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I recently heard about ESRI StoryMaps for the first time from my brother who just started a job working there. They’re a great, free online platform for using maps, pictures, and videos to tell a compelling story. I think they make for a great science communication tool. Ross and I put together a StoryMap about my project in Turks and Caicos and thought I’d share it here. I’d definitely recommend anyone interested to take a shot at making one, too.

Click here to see the full story.

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With all the fanfare about the lizards and leaf blowers there were a lot of unstated (and stated) questions about “what’s the use?” I headed off the questions when they were directed at me (or when I found them on twitter) but Don Lyman, who’s been following the Boston Lizard story for a while, wrote a nice piece in UNDARK today about the value of basic science. Below is the article:

Lizards, Leaf Blowers, and the Value of Basic Research The benefits of basic research experiments aren’t always obvious, but that shouldn’t diminish their importance.

October 11, 2018 by Don Lyman

Earlier this year, Harvard University biologist Colin Donihue and his collaborators published an attention-grabbing study about the anole lizards of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The scientists brought several of the creatures into the lab, perched them on small wooden poles, and then blasted them with a leaf blower. As the wind velocities ratcheted up to hurricane speeds, the lizards didn’t flee. Rather, they moved to the lee of the pole — the side facing away from the wind — and hung on until the strengthening gale blew them off their perches. The windswept lizards landed safely in a net and were eventually released back into the wild.

The study attracted a lot of media attention, some of which poked fun at the images and videos of the little lizards hanging on to the wooden poles, their hind legs and tails flapping in the wind. The stories caused a coworker of mine, a fellow pharmacist, to ask, why do scientists even do research like this? What’s the point?

“How does it help people?” she asked.

I hear that question a lot. I’m a hospital pharmacist, and, as such, I work in the world of applied science, where the fruits of scientific research are used to directly benefit people. But I also teach college biology and occasionally work on research projects. So, I also work in the world of theoretical ideas and basic scientific research. (I previously assisted with a project in the lab of Jonathan Losos, a coauthor of the leaf blower paper.)

To people outside of academia, basic research can seem bereft of purpose, of no benefit to humanity. Scientists often find themselves having to defend the value of their research, both to the public and to funding agencies. But even if basic research doesn’t help people directly, it can help answer important questions about how the world around us works — questions about ecology, animal behavior, evolution, and more.

Take the leaf blower experiment. Donihue said in an email that, first and foremost, the project was a behavioral experiment aimed at ascertaining how lizards respond to hurricane force winds. “We didn’t know what the lizards did during the storms because it’s too dangerous to have researchers outside during the hurricanes,” he explained. “We wanted to know if the lizard hung on to the perch or if it fled.”

Donihue and his coworkers found that not only did the lizards hang on, they behaved in a way that suggested they were familiar with weathering wind storms; they positioned themselves at the lee of the perch, for example. Based on those findings alone, Donihue characterized the experiment as “a success on all counts.”

But the Harvard biologist was also interested in the bigger question of how hurricanes might affect the lizard’s evolution. After Hurricane Irma swept across Turks and Caicos in 2017, he and his colleagues observed that the surviving anoles had longer forelimbs, shorter hindlimbs and bigger toe pads, on average, than the overall population that was present before the hurricane. The scientists speculated that these body characteristics might have helped the lizards survive. If so, hurricanes might act as a force that drives natural selection and shapes the lizards’ evolutionary path.

The leaf blower experiment helped shed light on that question. Had the lizards fled their perches at the first hints of strong winds, there would have been little reason to suspect that body shape — or morphology, as biologists call it — played a role in the lizards’ survival. That the lizards clung on, however, suggests a possible explanation for the morphological changes Donihue and company observed in Irma’s wake: Longer forelimbs and bigger toe pads might improve a lizard’s grip, while smaller hindlegs could reduce the wind drag on the lizard’s flailing back end. Lizards lacking those physical attributes might have been at higher risk of being blown into the Atlantic Ocean.

Donihue predicts that, as hurricanes become stronger and more frequent, his team’s findings could have important consequences. “These lizards are linchpins in this ecosystem, providing food to bigger predators, and eating massive quantities of insects,” he said. “If hurricanes change the ecological balance by redirecting the evolutionary trajectory of populations, then this could have implications for the structure and function of these ecosystems.”

James Hanken, a professor of biology and director of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard, who was not involved in the lizard leaf blower study, thinks that, in light of human-mediated climate change — and especially global warming — basic research in areas like ecology and evolution have a direct benefit to humanity.

“Basically, it’s ecologists and evolutionary biologists who are telling us the short- and long-term impacts of climate change on Earth’s living environments, which basically are the support systems for human society,” said Hanken. “Thus, even if one only cares about humans and couldn’t care less about any other living organisms, you should still pay attention to ecologists and evolutionary biologists and support their work.”

A case in point is the ongoing research of Richard Primack, a plant ecologist and conservation biologist at Boston University, who has been studying the effects of climate change in the Walden Pond area of Concord, Massachusetts. Primack has compared his own observations of flowering times, spring bird arrival times, plant biodiversity, and other ecological markers to those that Henry David Thoreau recorded in the same area in the 1800s.

Primack said in an email that his research benefits people by connecting Thoreau’s familiar writings about Walden Pond to the modern issue of climate change. He said it helps people to understand that the environmental, social, and philosophical issues that Thoreau wrote about in Walden are still applicable to today’s discussion of climate change.

Primack adds that, on a more practical level, “our research provides definitive evidence that a warming climate is causing wildflowers to flower earlier in the spring and trees to leaf out earlier in the spring, and is contributing to the loss of plant species from Concord.” Although he noted that early flowering of wildflowers is not bad in and of itself, he thinks the research foreshadows more serious consequences of climate change to come, including coastal flooding, heat waves, and the extinction of endangered species.

Dr. Sanjat Kanjilal, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and associate medical director of the clinical microbiology laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, said in an email that investigating the basic biology, ecology, and evolution of plants, fungi, and animals is valuable on multiple levels. He said that basic research has had many direct and measurable impacts on human health and, “off the top of his head,” he noted a few success stories: new medicinal compounds, deeper understanding of disease transmission, better remediation of environmental toxins, improved ability to recover from human-made and natural disasters, and greater sustainability in agriculture. But he believes that the indirect impacts of basic research are much greater. “The fact that it is impossible to measure with our rudimentary metrics, does not in any way diminish its value,” he said.

“It makes me sad to think that people could view anything not directly related to human health as somehow irrelevant,” Kanjilal added. “Nothing could be farther from the truth.”

Perhaps Donihue said it best: “Part of the reason we do science is to better understand the world around us. Only through that better understanding can we make inferences that directly affect humans.”

Don Lyman is a freelance science journalist, biologist, and hospital pharmacist. He has been published in the Boston Globe, the Christian Science Monitor, Southwest Airlines Magazine, High Country News, earthislandjournal.orgthemorningnews.com, Talking Writing, and elsewhere. He also does freelance audio segments for the Living On Earth environmental radio program on National Public Radio.

This article was originally published on Undark. Read the original article.

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Colin Donihue by Colindonihue - 10M ago

One of the mind-blowing advantages of living in Paris for the year is being able to take a short flight or train ride to another country! My wife and I have been fortunate to do quite a bit of traveling this year but we hadn’t made it to Italy yet. With the year winding down and travel plans getting locked in for the rest of it, we realized we had to just get some tickets and go for a long weekend. So, I spent the last few days in Florence.

This was my first time in Florence and apart from being excited to see the Duomo, eat delicious fresh pasta, and get lost wandering down ancient cobblestone streets, I wanted to get out into the hills and see an Italian Wall Lizard in its native habitat. I’ve spent quite a bit of time chasing Italian Wall Lizards in New England, but I really wanted to spot them in their homeland.

On our first full day in Florence, I set out on a walk to get us out of the city and into the hills and olive orchards not far away. Not long into this walk, I spotted this little lizard sitting high on a rock wall. Perfect! I snuck up and, despite leaving my lizard pole back in Paris, grabbed her. Hurrah!

You might notice though, she looks a bit different than the ones I’ve been taking pictures of in Connecticut and Boston. That’s because she’s Podarcis muralis, the common wall lizard, not P. siculus, the so-called Italian wall lizard.  Argh! What was she doing there sitting on a wall in Italy?!

The common wall lizard is quite the cosmopolitan and can be found in many countries across southern Europe. While it hasn’t invaded quite as far and wide as siculus it still gets around pretty well in North America and elsewhere in Europe.

I’m pretty sure later in the day I spotted a true Italian Wall Lizard from a distance but I wasn’t able to get my hands on her. I guess I’ll just have to settle for this wall lizard from Italy, and go back for another shot at the one and only Italian Wall Lizard.

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But I’m immensely flattered. Curious, a company that makes educational apps, has a WordGenius daily puzzle to exercise your brain. A friend works there and was “shocked” (I think she meant that in a good way‽) to see my face pop up as the “genius of the day” following the publicity from the Hurricane paper.

Just to set the record straight, I’m a few short of the celebrated 180 publications. Maybe the author/editor misread the citation counts as publication counts?

Anyway, if you want to meet some real science geniuses I’d highly recommend you take a gander at the incredible ecology and evolution work of Bree Rosenblum, Melissa Kemp, Sarah Diamond, Meg Duffy, Lauren O’Connell, Tracy Langkilde, and Jacquelyn Gill. Their papers, blogs, twitter feeds, and emails over the years are where I go looking for inspiration.

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Colin Donihue by Colindonihue - 10M ago

Well, that’s a pleasant surprise. This little blog just made it into the list of top 40 Ecology Blogs to follow in 2018. Of course, I’m embarrassed that this comes after a month of not really posting new material because I’ve been wrapping up Hurricanes post-game press work, planning the follow-up trip to Turks and Caicos next month, revising my first manuscript from the massive Greek Island project, and putting together job applications. More on all of that soon. That silly little medallion has me inspired to get some posts written!

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In other exciting news this week, after a thorough re-survey of Redonda the conservation organizations have determined that Redonda is officially rat and goat free. This is terrific news because even a small pocket of rats that were missed in last year’s eradication could quickly explode into a huge population, negating all of the conservation progress to date.

Here’s a great article written by Fauna and Flora, one of the NGOs spearheading the effort including some lizard pictures and a couple of my quotes.

With the help of my college roommate, Ben, we also put together this video about Redonda: Enjoy!

Conservation on Redonda - YouTube

Finally, to cap off the good news, the government of Antigua and Barbuda has officially made the decision to designate Redonda a nature reserve. This island has come a long way, and now it’s looking like it has a bright, beautiful future as home to three fascinating lizards and so many other interesting plants and animals.

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Nature put together a terrific video explaining the findings of the Nature paper yesterday. I want to spread it far and wide:

Natural selection in a hurricane: The lizards that won't let go - YouTube

If you look closely, you’ll see that the video was produced by the extremely talented Jackie Turner who was actually one of the undergrads that came to Mpala with me almost 10 years ago! It’s a small world.

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This is a re-post of an entry I wrote on the Nature Ecology and Evolution blog.

Serendipity in science is often celebrated as the lightning flash of insight from a chance event – Newton’s apple encounter or Fleming’s moldy petri dishes. Our recent paper, Hurricane-induced selection on the morphology of an island lizard, resulted from a more prosaic type of serendipity: we were in the right place, at the right time. By comparing measurements of lizard populations on two small islands, sampled at two points of time spanning six weeks and two record-breaking hurricanes, we found evidence of shifts in morphological traits that may have given these lizards a survival advantage during the storms. Extreme climate events are becoming more frequent and severe (1, 2) and we think our study is one of the first of many investigating how hurricanes may redirect the evolution of populations in their path.

Turks and Caicos is a world-renowned destination for tropical beach vacations. One visitor that has overstayed its welcome, however, is the invasive Black Rat (Rattus rattus). These rats not only detract from the relaxing resort vibe, but they’re also posing a critical threat to a highly endangered endemic iguana, Cyclura carinata.

The Turks and Caicos Rock Iguana, Cyclura carinata. Photo: C. Donihue

To save the iguana, the Pine Cay Homeowners Association (PCHA) initiated a massive eradication effort in 2017 on two islands in the archipelago: Pine Cay and Water Cay. Our team from Harvard University and the Paris Museum of Natural History was invited to study the effects of the eradication on another of the islands’ endemic lizard species: Anolis scriptus, the Turks and Caicos anole. We’re currently monitoring other rat eradication efforts in the area and this was a perfect opportunity to add a new species to the study.

Anolis scriptus on Pine Cay. Photo: C. Donihue

After a week collecting valuable baseline natural history data on this relatively understudied anole, we left Turks and Caicos just as Hurricane Irma was bearing down on the Caribbean. The storm track still had a lot of wiggle room – our taxi driver was confident that it would turn north and miss the islands entirely – but the airport was abuzz with people heading elsewhere.

Four days later, Hurricane Irma hit Turks and Caicos directly, bringing with it sustained 265-kph winds. Just behind it, two weeks later, followed Hurricane Maria, again with sustained winds in excess of 200-kph. 

Hurricane Irma hitting Turks and Caicos. Photo: www.GOES.NOAA.Gov

After the destruction wrought by the hurricanes became clear, we realized that we had a unique opportunity to assess what effects, if any, the hurricanes may have had on the anoles we’d been working with just a few weeks earlier. Thanks to the generosity of the PCHA and the quick work of contacts at the Turks and Caicos Department of Environment and Coastal Resources, six weeks after our initial survey Anthony Herrel and I were boarding planes again to revisit the islands and determine whether the hurricanes could have been agents of natural selection on these lizard populations.

Recent research has shown that extreme climate events can redirect the evolutionary trajectory of animal populations (3). Most of these studies have focused on relatively long-term droughts, heat waves, or cold spells. It was unclear, however, whether short-term disturbances like hurricanes could have a similar evolutionary effect. We thought it was entirely possible that these category five hurricanes were so indiscriminately destructive that lizard survival was random with regard to lizard phenotype (physical features), leaving lizard populations decimated, not directed.

As we headed back to the field, we did have some predictions about what might make a lizard better equipped to survive the hurricanes. Anoles have specialized toepads that give them a strong grip on surfaces. Larger toepads grip more strongly (4) and so we predicted the population of survivors might have larger toepads than those we measured before the hurricanes. We also hypothesized that surviving lizards would have longer forelimbs and hind limbs, as these have been shown to help lizards hold themselves tight to branches (5).

Anoles have scales on their toepads called lamellae that enable them to firmly grip on surfaces. Photo: C. Donihue We measured the gripping strength of lizards with this apparatus and found that lizards with larger toepads indeed were able to grip more strongly. Photo: C. Donihue.

Accordingly, we measured the toepads of our sample of the surviving lizard populations and, relative to the lizards we’d seen a month and a half prior, the population average was significantly larger. Also in line with predictions, we found that the average forelimb length of the survivors was longer than it had been for the population as a whole before the storms. The change in toepads and forelimbs suggests that natural selection operated, and in just the way we had predicted: conferring a survival advantage to those lizards with physical traits that would help them cling tight during the storms. What’s more, the change in these traits was in the same direction for the lizard populations on both of the islands we sampled, suggesting that this remarkable pattern wasn’t just a fluke, hurricanes can consistently induce natural selection on populations in their path.

That said, when we measured the hind limbs we found a bit of a mysterious, counter-intuitive result: the hind legs, specifically the thigh lengths, were, on average, shorter among the surviving lizard populations on both islands. We think we might have an answer for this mystery though thanks to the help of a big red leaf blower.

As we were planning our return to Turks and Caicos, we realized we had a lot of questions about the behavior of lizards in hurricane-force winds. No one, of course, was out filming the lizards as Hurricanes Irma and Maria barreled through, so we had no idea whether the lizards would cling tightly to branches (supporting our prediction that morphology could relate to survival) or would skedaddle into tree roots and wait out the storm (hoping not to get swamped by storm surge of course).

We devised a decidedly straightforward although rudimentary approach to further investigate what lizards would do when faced with hurricane-force winds: we bought the most powerful electric leaf blower we could find, packed it in our luggage, and, once on the island, used it to videotape lizards as they clung to an experimental perch.

The wind test setup. Photo: C. Donihue

We found that the lizards almost always pivoted around the perch to stay in the lee of the wind instead of jumping down (which comes with the risk of being blown away in the process). They then clung tight to the perch until the wind became so strong that they were blown off the dowel, straight into a net that caught them without harm.

Unexpectedly, while watching the videos we found a potential explanation for the lizards’ shorter thighs too: it turns out that many of the lizards blown off the perch first lost grip with their hind legs. We noticed that the lizards’ forelimbs grasped the perch with their “elbows” tightly tucked next to their body–a streamlined position–whereas the hind limbs were forced to jut out from the perch, thus catching the wind like a sail. This could explain the potential advantage of long forelimbs but short hind limbs.

Still frames from five lizard trials showing the lizards first loosing grip with their hind limbs. Figure from Manuscript Supplemental 1 Fig 1. Photo: C. Donihue.

We’ll need to get lizards into a wind tunnel and more rigorously test different perch diameters, angles, and positions to fully understand all the effects morphology has on survival in high winds. For now, our results show a clear shift in the morphology of these populations and that the shift has a potential adaptive basis in high winds, suggesting that hurricanes can be agents of natural selection.

Due to the serendipitous nature of the study, we don’t have data to rule out alternative explanations for the shifts we see in the limb traits of these lizards. We’d need to have permanently marked a whole population of individuals so we could revisit and identify the survivors to be more definitive in our conclusions. It’s conceivable (though highly improbable) that big-toepadded, short-legged lizards were blown in from a different island we didn’t sample. Perhaps it wasn’t the hurricane-force winds so much as the post-hurricane aftermath that drove these shifts? While natural selection for strong-gripping lizards seems to best fit the data at hand, we hope our serendipitous study will lay the groundwork for future experiments to further explore the evolutionary effects of hurricanes.

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I’ve been sitting on this story for months and I’m excited to finally be able to share it. Remember that work we did in Turks and Caicos last fall? Well, we found something pretty remarkable: the hurricanes caused big shifts in the lizard populations living on both Pine Cay and Water Cay that may have helped the lizards survive the storms. Analyzing, writing, editing, and now publicizing the project has been a huge part of my last six months, but embargo policies being the way they are, I’ve had to hold my tongue here on the blog. Well, no more! I wrote a “behind the paper” post explaining the findings on the Nature Ecology and Evolution blog. I’m reposting it next for easy access.

Thanks to Anthony H., Anne-Claire, and Claire for their hand in the fieldwork, Ambika and Anthony G. for help with the analyses, Jason, Tom, and particularly Jonathan for their help with the writing and interpretation.

Keep an eye out for more posts in the next few days. There have been several videos made about the experiment so if you don’t want to miss anything, subscribe for email alerts.

Here’s the paper!

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Colin Donihue by Colindonihue - 1y ago

Among my favorite emails to get are blurry snapshots of a mysterious lizard crawling across someone’s patio/deck/kitchen floor. This year has provided a bumper crop of lizard sightings in New England and I’ve been really happy to ID and introduce folks to their new lizard neighbors. Keep the emails coming! (colindonihue {at} gmail.com).

I’ve been interested in lizards moving into New England because, well, they’re not really supposed to be there, but they seem to be finding creative ways to make use of human landscapes to survive and flourish. Before you start imagining nightmare invasion of these little reptiles though, be assured, they pose no threat to humans, pets, or gardens, and there’s really no indication that they could hit detrimental population densities in New England. So keep the pictures coming!

If you want to read more about the project you can here. My one regret of living in Paris right now is that I can’t go track down the sightings myself!

Here are a few pictures from this year.

Photo: Sharon in NY

Can you spot the lizard? Here’s a clue:

I do have a particular love for the Italian Wall Lizard (Podarcis siculus) seen above, but I’m an equal-opportunity lizard IDer. Below are two sightings of the (in)famous nursery-plant-castaway Anolis sagrei.

Photo: Alli from MA Photo: Caitlin from CT

Thanks for the pictures and keep sending sightings wherever you find a strange lizard you want to know more about.

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