iPhone Herpetology: Among the Many Joys of Living in the Desert…

…is that occasionally, wild geckos wander into our home.

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A Desert Tortoise Field Trip

It’s the hottest time of year in the Valley of the Sun, and the unavoidable and unrelenting desert summer heat prevents newcomers such as me and my family from fully exploring our new beautiful surroundings. This is a sad fact, although the reality is that our lives are so upended by the move that we have little room for field trips – it will be better come springtime when (1) we are more settled and (2) daily temperatures will be cooler and the desert will be blooming and full of life. My wife and daughter escaped the heat this week to visit family in Portland, OR – a place with almost opposite climatic conditions from here. The brief northwestern Oregonian summer with its dry warm days and blue blue skies are hard to beat. So I am glad they have a chance to have some fun in the sun without having to worry about their health, like they would here.

Meanwhile, in the Phoenix area I have been relegated to air-conditioned indoor activities at the lab, office and home. Pleasingly, I received an invitation from one of my new colleagues who studies tortoises to join the Arizona Fish and Wildlife Turtle Management Team as a volunteer on a tortoise-monitoring trip. Since I am part of a group that is planning on sequencing the Desert Tortoise genome for its conservation, I thought it was a serendipitous opportunity to actually meet one of our possible study organisms. We were to meet the team at the Sugarloaf Mountain Area in the Tonto National Forest, about one hour northeast of downtown Phoenix. In the summer, these excursion need to start early – both humans and animals need to avoid the midday heat – so I picked my colleague up at 4:30am. The habitat was beautiful. It’s amazing that these sprawling desert landscapes contain large desert reptiles!

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The Sugarloaf Mountain area in Tonto National Forest. There are tortoises wandering around this landscape, and we were searching for both tagged and un-tagged individuals.

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Here comes one now!

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Close-up of a desert tortoise (Gopherus morafkai)

The team did manage to find tortoises but I forget the exact number. I was much more of a spectator on this trip, as it was my first excursion into the desert since we moved our here, and my field search image is not attuned to tortoises. So while these photos are my own, I had to rely on other more experienced folks to actually find the animals. They really just look like desert rocks, and they freeze when they see a person.

The extremely competent members of the turtle team were taking vital measurements of each tortoise as part of a long-term study tracking the growth and movements of desert tortoises that live in this part of the Sonoran Desert.ImageBeing out in the desert afforded an opportunity to see other reptiles, of course. Here are some pictures of an earless lizard (genus Holbrookia). During one rest point for the team, this individual was perched on a nearby rock giving us the business – which in lizard language consists of nasty looks and push-ups.Image

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You think you can take me?

Out of all the reptiles, you have to admire the chutzpah of some lizards. Upon being approached by humans, tortoises hide in their shells, snakes slither silently away, alligators dash messily to the water’s safety… but many species of lizards give humans displays of dominance almost right up until the last minute. Then they run away of course. But for the first few seconds it always seems like the little lizards really are sizing you up and thinking they can take you on.

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Believe it or not, the tortoises love this rocky terrain!

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iPhone Herpetology: Winter Anoles

The SICB 2012 meeting in Charleston, South Carolina has been an eye opener, for sure, in many ways. First, the breadth of talks is staggering, ranging from biomechanics to comparative genomics. Second, many anole biologists have attended and it is exciting to mingle and share ideas with people who work on the same organism.

Finally, during a brief excursion outside yesterday, I opened my eyes to find quite a few anoles basking. This was surprising because it was following two days where the daytime temperatures were in the 30s and overnight dipped into the 20s. Freezing! Nonetheless, our favorite green guys were taking advantage of the comparatively warmer 50 degrees and sunny day to do some basking.

On a cold yet sunny day, a black lamp post can actually be a warm place for an anole to bask. The dark color of this female indicates that she is in quite a torpid state, which is expected considering it was January 5th, and she's cold-blooded!

Actually, seeing the anoles outside was not completely surprising. Anolis carolinensis occurs at higher latitudes than any other Anolis species (out of ~380 overall), and have conserved the non-hibernating tendencies of their tropical progenitors. For green anoles, the northern range limit is at about the 35th parallel in eastern Tennessee, where it snows and freezes often, and here in South Carolina the winters can be cold as well (as the last few days have demonstrated to us conference-goers). Sandy Echternacht at the University of Tennessee (who helped guide me in my collecting activities in that state) has made a career out out of studying the thermal ecology of these lizards, and has demonstrated that on a wintry yet sunny day an anole can clamber out of its hiding place and bask on a rock to achieve the same body temperature it would if it was summertime (obviously the time it takes to attain thermal optimum – the temperature at which the lizard is most comfortable – takes much longer).

Here's a pretty lady I snatched from a vine-laden verandah near the back of the conference center. Note the dorsal stripe, hallmark of her gender.

In the spring and summer, basking anoles attain a bright green color, sometimes with striking shoulder patterns of blue. All the anoles I observed yesterday were brown and olive-green in color, indicative of torpor. Since the temperatures have been so cold the past week, these anoles have had a rough time getting out of bed.


iPhone Herpetology: Italian Wall Lizard

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Here is an Italian wall lizard (Podarcis sicula) enjoying a wonderful late summer day outside the science building on the Queens College campus in Flushing, New York. The wall lizards were introduced to QC a number of years ago and have flourished. During the summers they can be observed basking by the scores. It’s a true Italian-American lizard!