We’re back from Redonda!

The trip to Redonda was a huge success and even more importantly, the restoration project is going tremendously well! Last year, Redonda was dusty and dry, overrun with goats and rats that were mowing through the vegetation and hurting the islands’ unique mix of plants and animals, including three endemic lizards.

This year, the island is now rat- and goat-free and the lizards and birds are flourishing. It seemed like there were birds nests everywhere you stepped, and every time we rounded a corner, new birds were squawking their heads off — even the little fluff-ball babies got into the racket.


The lizard populations have increased tremendously. I’ll save lizard details for the next post though so stay tuned. The rest of this week has been focused on analyzing the data and jump starting some science communication and outreach while I’m in-country. I gave a talk to about 60 very enthusiastic people, including a lot of school kids and biology majors at the local university. The questions were terrific – everyone was incredibly attentive – and I even got a cheer when I posted my preliminary bar graphs. That’s a first!


I even got to do a live TV interview on Antigua and Barbuda Today, the morning show for the country. The anticipation was nerve-racking but getting to talk with the host about the important work happening on Redonda was really exciting. I’ll post the video as soon as I have some decent internet – I’ve had to start this post multiple times because the internet has disappeared on me. I’m leaving for Miami in a few hours where I’ll present some of these results in a symposium about current work in Anole ecology and Evolution. I’ll be in Miami for 48 hours before flying back to Paris. I’ll try to sneak in some more picture uploads tomorrow on fast internet and will be writing longer stories next week from France. Stay tuned!



Next Stop, Redonda

It’s been a hurried couple of weeks in Paris with lots of work on writing and slowly getting acquainted with working and living in a new country. Just as I was starting to find my way around the neighborhood though it’s time to head back into the field.

redondaThis time last year I was on the island of Redonda to survey the endemic lizards in tandem with a group working to eradicate the invasive rats menacing the islands’ fauna and flora. The eradication was a success, and now I’m heading back out to the island to see how things have changed. I’ll be catching and measuring lizards again, taking pictures of the vegetation, and looking to see what immediate differences removing these pests can have. I’m excited to see the changes and I’ll be posting updates as soon as I get off the island. For now though I’m at a run trying to get final supplies because we won’t have access to anything we haven’t brought with us for the next week!

Until I get back though, here’s a recent story in the Boston Globe about the lizards I’m working on at Harvard.


A love note to the London Museum of Natural History

Remember when I said these last two months had been hectic? Well, one of the reasons was that in the middle of packing up our apartment Claire and I took a last-minute 10-day trip to London! We need to be out of the US for 330 days in 2018 for tax reasons and we realized we weren’t going to make it. So, a trip to visit my old college roommate now living in London ended up saving us money (despite how ridiculous that seems).

I love Natural History Museums. In particular, I love the collections and research happening behind the scenes that make the museum what it is. The public exhibits are usually interesting, sometimes even really excellent, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg of the life and purpose of a good Natural History Museum. London’s, of course, isn’t just good, it’s world-class. The London Museum of Natural History is old, and housed within are specimens collected by the original greats: Darwin, Wallace, Linneaus and on and on the list goes. So, just about our first stop in London was Cromwell Road.

London Natural History MuseumFirst off, please let me apologize for all the fish-eye pictures. I was playing with a new lens for my phone and only just now realized that I didn’t take any non-fisheye photos of the museum. Whoops.

IMG_8346This is the famous blue whale skeleton hanging in the main gallery. It’s really really big.


This was my first time to the London Museum of Natural History and much of the museum was standard but beautiful. As per usual, there were lots of fading dioramas and dusty dinosaurs. I was also sad to see that there was only a short hallway devoted to extant reptiles and amphibians – what a missed opportunity! Still, every once in a while a beautiful exhibit would make us stop and admire for a few minutes.


Things started looking up though when we saw a sign that said “Form queue here to see the Tyrannosaurus Rex” and very enthusiastically did. Luckily, given that it was January, the queue moved fast – as fast as little four-year-old legs can trot towards the promise of a T-rex. Much to my surprise, we rounded the corner and there to greet us was an animatron jerkily making its way through a dozen poses with dazzling flashing lights spinning through the color wheel from purple to green to fuchsia and playing in the background the “Rainforest at nightfall” track on a sleep machine punctuated with tiger roars and thunder.


And the T-rex didn’t even have feathers*.

To me, theme park dinosaurs are about the antithesis of a good museum exhibit and so  by this point in exploring the museum I was pretty disappointed. All that changed though when I saw “The Cocoon” in the new Darwin Center.

The Cocoon At the Darwin Center LondonThis picture was taken during the glass elevator ride to the start of the exhibit. Out the window you can see the smooth white exterior of “The Cocoon” (I’m going to stop putting quotes around it but despite its awesomeness the name does make me roll my eyes) through which we were about to walk. The Cocoon is a slowly sloping ramp winding around several floors of the Museum’s entomology and botany collections! Amidst the excellent diagrams, videos, and interactive exhibits are windows into the racks and racks of collections with spaces for visitors to ask questions of researchers working inside. No one was there while we were walking through, alas, but there was an insect specimen preparation station that I’d have loved to sit and watch someone at work. We could also catch glimpses outside the Cocoon at the various lab scientists bedecked in full regalia (lab coat, micropipeter, and safety goggles) going about their work. This floor was a DNA lab and I promise there were people working – I didn’t want to post recognizable pictures. My only wish was that there’d been an LED ticker above the window saying something like “DNA EXTRACTION UNDERWAY OF HELICONIUS MELPOMENE, BUTTERFLY FROM MEXICO, FOR ONGOING SPECIATION PROJECT… CENTRIFUGE OPERATING AT 5000 RPM TO SEPARATE DNA… DNA CURRENTLY STORED AT -80 C…”


This is what natural history museums are all about, and I am so happy to see these scientists get the attention they deserve! Sure, I imagine there’s a bit of a fishbowl awkwardness to working in a lab that doubles as a zoo. But, I think that negative is vastly outweighed by the potential to inspire all those proto-scientists on four-year-old legs that get to see young people that look just like them working, talking, discovering, and exploring. The contrast to the robotic roars under dizzying disco lights couldn’t be more stark.

Natural history museums and their specimen collections are expensive and have been under fire lately, in part because I think not enough people know what they do. The Darwin Center’s model in London is a brilliant effort to remedy this. If museum scientists don’t want to start gathering dust alongside their specimens, we need to start finding more ways of showing off the rest of the iceberg.


*Alright, so as near as I can tell the scientific consensus brought T-rex from scaly, to feathered, and back to scaly again with maybe only a bit of plumage on its back. So I guess feather-free animatronic T-rex got lucky in its biological reality.



My lizards are on Atlas Obscura!

Geoffrey Giller is a recurring character on the blog and while people are usually most impressed by his terrific science journalism, or maybe his stunning nature photography, I’m very proud to share that he’s on his way to becoming a champion lizard catcher!

Geoffrey has helped out on trips to Redonda and to the Bahamas and will be returning with me to Redonda next month (more on that soon). He recently wrote a piece on Atlas Obscura about the Bahamas work and the lizard colony at Harvard that I wanted to highlight. You can see it here. Enjoy!


Geoffrey with an Antiguan Racer on one of the offshore islands of Antigua. This snake has made a stunning comeback thanks to years of dedicated conservation efforts. You can read more about the project here.

A new chapter in Paris

If this blog were a book, this post would start a new chapter (and if I had my way, it’d start with a big illuminated lizard standing in for that I in if). For those of you subscribers who feel like the last chapter ended with a bit of a whimper of unresolved story lines, I’m afraid you’re right. I’ve been holding my research progress a bit closer to the chest these last two months, and everything else was so mind-numbingly hectic that in the thick of it I didn’t really feel I had much to share on the blog. In hindsight, though, a few retrospective posts might be in order, so I’ll be interspersing those over the next couple of weeks.

All that changes now! I’m writing from Paris and will be for the remainder of 2018. If you remember, my postdoctoral fellowship granted me funding for three years of working in and around natural history museum collections. The first year was spent at Harvard with its exceptional lizard specimens. This next year is going to be based at the Muséum Nationale d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris in collaboration with long-standing friend-of-the-blog, Anthony Herrel.

What am I up to? Well, 2017 was such a grueling year for data acquisition that my first research priority is just writing up the mountains of data I’ve already collected. Grueling is the right word, too. I ended up leading expeditions to Antigua and Barbuda (3 people), the Bahamas (11 people), Greece (10 people), and two trips to Turks and Caicos (4 people), and all that permit writing, logistics problem solving, people minding, and data gathering left me just about as burnt out at the end of the year as I’ve been since my dissertation defense. Oh, and that doesn’t include co-managing a thousand-lizard animal colony on campus. Don’t get me wrong, the field adventures were memorable and the data immensely valuable, but all that’s left me eager for a “quieter” 2018 with somewhat less fieldwork.

So that’s the plan! I arrived in Paris yesterday and got my MNHN ID badge today. My wife is along for the adventure (thank goodness!), and we’re settling down into a teeny tiny 200 sq ft apartment in Le Marais – about 5 minutes walk from Notre Dame and a 20 minute walk to my office in the Jardin des Plantes. I’ll be posting more stories about settling in to Paris but if you want a closer look at the day-to-day adventures and faux pas of becoming Parisians, check out her new blog “Practice Makes Parfait.”


A video from Pine Cay, Turks and Caicos

I haven’t posted all that many photos from our time in Turks and Caicos, in part because I was worried about my friends on the islands as Hurricanes Irma and then Maria rolled through. Luckily the team stayed safe through both storms. Unfortunately, the damage and time delay from the storms means that the eradication efforts are going to have to be put on hold for a year.

Before the eradication was postponed I put together this little video. I held off posting it when the project future was in limbo but it seems a waste not to share it. We will be continuing this work and returning as soon as we can to look at the Anoles of Pine Cay following removal of the rats. It’s just going to be a slightly longer timeline than originally planned.

Hope you enjoy the footage. Remember to watch on “HD.”

FensFest 2017

This last Saturday was the 75th anniversary of the Fenway Victory Gardens so the Garden society hosted a terrific party. I caught a couple of lizards in the compost pile the day before and had them on display for visitors to learn about the Italian Wall Lizards in Boston.


I need to work on the signage for next time, but one of the coordinators helpfully spray-chalked this awesome lizard right in front of my table:


I had a great crowd stop by, admire the lizards, and ask terrific questions. Lots of people were interested to hear about how the lizards were surviving the winter (in the compost I think), where they’d come from (Italy originally but maybe by way of NYC?), what they ate (insects – just about anything they can get their mouths around), and whether they’d be a problem in the gardens (almost definitely not). I had a blast talking about these cool little immigrants.


I did get a few tantalizing mentions of other lizards around the Boston area so keep your eyes open! If you notice a lizard please, let me know. Preferably with a picture!

For new visitors, want to learn more? I have more posts on the blog and you can read some news stories here. Thanks to all who came out to visit and check out the Green Monster!