A quick picture update from the Bahamas

There’s lots going on here in the field. We’ve just wrapped up collecting on Eleuthera and Long Island. I’m back on New Providence swapping out crew. Rob left after Eleuthera. He swapped spots with Geoff. We just lost Jon – a champion lizard catcher on Eleuthera and Long. Raphaël is still here and we’re being joined by Angus and Pavitra tomorrow. The rapidly switching roster is actually the least of the logistics worries but today, with twenty-dozen lizards safely ensconced in a cooler on their way back to Boston, I’m finally taking a few deep breaths.

Here are just a few pictures from the field. I’ll bolster them with a prosier post as soon as I can.

Here’s our quarry, Anolis sagrei, the “festive” anole.

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And here’s one with dewlap unfurled.

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This was Rob’s first time catching Anoles. Here’s his face after his first successful lasso.

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Three days later he was catching like a pro while reposed under thorn bushes.

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We’re catching a lot of lizards for this study – 120 per island. Here are a few in a lizard bag waiting for sorting.

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While we’re catching lizards we’re also gathering data on their behavior and ecology – where they’re piercing and how warm that perch is for example. Here are Raph and Rob typing in some of the data. We’ve got well over 600 observations so far.

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We’ve been doing a bit of driving between sites. Not a problem though with scenery like this. Note, the steering wheel is on the American side but the roads are all reversed (Thanks Great Britain). This causes some consternation trying to get used to the unfamiliar lane position with a familiar vehicle layout. Oddly, 2 of the 3 cars I’ve driven this trip have been reversed in this way. This however was the only car with a helpful red arrow to remind me where to be on the road. Luckily for these dirt paths it’s one car at a time no matter the side.

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We’ve met a few other friends in the field. Here’s Geoff with a racer snake we found in the forest.

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And here’s Anolis angusticeps, the coolest, most secretive anole we’ve seen this trip.

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Here’s the final stage – a giant cooler in the back seat of a small sedan to the airport. Just peeking over the cooler in the back there is Jon, the ringer for lizard catching.

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Bimini is our next stop for tomorrow! One more push on fieldwork, another ten dozen lizards, and then it’s back to Boston.

 

Reporting on the Reptiles of Redonda

This post is reposted from www.anoleannals.com and so might be a little familiar in its start to readers here.

IMG_4616I’m back from Redonda and the expedition was a great success! I’m happy to report there were many Anolis nubilus boulder-hopping out of the way of the black rats and even blacker ground lizards on the island. In many ways the trip was even more challenging than expected but we came out with quite a lot of data so we have a great sense of the current status of the reptiles on the island and a baseline for comparisons into the future.

redonda

To refresh your memories, Redonda is an island of Antigua and Barbuda and was completely denuded by rats and goats over the last century. Despite the dearth of vegetation, three endemic reptiles had been hanging on: Anolis nubilusAmeiva (Pholidoscelis) atrata, and an as-yet unnamed Sphaerodactylus dwarf gecko. The government of Antigua and Barbuda, in collaboration with Fauna & Flora International and local NGO the Environmental Awareness Group, has decided to undertake a massive restoration effort by eradicating the rats and relocating the goats. My job was to get some baseline data on the current lizard populations so we can figure out how they change into the future.

Helicopter inside

Helicoptering to the island was every bit as exciting as I’d hoped. The Jurassic Park theme was playing through my head the whole way down. See that grassy patch with slightly fewer large rocks – that was the little tiny helipad, but our pilot was a pro and set us down perfectly. Almost as soon as we were out of the helicopter, we deposited our bags by our tents and set about catching Anoles.

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Anolis nubilus is at first blush a relatively innocuous member of the genus. They’re perfectly camouflaged in this environment, which is to say they’re drab gray and brown. Their dewlaps are cream-colored (which is really just my nice way to say drab gray-yellow) and the most elaborate of the females sport faint dorsal stripes. Males did fairly regularly display impressive crests behind their heads, but nonetheless, the species at first and second glance is considerably less flashy than many of their cousins on nearby islands.

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

All that said, there’s still a lot of cool stuff going on with nubilus. As Skip mentioned in his article 45 years ago, there’s a casuarina tree right next to the remains of the mine manager’s house that hosts an abundance of the few Redonda tree lizards living up to their name. The tree is still there and the lizards are still eagerly defending their precious few branches (see above).

There are actually quite a few trees still on Redonda, some of which are native Ficus trees. For the most part they’re in fairly inaccessible areas, but that really just means you need to bring a longer noose pole and don’t look down. I caught a lizard on this tree below with a perch height of approximately 350 meters (that’s really going to mess with the averages). Truth be told, after catching the lizard my knees were so wobbly I had to go find a nice big boulder and just had Geoff and Anthony shout me data for a while.

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After a week on the island and many many Anoles, we got morphometric and performance data, diet data, extended focal-animal behavior videos, two mark-recapture density studies and two permanent transects established, thermal ecology data, habitat use data, and flight behavior data. We even exhaustively determined whether nubilus likes Chuckles! (But that’s a story for another post).

I know this is an Anole blog, but there were some pretty cool things going on with the other reptiles on the island, too. The ground lizards were jet black and really big. Here’s a picture of Anthony Herrel trying to get a tail measurement:

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Photo: Geoffrey Giller

The atrata spent their days cruising around scavenging. We saw one eating a hermit crab, and we heard rumor of another that managed to get a sardine away from one of the crew working on the eradication effort! Analyzing the stomach contents of these guys is going to take quite a lot of detective work.

We also were able to gather the first natural history data on this unnamed dwarf gecko species. They’re strangely beautiful with an unlovely shovel-face and semi-transparent, too-squishy, gelatinous body. You wouldn’t guess it but they’re quick! 1D4_1226editlarge

In all, the reptiles of Redonda were fascinating and getting to explore the island was a unique privilege. I can hardly wait to return next year, and many years after, to see how the lizards change with the island.

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“What about us?” Technically these guys are reptiles too, but c’mon, the lizards are so much cooler. Photo: Geoffrey Giller

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.