The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

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Undergrad Research in All Its Glory

The Eberly College of Science held it’s first Undergrad Experiences Poster Exhibit last week, which I coordinated in my current role as the Tombros Fellow for Undergrad Research in the Dean’s Office. It was a huge success – if I do say so myself.

Signage directing students to the poster exhibit, and featuring Lindsey Swierk and ** and ** (undergraduate researcher lab alum)

Signage directing students to the poster exhibit, and featuring Lindsey Swierk and Erica Green and Edward Owen (undergraduate researcher lab alum).

We had 47 undergraduates present their research and international experiences, and over 300 attendees!! The place was so packed that it was difficult to move. OK, so many of these students were there because their professors mandated attendance; but they assure me they would have come anyway (right?). All evidence suggests that everyone got something out of the experience.

Early in the evening – you can see the line of students up the stairs in the background, waiting to get in.

Early in the evening – you can see the line of students up the stairs in the background, waiting to get in.

Standing room only.

Standing room only.

I had several goals for this event. Many of the attendees were first year undergraduate students in their very first semester in college. Many of them have heard and maybe even thought about becoming involved in research. This gave them the opportunity to see the types of research being conducted in the College, and to ask the presenters about their experiences. (I tell them that they should become involved in research, but it’s been a while since I was an undergraduate so it’s much better if they get this from their peers).

The presenters had the opportunity to talk about their research with a scientific audience. (There is a University-wide Undergraduate Poster Session, which allows students to present to a general (non-scientific) audience).

Several Departments and Programs across the College sponsored prizes, and we had over 30 judges volunteer their time to select deserving students.

Our Excellence in Life Science Research Overall Winner, Josh Bram, with our guest alumni judge Dr. McManigle.

Our Excellence in Life Science Research Overall Winner, Josh Bram, with our guest alumni judge Dr. McManigle.

Our very own Mark Herr took out the Outstanding Poster Presentation prize provided by the Center for Brain, Behavior and Cognition (the same project for which he received honorable mention at JMIH).

Me and Mark with his award certificate. With everything going on, we forgot to do this on the night. So we staged a photo with a “hand” from Chris Howey and Gregory Reilly (our newest undergrad lab member).

Me and Mark with his award certificate. With everything going on, we forgot to do this on the night. So we staged a photo with a “hand” from Chris Howey and Gregory Reilly (our newest undergrad lab member).

And Cecilia Zemanek definitely wins the award for “most-productivity-in-the-shortest-amount-of-time”. Cecilia decided she was going to do a poster before even starting her research – and only 1 week before the presentation. She managed to design an excellent project on Mexican Jumping Beans, collect and analyze the data, and put together a fantastic poster in just 7 days. Extraordinary!

Cecilia at the Exhibit with her poster, and in the lab working on her lighting-fast research.

Cecilia at the Exhibit with her poster… and some beans!

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The non-herps of Ireland

Unlike Chris’s stats “vacation,” I recently had the opportunity to go on a real vacation. To Ireland, no less!  Not many herps call Ireland home, so it isn’t a surprise that I didn’t see any. But I did see many many sheep! On the farm, on cliffs, on the road…you name it!

IMG_2366b roadsheep

These guys and their friends were definitively blocking the road.

IMG_2363b roadsheep

Why, hello there.

We had the wonderful opportunity to visit the family of a State College acquaintance, as well as their farm. After being stuffed with delicious tea and biscuits, I took the opportunity to watch a father/son team weighing some of their sheep for sale. This family was down to about 300 sheep–enough to breed. They typically sell their sheep at an intermediate weight, and the buyer raises them up further.

The weighing of the sheep.

The weighing of the sheep.

After weighing, sheep were marked with a special kind of spray paint to help monitor weight, condition, etc. This seemed to be pretty standard; most of the sheep we passed along the road had interesting color splotches on them.

They weren't quite sure what to make of me.

They weren’t quite sure what to make of me.

Part of the reason for going to Ireland at this particular time was to see the Penn State football game against UCF. What a nail-biter! The Irish folk in the crowd didn’t really know what was going on, but they were great spectators.

So glad the game had the "proper" outcome.

So glad the game had the “proper” outcome.

Of course, we didn’t just go to Ireland for a football game. We made a whirlwind trip of the country, from the west coast and the Cliffs of Moher, to Blarney Castle (you can’t not…), to Northern Ireland and the Giant’s Causeway… The whole country is beautiful, and so so green!


The Cliffs of Moher — the most beautiful of windy places!


Ross Errilly-Friary. First built in 1351. Now in an awesome state of ruin.

On the Northern Coast.

On the coast of Northern Ireland. What a great drive!


The Giant’s Causeway. Geology at its finest!


Ashford Castle is now a hotel, but you can wander its amazing grounds without being a guest. So beautiful! I admit we took many cheesy “senior portraits” here. They were also filming a TV show that day!

Perhaps by now you’re wondering if this is all an elaborate ruse to share my vacation photos with you. You would probably be correct. No Shame!


On the grounds of Ashford Castle, pictured above. So wonderful!


Near the Cliffs of Moher.


A robin watching over a portal tomb (which, by the way, was built between 4000 and 3000 BC!).


The Long Room at Trinity College. It was just lovely. And below it is the Book of Kells! Awesome.


Oh Shenandoah!

As summer vacation’s last few weeks slipped by, and the fall semester was threatening to begin, I snuck away from State College for a…vacation? Oh, heck no! Instead, I threw some clothes and the stats section of my bookshelf into my ’93 Buick Century with the bad Throttle Position Sensor, and wended my way down to the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute just outside of Front Royal, VA. While there, I took a two-week intensive course in doing statistical analyses using R, but I won’t bog you down with esoteric details about the 8 hours/day I spent staring at computer screens or the 4±2 cups of coffee I drank each day.

On our weekend off, I decided to take advantage of our proximity to Shenandoah National Park and search for salamanders. I had already found some common species, such as Northern Dusky Salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus) and slimy salamanders, but on this weekend I was targeting a far rarer species, the Shenandoah salamander (Plethodon shenandoah). This species is a montane endemic and exists on only three mountaintops, Hawksbill, Stony Man, and The Pinnacle in the entire world. The species is actually restricted even further as it only occurs in one specific habitat, fairly dry and north—facing talus slopes. While this salamander is federally endangered due to its tiny range, it is also likely one of the best protected salamanders in the world, as its entire range lies within the national park.


A Northern Dusky Salamander who had been waiting for prey to come by beneath a rock in a small, first-order stream.

Superficially, the Shenandoah salamander is similar in appearance to the Redback Salamander (Plethodon cinereus). This salamander is one of the most common in the eastern United States and can often be found under rocks, logs, and other cover. It has been extensively researched because individuals can be reliably recaptured under the same objects year-after –year due to its territoriality, and because it occurs in very high densities (over 1,000/acre!). In some areas, redback salamanders may exceed or equal the biomass of birds or small mammals in a forest!. Shenandoah salamanders can be differentiated from these more common redbacks in the field by several means: the stripes on their backs are less thick, they are often larger, and they have more rounded heads. However, the most accurate way to identify them is by their bellies: while redback salamanders have a mottled “salt and pepper” pattern on their venters, Shenadoah salamanders have a more solid, black belly which sometimes includes larger metallic flecking. Shenandoah salamanders also share another similarity with redback salamanders: both have two “phases”: redback and leadback. In Shenandoah salamanders, redback-phase individuals have a reddish, orange, or yellowish stripe down their backs while leadbacks have no stripe and instead are a uniform dark grey.

After carefully researching and planning my trip, I set off for the park on a perfect afternoon, or at least it was perfect for finding salamanders. For an August weekend, it was cool (a high of 70) and had been drizzling all day. The ground was soaked, and the park was most full at the reststops and lodges, where damp hikers were drinking lots of hot chocolate and lamenting their inability to make much of the parks famous overlooks. I targeted a section of the Appalachian Trail that ran along the north face of Hawksbill mountain, through some prime talus slopes and right by the type locality of the species, the place where the first officially recognized specimen was collected. Near the trailhead, I found individuals of P. cinereus, the common species, but a good sign that salamanders were active under cover objects at the time. After a little more hiking into the heart of the Shenandoah salamander’s range on Hawksbill, I found was I was looking for in a cove with some nice, deep soil and leaf litter: Shenandoah salamanders! To my happiness, both color morphs (redback and leadback) were present.

A P. shenandoah in the "redback" phase.

A P. shenandoah in the “redback” phase.


A leadback Shenandoah salamander.


A blurry shot of the darker belly diagnostic of P. shenandoah (you try getting a salamander to show it’s belly single-handedly!)

After finding at least 5 in one cove, I decided to just enjoy the hiking, but flipping rock and logs right on the trail yielded plenty more individuals, including multiples under the same cover object. P. shenandoah was, by far, the easiest to find and most locally abundant endangered species I’ve looked for. I hope the that National Park Service can continue to do a good job protecting these species and keeping these small populations in good health. While the weather wasn’t ideal for reptiles, I did chance across one nice find later in the day as the sun broke through the cloud layer in the late afternoon. This large ratsnake was chilling (or rather, trying to get warm) by basking in the vegetation on a west-facing fire road. Hopefully I’ll be lucky enough to see a few more cool herps this fall before everything beds down for the winter!


A friendly Pantherophis alleghaniensis. This fellow broke 5 ft. and was in great shape!




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Animal Behavior Conference 2014

While the rest of the lab was attending the JMIH meeting (read about it here!), I was headed toward the 2014 annual meeting for the Animal Behavior Society in Princeton, New Jersey. Armed with a Penn State Dodge Avenger, a fellow Penn State Ecology student and I braved New Jersey drivers and the unlabeled campus buildings ready to present our research! While campus was quite difficult to navigate at night to newcomers, during the day it was beautiful!

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The fun part about traveling to a new place for a conference is being able to explore! This installation was particularly memorable…

heads2 heads1According to the internet, these heads were designed by Chinese artist and social activist Ai Weiwei. Apparently, these were based on sculptures located in Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat outside Beijing, that were originally designed by an Italian artist Giuseppe Castiglione in the mid-18th century. The original sculptures were stolen, and only 5 have been returned to China. In addition to having a neat source of inspiration, these heads are 10 feet tall and super weird and awesome. I approve!

Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The plenary talks were located here. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Mornings began at 8am with plenary talks by some fantastic researchers in animal behavior. Dr. Iain Couzin started off Day 1 describing his work on collective behavior of swarms and schools, like those of locusts and fish. His lab applies theoretical principles from physics to help understand the ecology of these groups. So cool! In both his talk and many others throughout the week, I was amazed at the tracking software available to scientists. With this software, you can track each individual in a school of fish and other variables like position or velocity–all automatically! I was able to talk to Ian briefly during the dance (yes, scientists sometimes dance!), and he shared that his early research interests did not include collective behavior. Initially he wanted to study lizards, though he didn’t have many options in Scotland. I don’t blame him; lizards are pretty darn cool!

The plenary speakers gave their talks in this amazing room!

The plenary speakers gave their talks in this amazing room!

The other sessions took place on the other side of campus in the more recently constructed science buildings. Because we were presenting on a college campus (vs. at a conference center), most of the talks took place in big lecture halls. I’ve never given a talk to such a big room before! In my presentation, I discussed the terms we use to describe stress and what characteristics of stress are important when predicting the outcomes of that stress (I’ll share more details on the blog later!). I gave my talk on Sunday, the first “official” day of the conference, which left the rest of the week to relax and learn about animal behavior! Two other graduate students from Penn State presented their work, and a graduate student and two undergrads from Penn State gave poster presentations. All did a fantastic job!

Here Gabriel Villar, a grad student in the Penn State Entomology Department, just finished presenting his work on honey bees.

Here Gabriel Villar, a grad student in the Penn State Entomology Department, just finished presenting his work on honey bees.

Although my research doesn’t always include animal behavior, it was really neat to hear about the many techniques and study populations used to study animal behavior. Many research groups have long-standing study systems, having observed hyenas, meerkats, zebras, or primate groups for 10 to sometimes 40 years! They have some really neat research about personality, dominance hierarchies, and other group dynamics. And some really cool photos!


It was fun to meet so many interesting people and learn about their research during the conference. I look forward to the next one!