Describing A. nubilus

 

img_4456-e1487604077456.jpgDr. James “Skip” Lazell Jr. was the first to formally describe Anolis nubilus in a 1972 publication from the Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard. Above are two of his drawings of the species from the publication. He’s a colorful and evocative writer so I’m going to let his description of his 1964 trek to find the species and his subsequent notes on their ecology stand on their own.

From “The Anoles (Sauria, Iguanidae) of the Lesser Antilles” Volume 143, No.1. 1972.

Distribution. Anolis nubilus occurs only on Redonda. This tiny islet is exceedingly steep-to, and rises nearly 1000 feet out of the sea. There is virtually no surrounding bank, and the full swell of the western North Atlantic pounds Redonda’s cliffs. A tiny, nearly vertical gut on the leeward side provides the only access to the top of the islet up the cliffs; great blocks of basalt lie at the foot of this gut, and one’s original entrance to Redonda is made by jumping onto these blocks as the boat goes past them. It is about like jumping from a moving elevator onto a card table, except that elevators give more notice of directional reversals…but getting on is just the beginning.

The islet is a great block of igneous extrusive: strata of basalt and the peculiarly conglomeratelike, porphyritic material so often the result of Antillean vulcanism. The top of Redonda is a rolling wold, and a favorite place of innumerable nesting sea birds; the gut provides a route for their guano to descend the cliffs, and it dries to a thick powder there. Because of its leeward location, a chimney effect is produced in the gut, and the guano dust, mixed with the volcanic sand weathered from the parent rock, tends to rise when disturbed. As one toils up the gut under the tropical sun, one is accompanied by a cloud of this dust, which soon mingles with ones’ own sweat to produce a wondrously aromatic and abrasive, though rather gluey, bath. At the top, jumbles of rocks and clumps of prickly pear rise gently to the old ruins, complete with a hedge of Bougainvillea and the single tree. This is the home of Anolis nubilus.

Population structure and ecology. Anolis nubilus is not abundant, but occurs all over Redonda. Owing to the lack of trees, it seems to dwell mostly in the shade of large rocks close to ground. In the ruins of the old building and on the one tree (a Casuarina, apparently inedible even to goats), A. nubilus climb as high as they can get: about fifteen feet. This species must compete with the large, glossy black ground lizard, Ameiva atrata, for at least some of its food. Surely Redonda once supported more vegetation and presumably Anolis nubilus then had an easier life. The feral goats should be extirpated on this remarkable island, whose only known nonflying vertebrates are species found nowhere else on earth.

 

Working on Redonda

As I said in the previous Redonda post, I’m headed to the island in search of the three endemic species of lizards living there. My goal is to gather as much baseline data as possible on the natural history of these lizards so we can come back in a year, or in 10 years and see how they’ve changed without killer rats chasing them and hungry goats munching all of the vegetation.

That’s easier said than done though.

First, here’s a picture of Redonda taken by Dr. Jenny Daltry, the FFI scientist coordinating these efforts (and featured in that video I posted).

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Photo: Dr. Jenny Daltry, FFI via news.mongobay.com

The first, fairly unmissable thing to notice is that Redonda is surrounded by cliffs straight into the sea. This picture actually shows the pleasant, accessible side of the island! Here’s the other:

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Photo from toptenz.net.

So getting onto the island is going to be a bit of a trick. In 1964, the herpetologist that first described Anolis nubilis, Skip Lazell, described making a harrowing jump from boat to shore and scrabbling up a guano-coated sluiceway in order to get to the lizards. Another researcher I talked with tried to swim from boat to island twice and never managed to clamber up those slopes. So, if not by sea, then by air. We’ll be helicoptering into Redonda (!) and, if I have my way, we’ll be blaring the Jurassic Park theme.

In order to get as much of this one-shot data as possible I’m taking along two team members to help out. Geoff Giller is a friend from Yale and a terrific photographer and science journalist. Anthony Herrel, will also be coming along. He’s popped up more than a few times on my blog; we’ve been working together in Greece for the last several years.

We’re going to be on Redonda for 8 days. Yup. Eight days dodging rats and chasing lizards. That should be challenge enough, but to make things more interesting, there’s no fresh water anywhere on the island. We’re going to have to bring all of our food and water to the island via helicopter. Of course, it’s going to be in the 80s the whole time we’re there and with only 1 tree on the whole island, shade is going to be scarce, so I’m thinking we’re going to go through that water pretty fast.

Of course, since there aren’t any people living on the island, there’s no electricity. Normally I’d be kind of excited to be “unplugged” and off the grid for a week but alas, some of my research equipment needs power. Lots of power. So I’ve got a solar array coming along to keep computers and spectrophotometers running. Then there are the cameras. So many cameras. We’re bringing 3 GoPros, 2 DSLR digital cameras, 1 handheld video camera for behavior analyses, and a drone. Power consumption is definitely going to be problematic – I’ve been trying to calculate energy consumption rates for all these things over and over to figure out if we’re going to make it. Then there’s memory storage for all those devices… in all Geoff and I are bringing almost a terabyte of flash cards. Egads.

All of that equipment is going to be worth it though! We’re going to get the first ever comprehensive data on what these lizards look like, how they behave, and how they fit into their current ecological community. The next question is when the community shifts to no longer include these invasive pests, how are the lizards going to adapt? Stay tuned!

 

 

A great video about FFI conservation in Antigua

If you’re curious who I’ll be working with in Redonda, check out this video about FFI’s conservation efforts in Antigua. Dr. Jenny Daltry is the leader of the Redonda restoration effort and the one who initially contacted us about the lizard research, so I’ve been working closely with her to coordinate plans.

FFI has been working in the area for years. They were instrumental in bringing the Antiguan racer back from the brink of extinction. I’m so excited to work side-by-side with some of their staff in the field! (… and grateful that they’re the ones collecting rat carcasses, not me. I’ll stick with the lizard research, thank you very much.)

If you want to skip ahead, Jenny talks about the Redonda conservation efforts starting about 15 minutes in.

Redonda

I know this is a bit last minute notice but it seems like that’s how this whole project has been. I’m headed to Redonda in a week!

Redonda you ask? Never heard of it? Yeah, well, neither had I. Redonda is a little tiny island in the Lesser Antilles and to save you the trouble of searching for it, here it is on a map:

(you’re going to have to zoom out a few clicks to get some context)

Redonda is owned by the government of Antigua and Barbuda. Up until a few days ago the only residents on the island were goats, rats, and three species of endemic lizard. (Alright, there are a few avian reptiles too but my mother’s the birder of the family and the four-legged ones are just so much cooler). I say up until a few days ago because the government of Antigua and Barbuda have decided to designate a beautiful, massive new marine sanctuary with Redonda as the jewel in the center. The only problem being that that jewel is currently crawling with goats and rats and that just won’t do!

In partnership with some great conservation organizations (Flora and Fanua International [FFI] taking the lead) the goats are being ferried off the island (they are a rare breed) and the rats are being removed somewhat less ceremoniously with a highly targeted poison that won’t hurt any of the native species. You can read more background on the project here. The removal of goats and rats is going to change the face of Redonda.

Judging from other islands in the neighborhood, Redonda probably used to be covered with lots of vegetation and was definitely a lot more lush than it is today. Unfortunately, after goats and rats were introduced a little over a century ago all of that vegetation has been nibbled down, making Redonda into a barren boulder moonscape. Conditions are so harsh now that the goats are actually dying of starvation (you know it’s bad when even goats can’t find something green to nibble) and the rats have turned into diurnal apex predators, stalking lizard prey even in daytime!

This is particularly problematic because the only place in the whole world these three lizard species are found is on this island. There’s a little tiny gecko that’s so rare it doesn’t even have a formal scientific name yet. There’s a large “ground lizard” called Ameiva atrata that is almost completely black and looks really awesome. And there is an anole called Anolis nubilis, known as the Redonda tree lizard. That name is unfortunately ironic because there is exactly one tree left on the entire island. It’s a non-native Casuarina species from Australia that was planted on the island decades ago and was so unpalatable that even the starving goats let it be!

It’s for these lizards that I’m headed to Redonda. I’m teaming up with FFI and the government of Antigua and Barbuda to put together as comprehensive a dataset as possible on these lizards in the wild. Our goal is to see how they change as Redonda recuperates following the rat and goat removal.  I’m flying to Antigua in exactly 1 week and I’ll be in Redonda 2 days after that. Over the next few days I’ll post a few more times with details of the trip. I’m extremely excited but my brain is fairly bursting with packing lists and contingency plans. I’m looking forward to filling you in on the details.

The Boston Podarcis (part 2)

So last post was talking about a visit from October 2nd last year. Over the next several days, we made quite a few more trips to check on the lizards, and we kept finding more! Here are a few pictures:

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The whole group sees a lizard!

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The whole survey crew from Harvard, Boston University, and UMass Boston. Photo: Joe Martinez

All in all we’ve found over a dozen animals, pretty well spread out through the whole garden! What’s more, there were juveniles too so we know they’re successfully breeding. While no one can remember if they’ve been there for more than a year, it seems highly unlikely that they managed to spread so far afield and successfully reproduce just in 2016. My guess is that 2016 was their second year in Boston and they survived the relatively mild 2015-2016 winter by hunkering down in the garden’s many warm compost piles.

As to how they got there, now that’s a bigger mystery. The Connecticut and Hastings-On-Hudson populations we’ve previously discovered had railroad tracks right alongside them so the conduit for their northward expansion seemed pretty clear.

hastings-on-hudson-001Just to remind you, here’s a figure showing the Greenwich lizards (magenta dots) and the Hastings lizards (green square) and both are directly on major railroad lines.

The Boston case is less clear cut. Yes, there are lots of railway lines connecting Boston to New York via southern Connecticut, but that’s a long scamper and we haven’t been hearing about sightings in between. It’s entirely possible a lizard hitched a ride on the undercarriage of a train, but for them to then scamper from South Station in Boston to the Fens (walking directions, google doesn’t have an as-the-lizards-run choice) seems like a long shot to me.

I have two more probable ideas, one is that the lizards hitched a ride with someone who grabbed them as potential pets and then released them into the garden when they got tired of feeding them. This is entirely plausible and is the cause of a lot of species introductions all around the world. Another option that I’m excited to test is that the lizards hitched a ride on some compost or mulch that was brought to the Gardens at some point in 2015. Lizard eggs move with plants and mulch all the time, even lucky adults could have made the trip without getting squashed or tumbled. One of my goals for this summer is to track down shipments coming into the garden to see if any might originate from sites with lizards. I’ll be sure to report back!

Another next step is to actually do some genetics work to try to figure out whether this population is related to the other Podarcis already in North America or if it could be a new introduction from the homeland. Those analyses are under way… I’ll report back as soon as we have an answer!

What is clear though is that the Italian Wall Lizard has made itself very comfortable in the Fenway Victory Gardens. Lizards were active all the way into the third week of November! Looking outside though we’ve just had another major snowfall, in amidst a week or two of serious cold snap, so we’ll just have to see if the lizards pop back up in a few months once we hit spring!

As they say down at the railway though, if you see something say something! As always, email me with tips if you see a flash of green in your garden or park!

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There are lizards in Boston!

I was keeping this under wraps while I was publishing the new finding and trying to pitch the story to local journalists. I’m giving a talk to the New England Herp Society this afternoon though so I think it’s time to tell you all about Boston’s newest “Green Monster” – Italian Wall Lizards!

As you may remember, I’ve been chasing Podarcis siculus in Connecticut and New York for a few years now. Upon moving from CT to MA about a year ago I’d resigned myself to having to take the train “all the way back to Connecticut” to see lizards in the wild. That was, until I got this email message:

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Look at that big beautiful male siculus! I was thrilled! After a few back and forth emails I found out that Elizabeth would be going back to her garden plot that afternoon and, as it was sunny and warm I decided to run home, get my gear, and head out there to meet her. Now, as you can see from the email, this was already October and high time for lizards to be hunkering down. I surprised that this one was out and about and I wasn’t sure I’d have many more chances to check out this potentially new population.

So! I ran home, grabbed my camera and telephoto lens (a picture with a confirmed sighting can count as a voucher record if an individual can’t be caught) and grabbed my trusty lizard pole that had caught just about all the lizards from my dissertation. I nearly jogged to the T and was to the gardens just as Elizabeth arrived.

This is when my excitement got the better of me and things started going wrong…

We couldn’t find the male – he’d run off by the time we got to the garden, but looking around in the compost pile next to Elizabeth’s plot I saw a familiar dash and heard the dry-leaf scurry that’s become music to my ears. There were lizards! Many lizards! Lady lizards to go along with that male and, even more exciting, baby lizards! I lined up a great glamour shot of an adult female in the afternoon sun and clicked the shutter. Silence. I’d checked battery levels on the camera before leaving (80% – no problemo!) but I’d left home without a memory card in my camera! (OOF! C’mon Colin!) I was too embarrassed to tell Elizabeth – what a rookie move. So, I knew I had to catch one to confirm the finding!

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(Me, happy to see lizards in Boston but as of yet unsuccessful in the hunt. Note my camera sitting in time-out. Photo credit to Elizabeth.)

Alright, but the female was still there – unperturbed by the lack of picture taking so I lined up, steadied the noose pole… swung… and caught a stick! (internal monologue: “Argh! I caught hundreds of lizards all over Greece… hanging over rock walls and out of car windows… How can I miss the first sighting in Boston?!”).  I collapsed the pole, reset the string, and telescoped it back out for another try. That’s when the pole broke. Seriously. I don’t know why, I don’t know how, but I managed to separate the final two segments of the pole (18 inches or so) from the remainder, and, here I was, holding two poles, one too short to approach the lizard and the other, incapable of anything more useful than scratching its back.

By this time the lizard had moved on.

I don’t know if I managed to cover this misstep from Elizabeth. In my mind I was sure she was wishing she’d emailed an actual lizard expert. She was unreservedly cheery though as we continued scoping around for more lizards but soon after had to leave for a meeting. I opted to stay and started working on my lizard pole. After a good deal of poking and prodding (and some colorful exhortations) I got piece 1 sufficiently jammed into piece 2 that it was worth giving capture another try. I found that female again, lined up the shot, and…img_4161 caught her!

I didn’t try any more catching that day but in all, saw 7 lizards – a remarkably healthy population!

Next post I’ll tell you about the next visits!

 

Happy Birthday, Festive Anole

I got up early the other morning to put a video camera on one of our A. sagrei eggs that was looking particularly ripe. About two hours later, this little hatchling crawled out. The whole hatching process took about 25 minutes, and I’ve sped up the video by 30x. The video is much more compelling with sound. I personally like “Also Sprach Zarathustra,”  though “Ranz des Vaches” by Rossini had some enthusiastic support in lab. If you have other music suggestions, add them to the comments!

Happy birthday, little one!