8 islands, 14 hours, and 36 lizards

I don’t even quite know where to begin telling you about yesterday’s epic field expedition. This was the reason I delayed my trip to Italy and wanted to stay in Greece a few extra days and I was not disappointed. These posts are getting a bit long and I have to run and do some more work preparing to leave Greece tomorrow but let me fill you in just briefly.

Johannes has been collecting DNA samples from lizards on different islands throughout the Cyclades for several years and they’ve been telling some interesting stories. This summer it was time to update the database and add a few new islands. As luck would have it in terms of weather and geography there were 8 islands that needed surveying in a small area and we really only had one day to get the work done. It was with this goal that Johannes asked me to stay in Kouphonissia.

We set out bright and early Wednesday morning tired but excited for the fieldwork challenge. The goal was to collect at least two individuals from all of the islands and for two of the islands, collect closer to twelve for further laboratory experiments. As I’d seen the day before, even really concerted efforts could be stymied by the weather, but we were optimistic; there was very little wind and at least in the morning the weather wasn’t as appallingly hot as the previous day had been.

We hired that same salty sailor from the day before. As it turns out, he and Johannes are good friends. The islands we were surveying were almost all completely uninhabited. To make matters somewhat more complicated they are also typically very rocky and many are extremely steep. This means getting from boat to dock requires the captain to nestle the boat within about two meters in some steep rocky area where the water is deep enough for his boat all the way to the cliff’s edge. The intrepid island “hoppers” must then jump from the boat to the boulders or cliffs on the island. Not an easy task in any situation but holding gear and jumping off a bucking boat (the wind picked up at the day progressed) onto these boulders was quite… thrilling. Of course all three of us would have to jump within seconds of each other to minimize the amount of time the boat was so close to the rocks on the shore. My companions took it in stride, but despite my stride being longest, it took quite a bit of effort to psych myself up for each jump. Luckily there were no “incidents” over the course of the day and I think that’s in large part a testament to the masterful control the captain had over his boat so close to the waves crashing on shore.

In order to catch lizards we used combinations of several different methods. The Podarcis species we were looking for were far too fast to just catch by hand. Instead we employed either a noose or a bait. A noose works exactly as you’d expect (without inducing death of course!). We’d attach a slip knot to a long pole and gently slide it around the lizard, pull tight and then, voila, a lizard! Of course it never works that easily in real life, but still, with patience and a bit of sneaking about, it’s a fairly well-established method for catching lizards.

Our second method works especially well for the lizards on the small islands that spend their life in stiff competition for the very limited food resources on an island. If you tie a mealworm to the end of a long pole and dangle it just so, the lizards will bite and, if hungry enough will bite and not let go, allowing you to lift the pole and lizard together and drop the lizard in a bucket. It’s a bit hard to imagine it working but we have many lizards that’ll attest to its efficacy.

This kind of lizard fishing is maddening though because more often than not lizards will ignore the bait, will run away entirely or will nibble it but let go before being brought to the bucket. This was how our morning, afternoon and evening progressed, dangling squirming larvae in front of lizards, chasing them around with a noose or jumping from boat to cliff and back (I didn’t mention back but imagine trying to quickly jump into a boat, moving in the ocean’s swell off of a boulder with two other people.)

We kept at this for 14 hours, over 8 islands until we’d caught the lizards we’d needed from each island. Of course by midday the temperature had climbed to somewhere around 100 and the sun was scorching. I drank over 4 liters of water during the day and one, much appreciated beer with dinner once we arrived back to Kouphonissia around 9:30. It was an epic day in the field but a success, and despite the hard working conditions and deadline pressure, it was delightful to be out in the field watching and catching lizards all day.

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Podarcis erhardii in a bucket after getting a mouthful of mealworm.

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A view of a field site…BIG consolation for long hard days in the field!

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