Some prettier pictures from Redonda

Alright, yesterday’s pictures were a bit gross, I apologize. Today’s will be a little nicer. Here’s just a quick photo dump and some captions of a few more scenes around the island, plus lizards!

RedondaHelicopterLanding.jpgHere’s the helicopter coming in for a landing. Notice all the beautiful grass!

A.Nubilus.M.TreePerch.jpgHere’s a male on a perch checking out this fellow (below) who was on the next branch over and sending some pretty strong “get outta here” signals.

A.Nubilus.M.DewlapSide.jpgAnd here’s a female. Not the one the two guys above were fighting over but another, that I spotted not too far away.

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Here’s a shot from up on Redonda of Geoff taking a picture in the evening sun.

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And here’s one showing the rocks up top and the path along the spine of the island.

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And, finally, here’s another pretty picture from the Helicopter because I just can’t get over how fun and pretty it is riding up front!

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Crudo a la Redonda

I’ve been looking back at pictures from Redonda to get some inspiration for writing up a short “one year later” natural history manuscript and I’ve come across some pictures and video I haven’t shared yet. I’m going to queue up a few for fun.

First, is the answer to a riddle the lizards had given us. As per our usual, we were interested in figuring out what the lizards on Redonda were eating. We flushed stomachs last year too, so this year, for just about every lizard we caught, we pumped their stomachs full of water to make them regurgitate whatever they’d eaten over the last day or so.

Flushing Tools

Most of the stomach contents were pretty straight forward – turns out the anoles were eating a lot of ants still. Quite a few of the ground lizards though had eaten oddly translucent animal flesh. Occasionally we even found a few fish scales.  Now, you remember that Redonda is surrounded by immensely tall cliffs so there’s no way that the lizards are clambering down to eat dead fish that wash up on shore, let alone catching their own fish! What I’d forgotten though is that the lizards don’t need to fish for themselves, their birdly neighbors are adept at doing so!

The source of this lizard carpaccio buffet was made abundantly clear when I accidentally surprised a large brown booby (Sula leucogaster) as I was walking around a corner high up in the cliffs. The bird, leaden with too big a meal (we all know the feeling) couldn’t take off to escape and so promptly disgorged a rich (and ripe) haul of fish right next to its eggs. It promptly thereafter careened off the cliff edge. I’m not sure which it was sorrier to leave behind, the proto-offspring or all those delicious smelts (I’m not sure what type of fish they were and so just opted for another pun – if you know, I’d appreciate herring from you in the comments).

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I promptly moved on after taking this picture because I didn’t want to disturb the nest any more than I already had, but given the odor emanating from the fishy bolus I suspect not a few lizards were eager to swoop in while the getting was good just as soon as I cleared out. I wish now that I’d moved a ways off and recorded the feast but then, not only would I have put you off your breakfasts but probably also ruined your lunches.

I’m not sure if I should be more apologetic about the gnarly photo or all the fish puns. But don’t be afraid to let minnow in the comments.

Closeup on the fish for ID:

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We were live on national TV!

After we got off Redonda (and had had a day to scrub up and do some laundry) Geoff and I were asked to give a live TV interview for Antigua and Barbuda Today! The Redonda Restoration Program (like them on FB if you can!) and a Fulbright Fellow named Andrew Maurer working in Antigua this year on Sea Turtle conservation have been doing a terrific job trying to get word out about the restoration efforts around the country. To help, I agreed to give a talk about my research on Redonda.

As I was hurriedly putting together the talk in the couple of days after we returned from Redonda, it was a surprise when Andrew asked if I’d be interested in doing a live TV interview with Antigua and Barbuda today. I was nervous. Really nervous. I’d never done TV before and live on camera means there’s no room for asking for a do-over. Geoff gave me some sage advice though, something along the lines of: Well, you’re going to say yes eventually because it’s a great opportunity even though it’s terrifying. You might as well just say yes instead of worrying about it… but I’m glad it’s not me.

So I said yes. And then I asked the producers if Geoff could come on too – we’d do a scientist/conservation writer one-two punch. Take that buddy! He said yes after I parroted his advice back to him.

We did a practice interview with Claire doing her best Katie Couric and we wrote up a few questions for Antigua and Barbuda Today to use to prep their host. Claire tried to stump us with questions like “Why is Redonda unique?” and hard-hitting follow-ups like “So what do lizards eat?” In reality, the practice session with Claire made us realize just how fun it is to talk about Redonda, the plants and animals, and the incredible efforts going into transforming it. Come Monday morning we were feeling relaxed and excited to get a chance to talk to a TV audience.

We arrived at the TV station early in the morning. It’s election season in Antigua and Barbuda right now so before (and after) us was a politician stumping for his district. Good news because that means we might get some more eyeballs tuning in. At about 7:40 they ushered to us sitting in the green room (which wasn’t green at all) to follow the stage manager into the studio. I’ll admit, at this point anxiety spiked again just a little bit.

We tip-toed into the studio as an interview was finishing and were given two microphones to snake up under our shirts. I couldn’t quite figure out where to put mine, first it was too high, then too low. Luckily the fellow doling them out was a pro and was able to sign to me the right position. Then, all of a sudden, it was a commercial break and we were quickly ushered onto the couch where our host was waiting.

He immediately made us feel right at home but it was clear he had no idea who we were or why we were there. His cheat sheet was just a list of names for the schedule of the day (none of our pre-baked questions had made it) so we quickly filled him in that we were talking about Redonda. Luckily, (and what are the chances?) he’d been there before as a youngster and so was immediately engaged and excited. Whew! And, well, you can watch the rest:

Revisiting Redonda

Revisiting Redonda one year after the goats were helicoptered off and the vermin e-rat-icated was every bit as exciting and gratifying as I could have hoped last year. I’d guessed we might see some grasses fighting their way up through the dust and rocks, maybe a few extra lizards happy to not have to watch out for day-hunting monster rats. What we actually saw exceeded my most optimistic expectations though.

Here’s a panorama I captured in 2017:

2017And another, from exactly the same spot, in 2018: 2018

With the astounding regrowth of grasses and sapling trees all over the island has come a complete transformation. The roots are locking in all of that dust and so instead of a fine powder of aerosolized guano, walking through Redonda is mostly dust-free and soil is starting to be stabilized and created. I can only imagine what this is doing for water quality in the immediate vicinity.

In addition, we saw insects everywhere and a much larger diversity than last year. Our helicopter was greeted by butterflies and on the first night we discovered several terrifying amblypygids had made our workspace their home; scuttling around every night on the prowl.

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Some things remained the same; we still worked in the concrete manager’s house which is still the best source of shade and shelter on the island. Our work was overseen this year by more than a dozen anoles who agreed it was a terrific spot to escape the heat of the day.

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The lizards of Redonda have made a pretty staggering recovery from last year. We calculated density in two ways: with a long transect around the whole island where we counted each lizard we saw, and a mark recapture plot where we catch each lizard, give them a unique number, and then resurvey two days later to see how many of them we find and how many unmarked ones we’d missed. By both estimates we think the anole population and the ground lizard (Pholidoscelis) have doubled.

IMG_8868.jpgHere was lizard number 50 at one of the plots and we weren’t even done catching that morning!

Redonda is doing great and I am so pleased to get to see the first year of its transformation. I can only imagine how much it’s going to continue to change into the future. I can’t wait to go back and find out!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…”

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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.