Axolotl and Curt Coonors research

The Dream Of Curt Connors Could Become Real Thanks To A Mexican God

Axolotl and Curt Coonors researchI read a recent news about “The secret to running repairs” and I remembered an older AA post about a hypothetical genetic biologist who researched the ability of certain reptiles to regrow missing limbs, partially to find a way to regrow his own missing arm.

Today, his noble research could be real thanks to a Mexican god. Yeah, the Axolotl, who according to the Aztec myth is a god transformed on a neotenic salamander with the hope that their ability to regenerate body parts will one day help people with amputations.

The Axolotl has become the amphibian prefered by many scientists around the world thanks to its capacity to regenerate both their hurt limbs as well as its jaw, skin, organs and even parts of the brain and the spinal cord. And to top things off, it doesn’t get cancer.

Scientists believe that it will only take a decade or two before the dream of Curt Connors could became a reality: the human limbs could regenerate like the axolotl.

I’m very excited for this news that I believe I forgot the anoles for a little moment.

Jumping Anole Video Goes Viral

Who wouldn’t want to see a lizard do a face plant? Apparently tens of thousands couldn’t pass this one up. It’s all part of Chi-Yun Kuo’s research in the Duncan Irschick Lab; Chi-Yun provided a first-hand account of the research when the paper was published last year.

Editor’s Correction: Chi-Yun’s paper is fabulous, but this video actually comes from Casey Gilman’s also wonderful research. See her original paper in the lab that produced this video and the recent field follow-up.

Flexible Perches… Who Cares?

I had spent a summer in Florida watching green and brown anoles jump around on trunks and branches, and I was amazed by how well they appeared to navigate their habitat, despite the variable flexibility and complexity of the habitat. Many anole species jump. They jump to move around their habitat, to forage, to fight, to chase (or be chased by) potential mates, and to avoid predators. If you have observed anoles jumping in the wild, you might notice that some species jump a lot, and they jump to and from a lot of different types of structures (the ground, trunks, branches, leaves). While the diameter of different types of structures has been shown to affect running speed and surefootedness, it has also been shown to have little impact on jumping, at least in the lab. But what about the flexibility (compliance) of the structures they are jumping to and from? Will a narrow branch in the wild affect jumping performance, not because of its diameter, but because narrow branches tend to be flexible? What about other flexible structures in nature, such as leaves, which tend to be wide and highly flexible? And, are anoles choosy about where, and from what, they jump?

It turns out, when it comes to jumping, perch flexibility is quite important.

With the help of my advisor, an engineer, and a generous collaborator who gave me guidance and let me use his specially-designed anole jumping tank, we conducted a lab study to to determine if and how perch flexibility affects jump performance in green anoles. We found that the  more flexible a perch was, the more it negatively affected jump distance and jump speed. We also observed that the recoiling perches whacked the anoles in the tail as they were jumping, which caused many anoles to do an impressive faceplant (this part of the story has received a bit of notoriety, both in the Annals (twice) and elsewhere). So, increased perch flexibility decreases jumping performance in the lab. But what does this mean for those anoles I’ve seen jumping from leaves and twigs in their natural habitat?

Male green anole perched on a flexible palm leaflet

Male green anole perched on a flexible palm leaflet

To answer this question, I headed back down to Florida and spent a little over a month filming green anole jumping behavior. The green anoles I observed in the wild appeared to be extremely choosy about which structures they jump from. While I found them basking and foraging on a range of perches, from stiff trunks to highly flexible leaves, the lizards would generally jump from the sturdiest perches in the habitat. If they were on a thin and flexible palm leaflet, they would move closer to the base of the leaflet to a stiffer spot before jumping. And when they did jump from highly flexible perches, they jumped to another perch that was just a short distance away. The longest jumps we observed were from the most sturdy (and low-lying) perches.

The green anoles I observed appeared to be so good at choosing perches to jump from, that over the course of my study I only noted two failed jumps from flexible perches. In one instance, a male was perching near the end of a leaflet, then moved to a sturdier part of the leaflet to jump onto a perch above him. Although this part of the leaflet was sturdy, it was not sturdy enough. The force of the jump pushed the jump perch down away from him, and he was unable to jump high enough to reach his intended perch. Luckily, he was able to catch onto another leaflet before he hit the ground. In the other instance, another male attempted a jump to a far perch and landed on the ground instead, then quickly climbed back up the palm. However, because I documented undisturbed behavior, many of the jumps I witnessed were sub-maximal. The lizards were jumping as far as they needed to at the time to get to another perch, but were not attempting to flee and therefore may not have been jumping as far as they might otherwise been able to. I wonder how my observations of how choosy they are with jump perches would change if they were in situations where they needed to escape quickly. Continue reading

Anole Consumption By West Indian Snakes

Caicos Dwarf Boa (Tropidophis greenway) eating an Anolis scriptus. Photo by Matthew Niemiller.

Neotropical snake and Caribbean expert Bob Henderson writes: “In going over some prey data for a chapter on diet and foraging in species of Corallus and the dramatic dichotomy between West Indian and mainland Corallus, I came up with some numbers you might find interesting.

I recovered 970 vertebrate prey items from West Indian snakes. Of those, 559 (57.6%) were anoles. The next closest prey genus was Eleutherodactylus (129; 13.3%).

Among ground dwelling or largely ground-dwelling species (tropes, colubrids, dipsadids), anoles accounted for 54.1% of their prey. Among arboreal snakes (Corallus, Hispaniolan Epicrates, and Uromacer), anoles accounted for 64.1%.

I suspect there are very few West Indian macrostomatan snakes that do not include anoles in their diets at some time during their lives.”

Conservation Status Of The World’s Reptiles

Over at The Lizard lab, Martin Whiting discusses a recent paper published in Biological Conservation on the conservation status of reptiles. Basically, a cast of thousands assessed a random sample of 16% of the world’s reptile species, categorizing them into the IUCN’s categories of conservation concern, which range from “least concerned” to “critically endangered” and, of course, “extinct.”

Martin nicely summarizes the paper in his post, but I’ll reprint his conclusion summary paragraph here: “59% of species were Least Concern, 5% were Near Threatened, 15% Threatened (Vulnerable, Endangered or Critically Endangered) and 21% were Data Deficient. To put this another way, one in five species are threatened with extinction and another one in five are data deficient. The paper identifies freshwater habitats, oceanic islands and tropical regions as containing the highest proportion of threatened species. Habitat loss and direct harvesting are two key threats to reptile populations and these are depicted in Figure 3 from the paper” (above).

Of course, from the AA perspective, the question is: what about anoles? The results were, to me at least, surprising. Of the 65 species surveyed, 29.3% were in one the three threatened categories, nearly twice as many as the global average! I would have guessed the opposite–most anoles seem to being doing reasonably well. But, then I rationalized, it must be the mainland anoles, because Caribbean anoles are generally doing fine. Again wrong! 11/28 (39%) Caribbean anoles are in these categories (including the only two “critically endangered species, A. juangundlachi (known from one specimen, if I recall correctly) and A. roosevelti), compared to 8/37 (22%) for mainland species. One non-surprise is that all 10 “data deficient” species are from the mainland; however, even when they are removed, the percentage threatened in the mainland (30%) is still less than in the Caribbean. At least for the Caribbean species, the biggest predictor seems to be range size, as all threatened species either have small distributions or occur on small islands. I am less familiar with some of the mainland species, but think the same may be true for those. I’ll append the list below.

One last note: the paper truly has an extraordinary number of authors who contributed to this massive compilation. One amusing consequence is that the list of authors’ affiliations at the start of the paper is three pages long! Continue reading

Anolis bombiceps And Others In Peru

Anolis bombiceps - Image from www.amazonialifeperu.com

Anolis bombiceps – Image from www.amazonialifeperu.com

It started with a google search for Clelia clelia, which is one of my favorite snakes. These large colubrids are commonly known as the mussurana and feed upon vipers. Mussuranas are resistant to viper venom, which also makes them very useful for developing antivenoms. They are impressive hunters that take down venomous snakes with the deftness and tenacity of a honey badger. I have always been impressed by their sheer pluckiness as well as their beauty, and have spent many an hour reading up on them. It comes as no surprise, however, that while I was looking up information on tropical snakes from the New World I inadvertently came across some cool images of anoles!

A very lucky group of arachnologists traveled to the Peruvian Amazon in 2009 and posted some of their pictures on this site. The herping gods were on their side and they found an abundance of beautiful amphibians and reptiles, including many poison frogs and Stenocercus fimbriatus. This species, also known as the Western leaf lizard, is also another personal favorite for its beautiful camouflage and a dorsal pattern that is strangely reminiscent of Anolis barbouri, a leaf-litter anole from Hispaniola.

These adventurers also got to see some fantastic anoles, including A. bombiceps, the blue-lipped anole. Like the western leaf lizards, these anoles do a fantastic job of blending in with the leaf litter and background vegetation, so kudos to the explorers for actually spotting them. They also have photos of some unidentified anoles that could use a trained eye or two. Specifically, they have a photo of a large adult that they have tentatively identified as Anolis chrysolepis, and a juvenile or female that they could not recognize. Anyone out there care to offer an opinion?

The Caymans: Caribbean Herpetofauna Island(s) of the Day

Today’s Island of the Day is actually a set of three islands that make up The Cayman Islands: Little Cayman, Grand Cayman, and Cayman Brac.

Little Cayman is a quiet little diving community with less than 100 residents, made up mostly of expats and people who run the hotels that host the tourists attracted by some of the best diving and snorkeling in the Caribbean. When I was there, we met some locals who gave us a tour of the island and we circumnavigated Little Cayman in about 20 minutes by car. We saw the endangered Cyclura caymanensis on the northern side of the island, in a spot where they congregate for tourists to feed them. As far as Anolis go, Little Cayman has Anolis maynardi, a very long-snouted green anole. They also have a red-dewlapped population of Anolis sagrei that Jason Kolbe showed is more closely related to populations of A. sagrei on Cuba than they are to populations of red-dewlapped A. sagrei on Grand Cayman.

The Western arm of Grand Cayman, the biggest island, feels a little bit like South Beach in Miami, with expensive resort hotels, boutique shopping, and a rocking beach and nightlife scene. As you go farther east, you find the the classic Caribbean dry forests growing among the karst outcroppings. The endangered Grand Cayman Blue Iguana, Cyclura lewisi, has a remnant population in and around the botanical gardens on the east end of the island. This species is not blue like Anolis gorgonae but it does have a bluish-green sheen depending on how the light hits it.

The Grand Cayman Blue Iguana
(photo from the Wikipedia page)

Anolis conspersus is notable on Grand Cayman – it is related to A. grahami from Jamaica but has evolved a beautiful purplish-blue dewlap, very different from A. grahami’s yellow dewlap.

Cayman Brac feels like Little Cayman, except that it is bigger, has a few population centers, and is dominated by a bluff that grows from nothing in the west to a towering 150 feet in the east. During hurricanes, people living on Cayman Brac used to climb up to and take refuge in caves that weave back into the bluff. We spent some time on Brac looking for a cryptic invasion of Anolis sagrei sagreinto the endemic Anolis sagrei luteosignifer population. That project is ongoing in the lab. It was fun to work there and we met many friendly people.

For more on Cayman herps, check out: CaribHerp.org.

Possible Cage For Lizard Field Experiments

IMG_1720On a recent trip to Toronto, eminent bee-man and pollination biologist James Thomson showed me his lab, including a cage used for bee pollination studies.  The cardboard box is a “box of bees” that can be bought commercially and the experiment involves training bees to go to containers with different colors. Despite being fascinated by the research, my mind couldn’t help but wandering to thinking about how useful such a contraption could be to set up in the field for ecological or behavioral anole studies. As you can see, the cage is big enough that it could house a number of anoles at natural densities, and the mesh lets sunlight and rain through. James kindly informed me that the cages can be purchased at Bioquip; the largest they stock is 6′ (h) x 6′ (w) x 12′ (l), but James told me that larger models can be custom-ordered, and that they are very hardy in the field. Someone should try this!

Let’s Improve A Wikipedia Article For Anoles

The Wikipedia page for Polychrotidae

The Wikipedia page for Polychrotidae

The great thing about Wikipedia is that we can rapidly access information about, well, pretty much anything. The bad thing is that the information available isn’t always accurate or professionally curated. As far as the natural world is concerned, folks are better served visiting more curated sites. For example, if you’re looking for information on anoles, my recommendations would be to visit the Encyclopedia of Life, Caribherp, or even the Anolis genome site if you are specifically interested in the genetics of anoles. But the truth is that people interested in anoles will often go straight to Wikipedia. As members of the Anolis research community, we have the opportunity to evaluate the pages and make suggestions for improvements. Follow this link to the Polychrotidae page. I pose the following challenge to you – Can you find the errors on this page? Can you find where this page could be improved? I will compile the appropriate suggestions and send them to Wikipedia so that they can curate this page. Ready, set, go!!

New Guide To The Reptiles And Amphibians Of Guyana

guyana

guyana2

Based on a long-standing program of field exploration initiated by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and the University of Guyana, with further support from the American Museum of Natural History and the Royal Ontario Museum, a distinguished cast of authors, each with extensive experience in Guyana, has just published this enormous and useful monograph. Part of the abstract is appended below, but more importantly you may be wondering, just which anoles occur in Guyana? The answer is that there are at least five native species (auratus, fuscoauratus, ortonii, planiceps, and punctatus). They note, as well, that chrysolepis is reported to occur in Guyana as well, but all chrysolepis group specimens they examined turned out to be planiceps.

In addition, at least one Lesser Antillean species occurs in the cities of Georgetown and Kartabo. These invaders have been identified as both A. extremus from Barbados or A. aeneus from Grenada and the Grenadines, but the authors were unable to find any reliable morphological characters that could distinguish the two species, and thus could come to no conclusion about which species, or both, occur in several cities in Guyana, though they did note that Ernest Williams had identified many of the specimens in museums from Guyana as A. aeneus, as good a reason as any to attribute them to that species. The authors conclude “Clearly, the taxonomic status of Anolis aeneus versus Anolis extremus needs further investigation, both in areas where they occur in the West Indies and where they have been introduced on islands and the mainland of South America.”

Honorary anole friend Polychrus marmoratus also occurs in Guyana and is pictured above.

The first half of the two-page abstract: Continue reading

Saba: Caribbean Herpetofauna Island of the Day

Time for some gesaba_lizard2ographical Jeopardy.

The answer is: The highest point in the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The question is: What is Mount Scenery?

At a towering 870m, the active volcano Mt. Scenery on the island of Saba (pronounced say-buh), is the correct response. Saba is an island near St. Kitts and St. Barts in the Lesser Antilles and is the smallest special municipality of the Netherlands. At only 5 sq. miles (13 sq. km), it doesn’t have too many people (1,824 in 2001) or terrestrial herps (7). Of those herps, only one is endemic to Saba, and that is, of course, an anole – Anolis sabanus! You can find more information on the rest of the Saban herps at Caribherp.org.

 

Invasive Anolapalooza In Saint Martin

Anolis cristatellus moving in on St. Martin. Photo by Mark Yokoyama

Anolis cristatellus moving in on St. Martin. Photo by Mark Yokoyama

Mark Yokoyama has just published a review of the introduced reptiles and amphibians of St. Martin, where he lives, and there are a lot of them, including several anoles. Anolis cristatellus has apparently just arrived at some resorts and may be spreading, and A. sagrei has been there for a while. We recently discussed another article in the same issue of IRCF Reptiles & Amphibianswhich reported that A. sagrei is now in the Turks and Caicos and may be interacting with a A. scriptus, a close relative of A. cristatellus. If A. sagrei and A. cristatellus become well-established on St. Martin, it will be interesting to see what happens when they come into contact. Of course, more importantly is how they will interact with the native species, A. gingivinus, which is ecologically moderately similar to these two trunk-ground anoles, and A. pogus, which is small and potentially a prey item, especially for the more robust A. cristatellus.

bimacYokoyama also notes of an apparently short-lived invasion of A. bimaculatus in the 90’s and an enigmatic single specimen of A. marmoratus collected a half century ago.

Anolis Sagrei Invades The Turks And Caicos

turks anolesAnolis sagrei certainly gets around, and it’s added another locality to its ever-expanding range: the Turks and Caicos. AA contributor Joe Burgess recently published a paper in the most recent edition of IRCF Reptiles & Amphibians documenting its occurrence on the island. As we’ve come to expect, the population is quite numerous and–ominously–the native A. scriptus–itself also a trunk-ground anole–was not very common at the site. Anolis scriptus is a close relative of the Puerto Rican A. cristatellus and we’ve reported previously on these two species battling it out in Miami and Costa Rica. Stay tuned.

Cybotoid Blitz On The Encyclopedia Of Life

“Try to learn something about everything and everything about something.” -Thomas Henry Huxley

These are lofty words from one the world’s most impressive autodidacts. Thomas Huxley taught himself German and Greek by candlelight, endured years in crowded quarters with teenage midshipmen aboard the HMS Rattlesnake just to be able to learn about jellyfish, and taught himself comparative anatomy though countless hours behind a microscope. He may be most famously known as one the most important champions of evolution, but to me he is equally memorable for his firm belief in equal access to knowledge.

Image courtesy of David M. Hillis, Derrick Zwickl, and Robin Gutell, University of Texas

Image courtesy of David M. Hillis, Derrick Zwickl, and Robin Gutell, University of Texas

Were he alive today, I believe that Thomas Huxley would be a huge supporter of the Encyclopedia of Life (EOL). The EOL takes self-learning to the next level by providing unprecedented access to species information that is readable, comprehensive, and professionally curated. Since 2007, this open-access web portal has been cataloging the world’s biodiversity. Yes, you read correctly. EOL wants nothing less than to create informative pages for all of the world’s species. Last count, that was somewhere around 8.7 million species, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that number were much, much higher. In May 2012, the EOL hit one million species pages, which gives a sense of how successful the mission has been, and also how far they have to go.

Continue reading

Anole predation in Guadeloupe

Currently in Guadeloupe to investigate in collaboration with the National Park the distribution of sub-species of anoles with a colleague of the University of Toulouse (France), we saw an extraordinary scene of predation of a female anole (Anolis marmoratus speciosus) by Scolopendra gigantea. In Guadeloupe, the predation pressure is essentially due by cats, dogs, blackbirds and thrushes. At our knowledge, the scolopendre have never been reported before …Scolo

Expedition To Swan Island III: The Surprising Anoles Of Little Swan

Anolis sagrei nelsoni from Little Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison

Anolis sagrei nelsoni from Little Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison

Where the Swans meet.

Where the Swans meet.

My first two posts [1,2] reported on how we got to the Swan Islands and what we found on Great Swan, especially the anoles. But after five days on the island, we had given up hope of crossing the strait to Little Swan Island. The navy on the island had no boat.  The channel between the islands, while narrow, was deep and carried a substantial current.  From the air, it appeared that there were no sandy beaches on which to land, only jagged rocks beyond the jagged reef.

That afternoon, we were surprised to hear the sound of a motor.  From the top of the dilapidated radio tower, someone spotted a small boat headed for the island.  It turned out to be a lobster boat, headed back to the mainland of Honduras after several weeks collecting lobsters offshore.  They were stopping at Swan Island to replenish their supply of plantains and rainwater.  With a little haggling, we were able to persuade the captain to ferry us over to Little Swan the next day and pick us up again several hours later!

Heading to the lobster boat

Heading to the lobster boat

We arranged to leave the next morning at 6 a.m.  The morning came and we packed our gear and went to wait at the dock.  Two men headed from the boat to the shore in rickety-looking fiberglass canoes and we piled in: three in one canoe and two in the other.  Randy and I were sitting in the canoe with three and I was a little nervous.  The lip of the canoe seemed awfully close to the water line and the surf was high enough to bounce us around.  But the sailor paddling us back seemed unconcerned, so away we went.

We made it about halfway to the boat before a wave came up to the lip of the canoe and poured in.  Within moments the canoe had disappeared beneath us and we were bobbing in the water a couple hundred feet from shore.  My first thought was that my camera was going to get wet – the second thought was that it is hard to tread water in hiking boots.  I tried to hold my backpack over the water while we waited for the second canoe to come over.  I was able to toss my bag into the canoe, then we held on to the side of the canoe and were towed back to the shore.  The other canoe and Randy’s rake stayed on the bottom of the ocean.

Our next attempt to reach the boat was successful.  This time, we used three canoes.  The captain of the boat was also able to find three life jackets to send along, just in case. Continue reading

CBS Features Brown Anoles On CBS Sunday Morning Show, But…

cbs sunday morning

Good news and bad news from the good folks at CBS today. Those of you who are Sunday morning TV junkies will know that one of the pearls of the morning is the nature segment–combining beautiful imagery and sound–that comes near the end of the CBS Sunday Morning show. And what was featured this morning? Brown anoles from Tampa, males displaying, females looking regal in their diamondbacks–it was the best Sunday morning nature segment ever…except that the anoles were referred to as geckos!!! Doh! I wonder how long it will take CBS to right this injustice? You can watch the segment at this link, but you have to watch a commercial first. If anyone sees this pop up on Youtube, please let us know and we’ll link straight to it.

Update: See the nice note from the producer at CBS below. Unfortunately, they appear to have taken down the segment from their website.

Expedition To Swan Island II: The Anoles!

Anolis sagrei nelsoni from Great Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison.

Anolis sagrei nelsoni from Great Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison.

In a previous post, I detailed the trip to Swan Island and our initial impressions. But now for the important stuff. The most abundant animals on the island were the anoles.  They could be found on the beach, in the forest, on the buildings, on the hammock where we napped in the hottest part of the afternoon.  This abundance was not immediately apparent, as the anoles seemed rather shy and tended to hide when I approached.  Yet, if I sat still for a few minutes, anoles would start descending from the treetops and soon there seemed to be an anole on every branch.

Dewlap of A. sagrei nelsoni from Great Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison.

Dewlap of A. sagrei nelsoni from Great Swan Island. Photo by Alexis Harrison.

My immediate impression was that these anoles did not “feel” like typical A. sagrei.  They were light in coloration when calm, more like A. cristatellus than A. sagrei.  Their eyes were marked like A. sagrei, but they were larger and darker.  Females seemed similar in size to A. sagrei that I have seen elsewhere, but the males were (much) larger.  This pronounced sexual dimorphism is consistent with the pattern in the anoles of the Lesser Antilles, where sexual dimorphism is exaggerated on single-species islands.  Finally, the dewlap of the anoles on swan island were much darker than what I think of as typical A. sagrei dewlaps, and did not have the typical two distinctive colors, red and yellow, but graded from a lighter margin to a darker center gradually.

Great Swan 2The anoles on Swan Island were also different from “typical” A. sagrei in their behavior.  My general impression was that they were more shy of people.  When threatened, they nearly always ran up into the canopy, rather than towards the ground or around their perch.  Males displayed their dewlaps relatively infrequently.  Finally, I observed them using a broad range of perches. Males especially used broad horizontal perches in the canopy of trees in addition to lower vertical perches.

Next Up: Big Surprises on Little Swan!