Frog Party

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I’m back from the Bahamas but leaving for Greece tomorrow afternoon! Whew. I knew it was going to be a fast turnaround but my head’s spinning trying to keep track of the simultaneous fieldwork wrap-up and start-up to-do lists. I have a couple of pictures and videos ready to share from the Bahamas though so I want to get them posted quick before the next adventure is in full swing.

All in all the Bahamas visit was a success. We shipped 360 lizards back to Harvard for a big breeding experiment and got more data on habitat use for well over 1200 lizards across Eleuthera, Long, and Bimini islands. The team was terrific, the lizards were plentiful, and the weather was perfect. Well, almost.

The final day of fieldwork was a complete washout. As Raphaël said, “C’est la fête à la grenouille” – a party for frogs. Alas, we were after lizards, not frogs, so we stayed in until the last minute hoping it might clear. When it became obvious that a thorough drenching was inevitable though, Raphaël and I put on our swimsuits and set out. We needed to return all of the lizards that we’d caught that we weren’t bringing back to Harvard with us. It was a sloppy wet hour and a half for us but I’m pretty sure the lizards appreciated being brought back home.

Here’s a short video documenting the adventure:

 

Walking around Redonda

One of our first goals on Redonda was to get a good sense for the density of lizards on the island. This is one of the key metrics that has changed following rat eradications elsewhere in the Lesser Antilles. To do that we used a few different methods, we’re hoping that each will give us a slightly different sense for densities that we can compare one year to the next.

The first was a mark-recapture study in two different locations. We’d survey a fixed area (one of the big fig trees at the north of the island and a boulder field at the south) and catch all the lizards we could find. Every time we caught a lizard we’d write a number on its belly and put a little white dot on its backside (see below). The paint spot will help us see the lizard from a distance without spending lots of time trying to catch a lizard that’d already been caught that day.

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Lizard number 22 getting a number on its belly. Photo credit: Geoffrey Giller

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An anole hanging out on a branch after getting a white spot. Photo credit: Geoffrey Giller

We spent two long days marking all of the lizards we could find in the tree and the rocks. After each site had had a day to rest, we returned. By figuring out which lizards we’d previously caught and how many new lizards had shown up we can get an estimate of just how many lizards are using that area. The lizards in the tree were particularly plentiful – we’re estimating a population of around 50! with unlimited time we’d continue marking, revisiting, and recapturing a few more days but our island time was short so we compromised with a single recapture day at each site. We’ll repeat the survey next year in the same places to see if there are changes in density.

Our next survey method was the tried-and-true walk around, look on both sides of your path, and count ’em up. For this Anthony did a big hike around the perimeter of the island counting all of the lizards he saw. He did this twice and found a lot of lizards! Here’s a page from my notebook showing the track. Unfortunately the map only really makes sense to us, but as you can see, he saw 61 anoles and 65 ameiva that day. The next day he ended up seeing 73 anoles and 118 ameiva! Those are pretty wide margins, but they’ll provide a baseline for next year’s repeat transects.

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Now, I decided to strap a GoPro to Anthony’s head for the second survey. It’s two hours long though so I had to speed the video up. Grab your dramamine, you’re going to need it!

This video is just a short segment of the hike in the vicinity of the “Hanging Gardens.” It’s one of the prettiest parts of the island I think. You can tell too how tricky some of the traversing is. On this section Anthony saw 10 ameiva and 24 anoles. Can you find them? I slowed down the first ameiva so you can get a good look. You’ll also notice a few other surprises along the way.

 

Living on Redonda

Initially I thought getting to Redonda was going to be a challenge, but the helicopter made that aspect of the trip a delightful adventure. Living on Redonda for a week, though—that was tough. In retrospect, I’d say the challenge was simultaneously harder than anticipated but more comfortable than I’d feared.

Here’s a panorama of our camp:

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There were a total of 10 team members on the island while we were there – the three of us lizard catchers, plus the seven rat eradication team members in charge of deploying and monitoring hundreds of bait stations across the island. As soon as our helicopter landed, heads started popping out from behind boulders, and generous helpers (who, fortunately for me, were in a lot better shape than I was!) helped us haul all of our gear up the hill to basecamp. I’m going to keep emphasizing all of the gear because it was a point of consistent teasing over the week. We kind of had a lot of stuff…

After huffing and puffing our way up the hill, we found the famous casuarina tree (which Geoff is sitting below in the panorama) and two tents already set up for us. (Best helpers ever!) Geoff and I started off sharing the second to last tent on the left. Geoff moved out after only a few days, though, when another tent became available. (And in case you were worried, no, nobody got eaten by rats; one of the people rotating off the island was from the Ministry of the Environment, just doing a one-week stint to help out and see the operation.) I prefer to think Geoff just wanted more room to stretch out and not that my three days (and counting) without a shower was polluting our tent air supply.

Home base wasn’t really our tents, though—it was way too hot for that. The real gathering place, which you can see in the center of the panorama, was “The Manager’s House.” As I mentioned in a previous post, Redonda used to be the site of a large guano mining operation. The manager had a nice, concrete bunker house with a terrific view of Montserrat that has mostly withstood the intervening century. I heard a rumor that it took some very enthusiastic scrubbing to make it livable again, but luckily by the time we arrived it was perfectly habitable. That was where we collected all of our lizard measurements and ate all our meals. It was very much the hub for all things on Redonda.

Speaking of which… here’s a time-lapse video of a typical night in the manager’s house. You may want to watch it on full screen a couple of times, since each time there’s more to notice!

So what was going on? As we did every day, we were entering data, preparing dinner, and sitting around talking and eating. Yes, that’s a projector showing off some of our lizard behavior video from the day. Did you notice the bags on the walls flying up and down in the wind? Or the people scurrying away from the door to avoid the huge rain spot that appears in the foreground?

Wind and rain were two of the less-welcome aspects of life on Redonda. (I know, I know, most of you are laughing by now, wondering what the “welcome” aspects were. Warm weather, fantastic views, some awesome lizard species, and super interesting people, to start.) The wind was ferocious for almost our entire stay. It knocked me off balance repeatedly throughout the day. I would crawl into my tent at night, exhausted, and have to sleep with the nylon walls crashing into me. It was never quiet on Redonda. The wind was almost always howling.

And the rain! Before leaving Boston, I checked the weather for Antigua and saw that it was supposed to be sunny and 80 degrees F plus or minus 1 degree every single day. Great, I thought, no need to pack a raincoat. It turned out that the weather on Redonda was pretty different, despite being only a few miles from Antigua. It rained at least once a day, and some of those rainstorms were torrential. The worst, I think, was the day the rain came out of nowhere, and Anthony, who had climbed into a tree to search for lizards, didn’t even have time to climb back down. The downpour was so blindingly strong that he couldn’t do anything other than cling to a branch to wait out the storm. Geoff and I couldn’t stop laughing on the ground as the rain lashed us and we could just barely make out a stream of curses coming from up in the tree.

Every day, when it finally quit raining, it was HOT. We dried off quickly, and the lizards emerged, and we continued on with business as usual. And then we’d make our way to the manager’s house to get out of the sun, and we’d share some impressively delicious rehydrated meals, and then we’d collapse into our wind-buffeted tents to catch up on sleep before doing it all again the next day.

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.

The Losos lab is taking to the sky

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I’m very excited to get some new tech out into the field asap! The Losos lab has decided to get a bird’s eye view of lizard habitat so we’ve just brought home this beautiful DJI Mavic Pro. It’s a little hard to tell from the photo but the drone folds up to be approximately the size of a Nalgene bottle! Our hope is to use it to survey lizard habitats from the sky and create high-resolution 3D maps of some of our field sites. As habitat structure is so important for lizard natural history, we’re thinking this is going to give us some cool new perspective on the habitats lizards are adapting to.

Look forward to many more posts with lots of video but for now the other postdoc, Anthony, and I are just trying to get a handle on flying toy drones…

I’m embarrassed to say this video was one of our most successful attempts… We’ve some more practicing to do before we get the big one out in the field!

What does biodiversity do for us?

Here’s a blast from the past. Back in 2013 while at SNRE a friend and I made a video for a class on biodiversity and ecosystem services. Another of my professors recently emailed asking about it and I dug it out of YouTube mothballs. At least, I thought it’d been collecting dust, it turns out in the interim almost 25,000 people have watched it online! I re-watched it the other day and it made me smile. Give it a look and enjoy the silly animations and my over-eager/too-often-falsetto/mic-proximity-variable voiceover (in my defense Cynthia is a professional singer/songwriter so her impeccable stage voice sets a pretty high bar).

And some high-speed videos

Yesterday’s post was a bit of teaser for the setup of the high-speed video. Now let’s see a couple of examples! (For full effect, I’d recommend playing this on full volume in the background. Rest assured, once we have a highlight reel of lizard runs we’ll definitely be creating a montage of our own)

There’s all sorts of cool stuff going on in this video I had never seen before. For example, notice as the fellow is running into the frame at full tilt he does a little hop and lands with all four feet planted and comes to an almost immediate halt. He then looks left to right to survey his surroundings, and as my big scary hand approaches, turns, pushes off with forelimbs and then generates speed with some big back-leg strides that cause his back to twist with the momentum. He navigates the corners cleanly, but slowly, pausing to look around the corner. Remember though, all of this happens within the span of about a second and a half in real-time.

Now look at this enthusiastic fellow:

He comes barreling in and can’t stop to notice the impending wall. His first crash just turns his head but he sure doesn’t look like he’s attempting to negotiate the turn. At the second crash he crumples and decides a different tact might be best; perhaps climbing the wall and getting out (though it looks more like he’s tap dancing). Again, all of this is happening faster than the eye can really register but at 500 frames per second we’re given a new perspective on these two very different runs.

So now comes the analysis, and this is going to be tricky. Menelia recorded 885 videos and each averages about 2.5 seconds in length. At 500 frames per second that works out to some 1.1 million frames of video to process… Know any good books on tape?