to the Smithsonian Channel in 2018—followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers and Harvard Professor Jonathan Losos.

Film Screening (51 minutes)

Free parking is available at the 52 Oxford Street Garage

Free and open to the public

The Contronymic Effect of Behaviour on Evolution: Does Behaviour Promote or Retard Evolutionary Change?

Anolis shrevei on a rock. Photo courtesy of Katharina Wollenberg Valero.

Anolis shrevei on a rock. Photo courtesy of Katharina Wollenberg Valero.

Back when I was an undergrad, we were given the impression that animal behaviour and ecology (and evolution for that matter) were distinct disciplines. ‘Behaviour’ had its own classes, professors, and students, mostly separate from the ecologists. The disciplines also have their own, aptly named, journals: Animal Behaviour vs. Ecology. Of course, even then we knew that this division wasn’t a hard boundary and journals like The American Naturalist explicitly included ecology, behaviour and evolution, but we still didn’t think of these disciplines as inseparable. The impression seems to have stuck because fast forward 15 years and I was recently surprised when a colleague, upon hearing about our work on microhabitat use in agamids said, “I didn’t know you did behaviour.” Well, until that moment, I didn’t know I did either! I simply hadn’t thought about what we were doing in that way. Upon reflection, it should have been obvious, just like it should have been obvious that the behaviour/ecology distinction was a false one. I have no idea how widespread my once-perceived separation of ecology and behaviour is, but the fact that there’s a need for a journal, Behavioural Ecology, that specifically merges them suggests they’re still not perfectly integrated.

So why natter on about behaviour, ecology and evolution? Because a recent paper by Martha Muñoz and Jonathan Losos, published in The American Naturalist, is a fine example of why these shouldn’t be separated. Muñoz and Losos set up a dichotomy of hypotheses about how behaviour influences evolution: on the one hand, exploratory behaviour can expose species to novel selection pressures, stimulating evolution, but on the other, behavioural fidelity could shield species from those same selection pressures, ‘forestalling’ evolution. So, which is it? Well—spoiler alert—it’s both. So long nice dichotomy. To reach their findings, the authors looked at thermoregulatory behaviour and how it affects adaptation to high elevation habitats in the Anolis cybotes species group (specifically cybotes, armouri and shrevei). They found that, despite much cooler temperatures at higher elevations, high and low elevation species had selected temperatures in the lab and maintained similar body temperatures in the field, via increased thermoregulation at high elevations. Thus, despite the cooler temperatures, anoles hadn’t evolved to prefer colder temperatures on mountaintops. So behaviour halts evolution, right? Yes but no. To thermoregulate so extensively, anoles had to seek out warmer microhabitats, specifically boulders. And we know what happens when anoles change their perch type: evolution! Muñoz and Losos found that shrevei and armouri had flatter skulls, consistent with life on the rocks, as well as shorter hind limbs (but no differences in toe length or lamellae number). The evolutionary basis of the morphological change in head and femur traits was confirmed by a common garden. Nifty.

Effects of behavioral thermoregulation on evolution of high elevation anoles. On the left, thermal environment, body temperature and lab-selected-temperature of low and high elevation anoles. On the right, morphology of high and low elevation anoles in the field and in a common garden. Modified from Figs 1 and 2 in Muñoz and Losos (2017).

Effects of behavioral thermoregulation on evolution of high elevation anoles. On the left, thermal environment, body temperature and lab-selected-temperature of low and high elevation anoles. On the right, morphology of high and low elevation anoles in the field and in a common garden. Modified from Figs 1 and 2 in Muñoz and Losos (2018).

The overall message of the paper is clear: the same behaviour inhibited evolution along one niche axis and promoted it along another. Muñoz and Losos argue that the lack of evolutionary change in thermal traits arises from the Bogert effect, where behaviour limits exposure to novel selection pressures. However, there is a chance that the lack of evolution could be due to other constraints, like a lack of genetic variation. Testing this would require an experiment with a control group of lizards that couldn’t behaviourally avoid thermal selection pressures. A previous paper by Muñoz, Losos and others, provided just such a natural experiment. In that study, Muñoz et al. found that lower CTmin has evolved in high elevation cybotoids, relative to low elevation ones. Why? Because at night, when its coldest, anoles are unable to behaviourally thermoregulate to avoid the cold –voilà, a control where the Bogert effect was negated. And once behaviour was removed from the equation? Evolution! This finding adds even more weight to the role of behaviour in inhibiting the evolution of thermal traits in this system. Cool stuff (I make no apologies for that pun).

There’s lots more in the Muñoz and Losos paper than I touched on here so give it a thorough read. It goes a long way to destroying any divisions that might still exist between behaviour, ecology and evolution and it makes a strong case for why we need to consider multiple niche dimensions when we talk about niche evolution and conservatism. Plus, it gave me an excuse to use the word ‘contronymic.’

Muñoz, M.M. & Losos, J.B. 2018. Thermoregulatory behavior simultaneously promotes and forestalls evolution in a tropical lizard. The American Naturalist. DOI:10.1086/694779.

Request For Morphological Data On Lesser Antillean Anoles

Hello anole community!

My name is Roy Ang, and I am currently a Genetics PhD student in the Fraser lab at Stanford University. I am interested in studying the cis-regulatory adaptations that lead to morphological changes and the evolution of different ecomorphs. I do so by studying available genetic data on different anole species and identifying correlations with morphological variation in limb length or lamellae count.

Most of my work now is based on morphological data from Mahler et al. (2010), but I am curious to know if anyone here is collecting similar data on Lesser Antillean anoles, such as A. wattsi or A. leachii? If you happen to be working in this area, I would love to get in touch with you! Please contact me at rang@stanford.edu.

Thank you very much for your help!

Invasive Species Removed from Desecheo Island: Good News for Anolis desechensis

Anolis desechensis is a variant of A. cristatellus found on the Puerto Rican island of Desecheo. The island has a diversity of other species, many of them of conservation value, but it has been devastated by introduced species. The good news: concerted actions have removed most of the invaders, and the island is recovering! Read all about it in the post below, which appeared on Cool Green Science.

Recovery: The Salvation of Desecheo National Wildlife Refuge

NOVEMBER 6, 2017

 

Isla Desecheo, Puerto Rico. Photo by Claudio Uribe/Island Conservation

Good news is scarce in Puerto Rico these days. But if you look 13 miles to the west, on a 358-acre island called Desecheo, you’ll find a mother lode.

Desecheo, once the Caribbean’s most important brown booby breeding habitat, was made a national wildlife refuge in 1976. This was something of a futile gesture because invasive aliens — black rats, feral goats and macaque monkeys — had extirpated the brown boobies (which once numbered around 10,000) along with the seven other nesting sea-bird species. The invasive species also blighted forests and the federally threatened Higo Chumbo cactus, and reduced native land birds, reptiles and invertebrates to a shadow of their former abundance.

Desecheo was an ecological wasteland.

In 1976 there was virtually nothing the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service could do about that. But in 1994 it acquired a powerful ally with the founding of Island Conservation (IC), a nonprofit team of biologists dedicated to preventing extinctions around the globe. There was and is no shortage of work. Although islands comprise a miniscule fraction of Earth’s landmass they harbor about half of all endangered species. At least 80 percent of the 245 recorded animal extinctions since 1500 have occurred on islands.

IC and multiple partners (frequently The Nature Conservancy) have thus far removed invasive mammals from 59 islands thereby benefitting 1,090 populations of 402 native species and subspecies. Research just released by IC, Birdlife International, the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and the University of California at Santa Cruz demonstrates that 41 percent of the planet’s vertebrates threatened with extinction can be saved by ridding certain islands of invasive mammals.

Last July, after an exhausting, expensive ten-year battle, IC and its partners certified that Desecheo National Wildlife Refuge was free of macaques (if you don’t count a single, aging female) and rats. The last feral goat was removed in 2009.

Such successes were impossible before the advent of recent technology including: the anticoagulant rodenticide brodifacoum, sufficiently fast acting to kill rats before they learn to avoid it; thermal imaging which allows partners to detect alien mammals at night and in forest canopies; GIS (Geographic Information System) for recording precise positions on Earth’s surface so that rodenticide-laced bait can be applied to every part of an island; and satellite imaging to determine when islands lose greenery so eradications can happen when less food is available to aliens.

Higo Chumbo by the Coast, Isla Desecheo. Photo by Island Conservation

Even with goats (introduced in 1788) and rats (introduced circa 1900) a few sea birds hung on. What finally did them in were the macaques, unleashed in 1966 for medical research by the then clueless National Institutes of Health.

Ecological Illiteracy Leads to Ecological Wastelands

The most formidable obstacle confronting IC and partners is ecological illiteracy. They get savaged by chemophobes who fear and loathe all poisons in all situations and by animal-rights types who defend alien wildlife, rats included, and decry the often unavoidable, increasingly minor and always inconsequential bykill of non-target wildlife.

The Desecheo project, however, proceeded unopposed. It wasn’t as if Puerto Ricans are more enlightened than other Americans. It’s just that they live in an alien-infested hell of macaques that tear up their gardens and bite them, exposing them to the herpes B virus (relatively harmless to macaques but usually fatal to humans), feral hogs and feral goats which also tear up their gardens, feral cats which infect them and wildlife with toxoplasmosis, and a biblical plague of rats and house mice.

Public reaction was different at Channel Islands National Park off southern California. When IC and partners set about saving and restoring a host of native species including the endangered ashy storm-petrel, imperiled Scripps’s murrelet, Cassin’s Auklet and Anacapa deer mouse by eradicating black rats, they were delayed by litigation. Typical commentary in the local press included: “Species go extinct all the time” and “Who are humans to call other species invasive?” Park rangers were obliged to wear bulletproof vests; and shortly before the first bait application, two men landed on Anacapa Island in an inflatable boat and started flinging pellets of vitamin K — brodifacoum’s antidote.

Desecheo Beach Camp. Photo by Claudio Uribe/Island Conservation

Had Anacapa been infested with macaques, recovery would have been a political impossibility.

Prudently, IC doesn’t talk it up about how it, the USDA’s Wildlife Services and a nonprofit group called White Buffalo removed macaques from Desecheo. But it’s important for the public to understand just how difficult and heroic was this effort, a first in island recovery. Learning as they worked, the partners first tried baiting and trapping. It failed. They had better results with rifles but had to bring in thermal-imaging equipment when the macaques retreated to the forest canopy.

“It was a hell hole,” recalls White Buffalo’s president, Dr. Anthony DeNicola. “Ninety or 100 degrees with no place to get out of the sun.”

IC and White Buffalo staffers would sit for 14 hours a day, scanning trees and terrain with binoculars. Toward the end it would take them a month to take out one or two monkeys. Finally they had to bring in tagged, sterilized “Judas animals” from Puerto Rico to socialize with the few remaining wild ones and reveal their presence. It took five years to finish the job.

Desecheo bird eggs. Photo by Claudio Uribe/Island Conservation

Safe for Birds Again

The reluctance of IC to offer such details in its press releases and interviews doesn’t mean it tries to fly under the radar. “That would be inconsistent with our values,” remarks Heath Packard, IC’s director of government and public relations. It would also be illegal under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires IC and its federal partners to engage with the public, disclosing alternatives and their various consequences.

Brown Booby, Isla Desecheo. Photo by Island Conservation

“The outreach is always the same,” says IC’s global affairs director, Gregg Howald. “It’s just that results of that outreach vary widely from location to location.”

Citing the Polynesian rat eradication on Lehua Island off Hawaii, completed September 13, Howald offers this: “For years we’d been reaching out to the community with blog postings, talking with people and holding public meetings. It wasn’t until late July that a few vocal individuals realized this was really going to happen and started trying to stop it, making lots of noise and drawing media attention. It was just off the rails. We had a public meeting in which people yelled at us for over two hours. It was horrible. Despite all our outreach, we wound up with a confrontation that started a cascade of anti-project misinformation.”

For example, the Huffington Post ran an op-ed by one Maggie Sergio (whom it identified as a “writer, conservationist and concerned citizen of the planet”) suggesting that five pilot whales, which later beached themselves on Kauai and died (as they commonly do everywhere they exist) were victims of diphacinone — an impossibility. Sergio also claimed that “three aerial poison drops, totaling 11.5 tons of diphacinone” were delivered by helicopter. There isn’t enough diphacinone in the world to drop 11.5 tons. What was dropped was 8.5 tons of bait of which .005 percent was diphacinone. This and other misinformation was recycled by local media.

Endemic Desecheo Anole, Isla Desecheo. Photo by Armando Feliciano/Island Conservation

It was exactly this sort of fear mongering that motivated the partners to use diphacinone, less toxic and therefore less effective than brodifacoum. But apparently it worked. “So far so good,” says Howald. All the rats we collared and monitored died. It will take time to tell for sure [if the project succeeded]. We did state in our environmental assessment that if diphacinone failed, we could come back in with brodifacoum.”

Either way Lehua Island will again be safe for federally threatened Newell’s shearwaters, band-rumped storm-petrels now a candidate for Endangered Species Act protection, wedge-tailed shearwaters, brown boobies, red-footed boobies, Laysan albatrosses, black-footed albatrosses, Christmas shearwaters, Bulwer’s petrels, red-tailed tropicbirds and black noddies.

Spectacular Results

Recovery of Desecheo’s native ecosystem is just beginning, but already results are spectacular. Despite insect surveys beginning in 1914 dingy purplewing butterflies had never been observed on the island. In April their caterpillars were so abundant they defoliated Almacigo trees. (Leaves quickly regenerated.)

Desecheo Butterfly. Photo by Armando Feliciano/Island Conservation

Endemic reptiles are doing much better, particularly Desecheo anoles, Desecheo ameivas and Puerto Rican racer snakes. A Puerto Rican skink, a species rarely observed in the past, has been sighted. Invertebrate density has increased. Native fruit trees and flowers are suddenly flourishing. New leaves, preferred by goats, rats and macaques, are more abundant than in anyone’s memory. Higo Chumbo cacti are rapidly recovering; and forests, particularly understories, appear to be growing faster.

Desecheo Flower. Photo by Armando Feliciano/Island Conservation

At this writing no one has visited the island since the hurricanes, but there are no refuge buildings on Desecheo; and in the tropics vegetation bounces back quickly. As of mid-October there were new leaves and blooms on Puerto Rico.

In its island-hoping war against introduced aliens IC builds on each victory. “One thing I’ve learned is that you can get so focused on individual projects you start to lose sight of the forest for the trees,” remarks Howald. “Now that we’ve had this success what does it mean? What’s the potential of Desecheo; what’s the leverage?”

The potential and leverage, he explains, is demonstration to regulatory agencies, the funding community and, especially, the public: that the choice is salvation of nearly half the world’s endangered species or the continued presence of alien invasives; that we can’t have both; that if we want the former, we have to take out the latter; and that we can do that without risk to humans or native wildlife populations.

Desecheo Panorama. Photo by Heath Packard/Island Conservation
Ted Williams

Ted Williams detests baseball, but is as obsessed with fishing as was the “real” (or, as he much prefers, “late”) Ted Williams. What he finds really discouraging is when readers meet him in person and still think he’s the frozen ballplayer. The surviving Ted writes full time on fish and wildlife issues. In addition to freelancing for national publications, he serves as Conservation Editor for Fly Rod & Reel where he contributes a regular feature-length column. More from Ted

Green Anoles on Tall Grass in Florida Swamps

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The Florida green anole, Anolis carolinensis, is a trunk-crown anole, usually seen on trees, often high up. So, what’s it doing on grasses low down? Alberto Estrada, an expert on Cuban lizards, reports the following:

It caught my attention to observe several specimens of A. carolinensis (smaller than the one in the photo above) posted on the spikes of the tall grass spikes on the lake shore at Miramar Pineland Park near Pembroke Pines, Broward, FL (25.97 ° N, -80.25W °). In my experience in Cuba with his close relatives A. porcatus and A. allisoni, I do not remember having seen them in such situations. They reminded me of the typical grass anoles such as A. pulchellus from Puerto Rico. As much as I searched, I did not find adults. In Tree Tops Park (26.07ºN, -80.28°W), if I have seen adults on the planks of the platform in the swamp and I have seen juveniles or subadults like the one the photo below in the reeds and on grasses that stand out from the water. I lived and worked for many years in the Ciénaga de Zapata, I had many experiences in marshy environments in the keys that surround Cuba, and I do not remember a single case of seeing the green anoles of Cuba in the same situation. Interesting experience!

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In turn, this reminds me of observations I made of Anolis allisoni on Roatan, as evident in the photo below:

Caption from original post: You thought I was kidding about the Roatan allisoni doing their best grass anole imitation? See how many you find in this photo. There are at least five, but maybe I missed some.