The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action


Leave a comment

Upward Bound Math and Science-Back in Action!

by Melissa O’Brien

This summer the Langkilde lab has the privilege of working with the Upward Bound Math and Science (UBMS) program for a second time. We will be mentoring high school students through the SEECoS program (Summer Experience in the Eberly College of Science). Last year we had the opportunity to work with three outstanding students: Selena Slimmer, Jermayne Jones, and Kiara Camacho. Selena graduated from Reading High School this past spring, and we are pleased to announce that she will be attending Albright College in the fall. Selena will be studying psychology and intends to minor in biology. Congratulations Selena! We are so proud of you, and we know you will be successful in everything you do!

grad

Selena holding her diploma with her mom by her side.

While Selena is moving on to college, we are lucky enough to be working with Jermayne and Kiara again this summer. Jermayne is a rising senior at Olney Charter High School in Philadelphia, and Kiara is a rising sophomore at Reading High School. Jermayne hopes to study forensic science at Penn State, and Kiara is interested in photography. Last summer Jermayne and Kiara worked with us on a project studying tadpole behavior, and this year they are jumping in head first with a lizard project!

Our enthusiastic research team! From left to right: Melissa O’Brien, Kiara Camacho, Jermayne Jones, and Dr. Tracy Langkilde. Photo taken by Dr. Lori Van Der Sluys.

Our enthusiastic research team! From left to right: Melissa O’Brien, Kiara Camacho, Jermayne Jones, and Dr. Tracy Langkilde. Photo taken by Dr. Lori Van Der Sluys.

Jermayne and Kiara will be helping the Langkilde lab study stress levels in the Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus). In this experiment, we will be measuring a stress hormone known as corticosterone (CORT for short). In order to take a blood sample, we catch fence lizards using a fishing rod with a noose attached to its end. Once we catch a lizard, we remove the noose and use a capillary tube to collect blood from the sinus behind its eye. The process of catching, handling, and obtaining a blood sample is stressful for lizards, so if we want to get a look at natural or baseline stress levels in lizards, we need to take a blood sample before CORT levels begin to rise. According to previous research, it takes about three minutes for CORT levels to rise in birds and mammals, and we want to determine whether or not this holds true for reptiles.

In order to find fence lizards to work with, we ventured out to Raystown Field Station two weeks ago to scout out a field site (check out Mark Goldy-Brown’s blog post if you are interested in learning more about our first trip!). Last Thursday, we returned to the field station in hopes of catching additional lizards for our study. When we arrived, we realized that the weather in Juniata was not conducive to catching fence lizards, but that didn’t stop us from trying! While we waited for the rain to subside, we gave Jermayne and Kiara a crash course in fieldwork. We even used plastic lizards to practice catching fence lizards.

Jermayne (left) and Kiara (right) practicing their “lizarding” skills. Photos taken by Tracy Langkilde.

Jermayne (left) and Kiara (right) practicing their “lizarding” skills. Photos taken by Tracy Langkilde.

While the weather prevented us from catching fence lizards, we did get the opportunity to see some wildlife. Andrew McDevitt, Resident Director of Raystown Field Station, found two Ring-Necked Snakes that Jermayne was brave enough to hold. These snakes get their name from the orange ring found around their necks. Ring-Necked Snakes are harmless to humans, and our students enjoyed getting the opportunity to interact with such docile reptiles.

Jermayne (left) holding a ring-necked snake. Kiara (right) posing with a ring-necked snake. Photos taken by Tracy Langkilde.

Jermayne (left) holding a Ring-Necked Snake. Kiara (right) posing with a Ring-Necked Snake. Photos taken by Tracy Langkilde.

This ring-necked snake gets its name from the orange ring around its neck. Photo taken by Tracy Langkilde.

This Ring-Necked Snake gets its name from the orange ring around its neck. Photo taken by Tracy Langkilde.

We also took a hike around the base of the field station where Chris spotted a slimy salamander. Chris explained that these amphibians get their names from the sticky mucous they secrete to clog the mouth of a predator. We also learned that slimy salamanders are good jumpers, and quickly returned our friend to the log where we found him.

Chris Thawley holding a slimy salamander. Photo taken by Tracy Langkilde.

Chris Thawley holding a slimy salamander. Photo taken by Tracy Langkilde.

Our team investigating the slimy salamander. From left to right: Chris Thawley (holding salamander), Tracy Langkilde, Gail McCormick, Kiara Camacho, and Jermayne Jones.

Our team investigating the slimy salamander. From left to right: Chris Thawley (holding salamander), Tracy Langkilde, Gail McCormick, Kiara Camacho, and Jermayne Jones.

On the ride back to Penn State, Tracy spotted a baby box turtle on the side of the road.

Kiara and Jermayne both took the opportunity to take photos with this adorable herp.

Jermayne and Kiara posing with their box turtle friend. Photo taken by Gail McCormick.

Jermayne and Kiara posing with their box turtle friend. Photo taken by Gail McCormick.

We are eager to get back into the field next week to catch some fence lizards! Stay tuned for updates on our lizard project!

 

Advertisements


Leave a comment

To Catch a Fence Lizard

Almost every time I talk to people about our research with lizards, I get asked the question: “But how do you catch so many lizards?” or some variant of it. In general fence lizards are fast, and, while we do sometimes catch them with our hands (especially juveniles), we mostly use the time-honored technique of noosing lizards. This involves creating a small noose, putting it on a pole, slowly lowering it over a lizard’s head, and tightening the noose by lifting upwards.

While it seems as though a lizard should run away if a large human being is trying to put a tickly noose over its head, fence lizards will often stay stock still to the surprise of most first time noosers. The probable reason for this is that fence lizards are generally well-camouflaged animals; they rely on their cryptic patterning for protection from predators. Many of these predators, such as birds of prey and some snakes, are visually-oriented. So if a fence lizard is threatened by a predator, running away, or otherwise moving to avoid a small distraction (like our nooses), might just serve to attract the predator and reduce a lizard’s chances of survival. When we are catching lizards, we often see their eyes following our movements but not the noose’s; in other words, they seem to recognize a human 8 feet away as a potential threat, but ignore the small noose near their head.

To noose lizards, we use collapsible panfish poles (like this or this), which allow us to say outside of a lizard’s flight initiation distance, the distance from a predator at which the lizard will run to shelter. We also use waxed dental floss to make our small nooses. The waxed floss holds its shape well and is very tough, allowing it to be used over and over. Last week while catching lizards at Raystown Lake in PA, I hooked up our lab’s GoPro camera to my lizard pole so I could show y’all what it looks like to catch a lizard with a noose (watch in HD if you can!).

Another question I often get is: doesn’t this hurt the lizard? The answer is, thankfully, no! First of all, fence lizards’ necks are a strong region of their body, and secondly, fence lizards weigh very little. They rarely exceed 20 gms (and that only in very gravid females). The combination of low weight and a strong support means that fence lizard necks can easily support their body weight. Our nooses don’t tighten enough to cut off circulation, and we can generally free a lizard from a noose in under 15 seconds. Catching lizards by hand is actually more risky than noosing them, since there is a higher risk of pressing on a lizard’s tail and having it break. In short, I’ve noosed hundreds of lizards and never had any appear injured.

I hope you enjoyed our quick lizard catching video, and maybe now, as I walk through various parks and forests, I won’t get so many questions from people asking what the heck I’m doing strolling around in the middle of the woods with a fishing pole!

 

 

 


2 Comments

PA Lizard Catching Adventures

*In order to see all of the photos in their proper arrangement, I recommend clicking on the blog post title instead of reading it on the scrolling page*

This past week, the Langkilde lab headed out to Raystown Field station to catch some Eastern Fence Lizards (Sceloporus undulatus).  We were catching lizards to record their morphology (limb size, weight, length, etc.) and to take blood samples.  We took blood samples to measure their levels of a stress hormone, Corticosterone, or CORT.  We wanted to catch around 20 lizards and take blood samples at various intervals over a range of 0-10 minutes post-capture to get a nice range of blood sampling times.  With this range of times, we hope to find the approximate time-point at which a lizard’s CORT levels spike; is it 1 minute, 2 minutes, 7 minutes post-capture?  Basically, we are just trying to better understand stress in reptiles, which is an area that isn’t well understood or explored yet.  Understanding the manner that stress operates in these lizards can provide insight into how anthropomorphic stressors such as habitat destruction affect the lizard’s health and stress levels.

While our primary goal was to catch fence lizards, we found lots of other interesting animals along the way.  Read below to follow our day’s journey in the wilds of South Western Pennsylvania!

—————————————————-

We left State College around 9:15am to head down to the Raystown Lake Field Station in Huntingdon County.  While the skies in State College were gloomy and overcast, as we got closer to our destination, the skies began to clear and we enjoyed what became a wonderful and sunny Tuesday afternoon.

No more than 10 minutes after our arrival at Raystown Lake Field Station, we stumbled across our first herp (reptile or amphibian) of the trip!

P1000039

A pregnant female Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) which we found wandering around behind a wood shed only 10 minutes after arriving at our destination!

After we finished checking out the box turtle, we began our trek up the mountainside, hiking for about 25 minutes at a 45 degree incline (it was fairly tiring carrying all of our gear).  Once we had finally made it to the ridge top where we would begin our hunt for lizards, we were greeted by another Eastern Box Turtle, but this time it was a male.

P1000041

Male Eastern Box Turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina). Note how much brighter the orange coloration is compared to the female above.

P1000042

Box Turtles are so named because of their unique defense, as seen above.  They have a hinged plastron (bottom shell), which allows the turtle to nearly completely close off his interior from predators, making the appearance of a box!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little way up the trail, we chose a nice flat and sunny spot to set up our base camp, split up into lizard catching groups, and make sure that we had everything organized and ready to go.  While getting settled, I looked around and noticed a yearling lizard just sitting on a large fallen tree only a few feet from where we were standing.  A few second later, we heard some scuttling in the leaves and witnessed some brief mating between an adult male and female Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus), but unfortunately we could not get any good pictures or video before they went their separate ways.

Prior to this photo, this male Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) was mating with a nearby female.  Here, you can see him basking on the log to heat up for the day.

Prior to this photo, this male Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) was mating with a nearby female. Here, you can see him basking on the log to heat up for the day.  If you look closely at his lower neck and stomach, you can see some of his bright blue coloration!


After we finished prepping, we finally set off in our two groups to begin catching some fence lizards, which, afterall, was the purpose of our trip.  However, in addition to fence lizards, we stumbled across a few other interesting animals (and of course some fence lizards).

Nestled up under a fallen tree trunk, we stumbled across a Northen Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen).  We found him right next to a lizard that we had just caught, and thankfully we saw it before we accidentally stepped too close.

Nestled up under a fallen tree trunk, we stumbled across a Northen Copperhead (Agkistrodon contortrix mokasen). We found him right next to a lizard that we had just caught, and thankfully we saw it before we accidentally stepped too close.

 

A chrysalis found hanging from a small plant.  I wonder what is going to emerge from it?

A chrysalis found hanging from a small plant. I wonder what is going to emerge from it?

In our searching for fence lizards, we managed to find one of PA’s other native lizards, the Common Five-line Skink (Plestiodon fasciatus).

P1000075

A Common Five-lined Skink crawling along the side of fallen tree that we found him basking on.

five-lined skink modified

There are two other skink species in PA, but we were able to identify our skink as a Plestiodon fasciatus because it had 4 supralabial scales (above the “lip”) before the scale immediately below the eye.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Melissa, a student researcher in the Langkilde lab, posing with the first Eastern Fence Lizard she ever caught!

Melissa, a student researcher in the Langkilde lab, posing with the first Eastern Fence Lizard she ever caught!

After we had caught the lizards that we needed and taken the blood samples, we reunited with our other group of lizard catchers to start recording the morphology of the lizards.  While recording measurements for the lizards can be a little boring, we try to keep ourselves entertained throughout the process.

Chris posing with one of the Fence Lizards that we caught during the day.

Chris posing with one of the Fence Lizards that we caught during the day.

Most of the Fence Lizards we caught that day were on the smaller side, but we did catch a few large ones, including a big pregnant female which we jokingly referred to as Godzilla.

"Godzilla", the large female Eastern Fence Lizard we caught during the day.

“Godzilla”, the large female Eastern Fence Lizard we caught during the day.

The belly of an extremely pregnant Eastern Fence Lizard.  The red ovals highlight the approximate locations of some of the eggs.

Godzilla’s belly.  The red ovals highlight the approximate locations of some of her eggs.  She was probably going to lay in the next week or two.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once we had measured all of the lizards and collected all of the blood samples that we needed, all of the lizards were released at their points of capture.  While releasing the lizard we caught near the Northern Copperhead earlier in the day, we were surpised to find another snake hanging around the tree trunk.

A Northern Racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor) which we found at the same tree trunk as the Northern Copperhead.  As we got closer, it retreated inside the tree trunk.

A Northern Racer (Coluber constrictor constrictor) which we found at the same tree trunk as the Northern Copperhead. As we got closer, it retreated inside the tree trunk.

With all the lizards returned and all of the blood samples packed away on ice in our coolers, we headed down the mountainside to return to our research van.  As we packed up our belongings to make the trek back to State College, we found one final herp, the always beautiful Northern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsii).

A Northern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsi) which we found right before leaving Raystown Lake Field Station.

A Northern Ring-necked Snake (Diadophis punctatus edwardsi) which we found right before leaving Raystown Lake Field Station.

1 trip, 6 herp species, 21 lizards, and a tired bunch of researchers later, we found ourselves back at Penn State, having succeeded in what we set out to do.

We’ll be heading out to Raystown Lake once or twice more in the coming weeks, so be on the lookout for an update on our next PA Lizard Catching Adventure!

-Mark

 


Leave a comment

Getting a Job at a Small College

This is my last post before I officially leave the Langkilde Lab. While I’m incredibly sad to go, it’s also very exciting to set up a new lab (an academic child of the Langkilde Lab) at my new home. I will be an assistant professor of vertebrate biology at Wabash College in Indiana, a very small liberal arts college with rigorous academics and excellent resources for research. Maybe some day I’ll return to write a post about what this job is like, but for now I thought I’d share some lessons learned about applying for a faculty position at smaller, teaching-oriented schools. In some ways I’m not all that qualified to give advice on this: I only ever went through this process once, I only had a handful of phone interviews, and I only attended one on-campus interview. But, I did it successfully and learned a few valuable things along the way, both by experience and by reading lots of advice from others.

 

1. Applying for jobs is going to take time. I sent out approximately 60 job applications, including (in most cases) a cover letter that introduced myself and why I wanted (and could do) the job, a teaching statement describing my approach to biology education, and a research statement delineating my interests and future projects I’d like to undertake. That’s a lot to do, and it has to be done a little differently each time (see #2 below). I applied for everything I could remotely see fitting into because I need to work. Luckily, I didn’t have to accept one of those jobs that I didn’t really want. There were jobs that I seemed perfectly suited for that summarily rejected me without even a phone interview. In some cases they may have already had a candidate in mind, in other cases there might have been some other quality that they were looking for that wasn’t communicated in the job description, and in probably the majority of cases there was someone similarly well-matched to the position who was just much more experienced. So unless you are really at the top of your field, you have to apply for a lot of jobs in order for the right combination of circumstances to lead to a job offer. And you have to increase the number of job applications by stretching into applying for jobs that don’t quite sound like you. I applied for jobs as a vertebrate biologist, an invertebrate biologist, a physiologist, an ecologist, and an environmental statistician. And across all different fields, I had cases where I got past the first round of selecting applicants. I credit this too #2 below …

 

2. You apply for specific jobs. With small schools, they often have very particular teaching needs, and faculty are generally expected to teach a variety of courses rather than just a single one in the specialty. At Wabash, I will be teaching ecology, comparative vertebrate anatomy, introductory biology, and freshman seminar courses surveying topics from a breadth of perspectives in science, the arts, and humanities. In applying, I had to demonstrate how I was prepared for and what I would bring to each of those courses, highlighting how different experiences listed in my CV make me a suitable candidate for that job. That takes a lot of work because there was an extremely diverse group of courses across all the jobs I applied to. I also spent a lot of time trying to understand the particulars of the school so I could address how I would fit in there. Does the school emphasize certain things like experiential learning or close mentoring relationships? Do they have certain facilities or equipment that I could make good use of? For my research program to function at a smaller school, it is also important that it can continue at low cost, which for me makes local study systems important. To that end, I researched native organisms that I’d be comfortable working with and described natural areas near the school that I could take advantage of. In short, I became very familiar with departments, entire schools, and the surrounding areas with each application, and worked hard to consider how my approach to teaching and research would be realized in that setting and to convey that image in a compelling way to the search committee.

 

3. Teaching schools have different expectations than the graduate school’s that train us. While high profile research is perfectly welcome and exciting at smaller schools, the primary responsibility is to the undergraduate students. A good research program is one that is practical given the circumstances of the school and, moreover, creates opportunities for students to be engaged in the scientific process as part of their extracurricular education. I don’t need to be pursuing research questions that will draw international renown so much as I need to be a mentor and teacher of those students who work with me. I like to think that I will try to change my field, but my first duty is to change my students’ lives. Fortunately working in the Langkilde Lab prepared me well for this. I have been lucky to work with a number of excellent students, many of whom served as research assistants and some of whom became collaborators/mentees. As I applied for jobs, I had several papers published or in review with student co-authors, and think this was a strong element of my application.

 

4. You might not know what you want. Many faculty positions appeared rather unappealing at first glance (and some still do!). Researching the school and describing how I would contribute to them often changed my perspective, and I started picturing myself making a great career for myself there. For instance, some areas I never thought I’d want to live have abundant or unusual biodiversity that would support spectacular research projects. The job at Wabash as I first perceived it was not what I had hoped for: anatomy seemed like a less desirable course to teach, an all-men’s college seemed like a strange environment to be in, and a small rural town seemed unappealing. But all of this has changed. I found as I prepared more for teaching comparative anatomy that a dormant curiosity and passion for the topic was ignited, and that I could teach it in an exciting way beyond rote memorization. The students at Wabash are a group of dedicated and academically-oriented young men with lots of respect for the faculty and their school (by and large, at least compared to most schools). The small town is charming, centrally-located with respect to urban areas and large university towns, and has such low cost housing that we could afford to purchase a nice home within a mile of the college right off the bat. They also have uncommon research support for a school of that size; indeed, many much larger schools lack the facilities, equipment, and start-up funds available there. This isn’t intended to be about how great Wabash is, but rather just a way to highlight how the perfect job that I pictured wasn’t what I found (and may not exist). Instead, I found something else that is perfect that I wouldn’t have expected. You can surprise yourself with what you end up liking.

 

I hope these reflections on the job hunt are helpful to others who might be considering a similar career. And with that, I say goodbye for now to The Lizard Log!

-Brad


Leave a comment

A Little Introduction

Given that I am the new guy, it is only fitting that my first blog post provides a little background on myself and my research.  So I will use this opportunity to introduce myself.

First, a little about me…  As you all are aware, my name is Chris Howey, and given that we have two Chris’ in the lab, feel free to call me Howey.  I got my B.S. from the University of Delaware, my M.S. from the University of Central Arkansas, and my Ph.D. from the Ohio University.  Originally, I am from New Jersey, but I try my best to avoid that state like it’s the plague (way too many people).  I have three older sisters (explains why I’m a little not right in the head), three beautiful nieces, and an adorable nephew.  When I’m not chasing down herps, I can be found grilling and smoking meats, drinking beer, and relaxing with my fiancee down in Altoona (everyone is invited to join us!).

Since my undergrad, I have been highly interested in the conservation and proper management of reptiles.  It is very hard to get people interested in snakes, lizards, and turtles, and even more difficult to get them to want to ensure the viability of these reptile populations.  My research is centered around understanding the needs of reptile species and then communicating these needs to land managers and the public. I strongly believe that publishing one’s work in the best scientific journals in the world cannot save a reptile species from habitat loss, over-harvest, and persecution, but the conservation of reptiles (and other wildlife) can only be done by educating the public and local land managers (However… publishing in the best journals in the world can land you an awesome job).  Throughout my undergraduate, graduate, and not post-graduate career my research has focused on understanding how landscape disturbances affect reptile communities and their preferred habitat, and then disseminating that research to the appropriate audiences.  Given that the thermal landscape is one of the most important habitat characteristics for a reptile, ultimately dictating the potential body temperature and physiological performances of the animal, I have recently begun incorporating models of the thermal landscape into my research.

During my undergrad, I assisted with research investigating the effects of habitat fragmentation on the eastern box turtle.  My Master’s research investigated the effects of commercial harvest on the alligator snapping turtle.  Additionally, I studied the habitat use of the alligator snapping turtle during my Masters so that we could further understand what type of habitat must be protected if we are to encourage the recovery of this species.  During my PhD, I investigated the effects of prescribed fire on the ecology of the black racer.  Currently, I am working on getting those results published; however, I have already begun disseminating those results to land managers… which has led me to where I am at today.  For more detail on this past research, feel free to visit my website: chowey.net.

After hearing about my dissertation research, the Bureau of Forestry in Pennsylvania decided that they wanted to know more about how their prescribed fires affect timber rattlesnakes.  The timber rattlesnake is not a listed species in Pennsylvania, but many populations are in decline which makes this, perhaps, a sensitive species that could be listed someday soon.  However, there are many healthy populations of timber rattlesnakes in the center of the state.  So back in 2012/2013, the Bureau of Forestry and the US Forest Service asked if I would help lead a project looking at the effects of prescribed fire on timber rattlesnake populations in the center of the state.  … I agreed.  I quickly put together a study that would investigate the effects of prescribed fire on the available structural and thermal landscape, understand what habitat characteristics the timber rattlesnake prefers (structurally and thermally), and understand the direct, immediate, impacts of the fire itself on the rattlesnakes if they would be present during the time of the actual fire. … Unfortunately, our project was pushed aside by government budget cuts… But a few months ago, by the grace the snake gods, the project was fully funded!  I quickly looked for a lab that I could work out of within the state, and I found a fantastic lab led by Tracy Langkilde.  I thought Tracy would be a fantastic person to work with given that she already looks at stress responses to disturbances within the landscape (i.e., introduction of fire ants).  Additionally, her work with stress may even add another interesting layer to this project.

For more information regarding my past and future research, please feel free to visit my website: chowey.net

I look forward to working alongside of everyone in the Langkilde lab and sharing with you all the many timber rattlesnake stories yet to come!

Timber Rattlesnake from Ohio

Timber Rattlesnake from Ohio

 

-Howey