The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

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The Ants of Guana Island

As Chris mentioned in a recently post, we both had the wonderful opportunity to do some research on Guana Island. And it was BEAUTIFUL!

The amazing view from my porch.

The amazing view from my porch.

Such clear water!

Such clear water!

But it was also exhausting! Getting used to temperatures in the 80s and 90s and the incredible humidity was a challenge we were to happy to meet. And it’s hard to complain about doing fieldwork on a beach…


North beach!

North beach!

We had a number of projects to keep us busy. As Tracy described in a previous post, our lab and our collaborators are interested in how invasive fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) affect one of the world’s most endangered iguanas: the Stout Iguana (Cyclura pinguis).  (remember this guy?) This year, Chris and I wanted to address whether fire ants are capable of preying on iguana eggs while in the nest. Thanks to some of Chris’s previous research, we know that fire ants are potential threats to fence lizard eggs: they are capable of foraging at depths of fence lizard nests, can find artificial nests, and can get through the shell of the egg to obtain a meal.  We wanted to know if fire ants could get to depths approaching those of an Iguana nest, which are deeper than those of fence lizards. To do this, we installed fake “nests” next to clear plastic tubes in the beach and forested area nearby. This involved digging a hole roughly 16 inches into the soil (or sand!) and inserting a tube. We then placed slices of hot dogs (faux “eggs”) along the outside of the tube at a standard depth and filled in the hole with sand. Every afternoon, we checked our mock nests by sliding a small camera down the tube and taking video of the hot dogs through the tube wall. We immediately checked these videos to determine if any fire ants were present (or beetle larvae, as we observed in one case!).


Chris digging a hole on the beach for our nesting experiment.

Tube in a hole before filling in.

Tube in place before we filled in the hole with sand.

During our stay, we also continued to survey the island for fire ant mounds. Our lab has collected this since we started working on Guana in 2010, and the resulting maps help us monitor the spread of fire ants on the island.

Looking for fire ant mounds...

Looking for fire ant mounds.

Crabs like peanut butter too!

Crabs like peanut butter too!

We also set up baits around the island to see which species of ants are actively foraging in the area. The fire ants love our peanut butter balls, but occasionally a crab would stake claim:

Chris and I had 6 days of hard work and amazing views, but we eventually had to return to the Pennsylvania fall. Next step: data analysis!

Taking in the view!

Taking in the view!

So incredible.

So incredible.

Goodnight Guana!

Goodnight Guana!

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The Transition to Veterinary School: Mastering the Art of “Suffering Happily”

by former undergraduate Courtney Norjen

After four fantastic years at Penn State, I packed up all of my stuff in August and moved to Columbus, Ohio to start veterinary school at the Ohio State University (but don’t worry, I will always truly be a Nittany Lion!)

I was asked to write about what starting veterinary school is like, and I have been struggling to come up with an accurate description. So to procrastinate, I flipped through a Tumblr blog called “Shoulders Deep in Vet School” (it’s hilarious if you’ve never seen it). As I was scrolling, I came across a perfect GIF for describing what veterinary school is really like. It is a quote from Harry Potter, when Ron is reading Harry’s tea leaves and claims “you’re gonna suffer…but you’re gonna be happy about it.” Vet school is incredibly challenging and the workload is massive, but it’s also unbelievably rewarding and I could not be happier to be here.

There were two major educational culture shocks when I started vet school. First, there is no “syllabus week”. There isn’t even a “syllabus day.”   My classmates and I walked into class the first day excited to start school and figure out what our classes would be like. And suddenly it was like trying to drink out of a fire hose. No one could take notes fast enough and everyone was looking around in panic, wondering if they were the only ones who couldn’t keep up. The second shock was getting used to a schedule that was more like high school than college. We typically have class from 8 am to 4 pm, and we are in the same auditorium all day except for when we have laboratories. But unlike a normal 8-hour workday, we have to study after school to keep up with the material.

It took about a week to get used to the sheer volume of material that we cover in class daily, and to be mentally prepared to sit in lecture for most of the day. But once I was adjusted, school became much easier (or if not “easier”, at least more manageable). I found that there is actually plenty of time during the week to do things other than study, and I think that having a good balance of school and fun is absolutely vital to success in veterinary school. Outside of school, I work at a small animal emergency hospital on Sundays, volunteer for community outreach activities through the vet school, and make time to explore all Columbus has to offer with my friends and classmates.

Vet school has definitely been a huge transition, and it is a lot of work, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I still wake up every day excited to go to class and learn the information that I’ll need to be a veterinarian in just 3.5 short years. So I will continue to happily “suffer” through the insane hours of studying to keep getting closer to my dream job.

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Herping – Guana Island Style!

Gail and I recently visited Guana Island in the British Virgin Islands as part of an ongoing research project by the Langkilde Lab to study how invasive Red Imported Fire Ants may be spreading across and affecting the biota of this amazing island (see here for Tracy’s recap of last year’s work). In a few weeks, we’ll post an account of our trip and the research that we did, but for now, I’m just going to throw out the eye-candy…all the cool herps that we got to see and catch!

While Guana is a small island (only 850 acres…it’s teeny), it is home to an over-sized diversity of flora and fauna, including herps, and especially lizards (our specialty!).


Walking down to our study area on our first morning, we stumbled across this track…lizard or dinosaur?


There are three different species of anoles on the island (though I only grabbed pics of two):


A crested anole (Anolis cristatellus) warily eying me while I was looking for fire ant mounds. These fellas are quite common and easily spotted since they take up prominent positions on tree trunks around the island while defending their territories. This one has a decent sized crest on its tail but some a truly spectacular.


A saddled anole (Anolis stratulus) displaying his brightly colored dewlap while posing on a tree limb. These lizards are often found on trunks on many islands in the Caribbean, but on Guana, because there are few competing species, they can be found on both tree trunks and the ground.


An itsy-bitsy hatchling saddled anole that Gail snagged in our walks over the island. It’s almost transparent!

The final anole species, Anolis pulchellus, is a grass anole that inhabits some of the more vegetated parts of the island. I saw three of these, including one sleeping while clinging to a branch, but in each case, I either didn’t have a camera handy or the anole was not willing to sit still to have its portrait made.

Guana’s most famous lizard is the highly endangered Stout Iguana (Cyclura pinguis). Just 30 years ago, there were fewer than 200 individuals of this species thought to occur in the world, and they were only located in one place: Anegada Island (part of the BVI). As part of Guana restoration efforts, Skip Lazell and the The Conservation Agency worked to restore iguana populations on Guana Island by transplanting some individuals from Anegada. This population is now doing well, with lots of adults and successful yearly reproduction. While we were there, other researchers had caught over 100 hatchlings born this year alone!


Large adults are commonly seen on the trails and make quite a racket as they go motoring through the brush. This one paused to express its displeasure with our disruption of its basking by bobbing its head at us. While this iguana breaks 10 lbs, some individuals over 40 lbs occur on Guana!


Hatchling stout iguanas were a common site on the island, especially around the orchard where we found this little tyke. The orchard provides lots of tasty fruits that allow hatchling igaunas to more than double their weight in their birth year. This one attempted to make a short dash up a tree away from me, but I got a quick snap of him peeking out from behind some foliage before I left him to his own devices.

Aside from the lizards, there are also two snake species on Guana. We spotted many individuals of one species, often called the Puerto Rican racer (Alsophis portoricensis) as they are active, diurnal hunters. We saw adults and hatchlings in the undergrowth or zipping across the dirt roads of the island.


The racers were easy to catch and surprisingly calm. I never even had one strike at me, though they are apparently slightly venomous if you let them gnaw on you for awhile.


The babies were quite cute with a pale yellow chinstripe.

Possibly the most dramatic wildlife moment I experienced on the trip involved the predation of a racer on a hatchling stout iguana (though I’ll have to narrate it as I was doing laundry at the time of the observation and, of course, not carrying a camera!). After a walk in search of walking sticks (the insect, not old people kind), I was called over to the main complex building to see a struggle to the death! A very large (pushing one meter in length) racer had snagged a hatchling stout iguana which had wandered into the “living room” of the resort. The snake had envenomated the lizard with a bite to the chest and surrounded the hatchling with its coils to hold it while the venom had its way with the lizard’s physiology. Upon seeing us, however, the snake released its potential prey and fled through the far door of the room. After a little while the lizard began slowly staggering around the living room and looked not long for the island, so we moved on to give the snake a second chance at a meal.

In the morning, the living room revealed a scene worthy of CSI. A trail of dried blood spiraled across the floor of the living room (presumably from the bite wound on the hatchling’s chest). As the trail approached the exit to the room, it suddenly became a tangled smear with a sizable pile of iguana poop at the end (perhaps a last ditch defensive mechanism?). Apparently this was the scene of the hatchling’s last stand (and the snake’s dinner buffet). While it’s sad to see a hatchling of a critically endangered species (maybe only 500 or so in the world!) meet its end, I found it encouraging to see that the species has recovered on Guana to the point where it is resuming its natural place in the ecosystem. Hatchling iguanas are important food sources for snakes and bird of prey, and, with the extent of reproduction for the stout iguanas on Guana Island, this reintegration of the species into the energy flow of the island is a good sign that the iguana is being reintegrated into its native ecosystem.

Lest I forget, there’s also one frog species on the island, Eleutherodactylus antillensis. This species is known locally as the Bo-peep Frog, as one of its calls sound a bit like Bo-Peep!


As soon as the slightest bit of rain would fall, these frogs would sprout into chorus all over the island, providing a relaxing soundtrack to the lovely tropical evenings.

There were, of course, many other amazing species present on the island, including some that we actually studied! You’ll have to wait to hear from Gail about our research, but I’ll leave you with one more photo:

Yup. That's a tarantula.

Yup. That’s a tarantula (Cyrtopholis bartholomei)

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The Riveting Life of Jumping Beans

by undergrad Cecilia Zemanek

Being placed in charge of my first independent research project my 3rd semester, I was very excited to get started. Maybe a little bit too excited, as I happily signed up to present a poster for Tracy’s Undergraduate Poster Exhibition that was less than two weeks away. Needless to say, I miraculously managed to pull something off in that time frame and was relieved to have something ready for the judges. While at the event, Tracy introduced me to freshman Greg Reiley, who apparently had a huge passion for jumping beans. Tracy told me how he was looking to get involved with some research, and asked if I would like some help with mine. After seeing how much work it took just to collect one round of initial data, I realized any help would be extremely beneficial.

bean1My project involves looking at why some jumping beans posses more of a propensity to jump than others. It was thought that maybe it had something to do with physical constraints, so Tracy and I devised an experiment that would test the number of jumps per bean versus larva and pod size, larva body condition, and larval activity outside of the pod.

Greg analyzing a grub's length, width, and area.

Greg analyzing a grub’s length, width, and area.

From the masses and dimensions of both, the size of the pod and the size of the grub were both compared to the number of jumps. Body condition of the grub was also taken into account, using the mass of the grub compared to its length and area.


Cutting open the bean reveals the grub inside!

Grub activity trial.

Grub activity trial.

It was very cool extracting the larva from its pod. Grub activity was observed with video analysis. I looked at the number of head thrashes, the number of grub contractions and distensions, and the number of grid lines crossed.


Measuring bean temperature.


One interesting thing I saw was that as the size of the Mexican jumping bean increased, the slower the temperature of the bean rose.





Greg hard at work!


Cecilia with jumping beans.


Many jumping beans!

Greg and I have been working hard collecting all the data we need. This week, we will be sitting down with Tracy to discuss the results. I am so appreciative to have the opportunity to work in such an amazing lab with such amazing people!


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Herpy Halloween!

While everyone else is dressing up as superheroes or their favorite monsters, sometimes herpetologists need to dress up as…herps! See below for some of the many variations on herp costumes that we’ve seen online and from friends over the past few weeks:

A fellow herpetologist, Matthew Lattanzio, sporting a Sceloporus undulatus halloween costume. Given the gorgeous badges this is likely a male, or a fabulously-bearded lady:



If Matt were hugging a tree, no one would be able to see him with that camouflage.

Some of the most amazing herp costumes I’ve seen are the work of professional costumers making them for education and outreach purposes:


This amazing mole kingsnake costume was made for the The Herp Project at UNCG by Sandy Durso, the mother of a friend (click on her name to link to her FB page for more costumes and photos!)



This sweet hellbender costume was made for the Buffalo Zoo by Ellen Paquette (click here for her blogpost on the process and to see her handmade plush hellbenders…Christmas presents?!?)

We’ve seen people dressed up as fire ants as well!:


Fire ants are attracted to candy, so this cute little fire ant will fit right in.


Fire ants are apparently pretty popular as mascots as well! You can check out this customized one here (with moving mandibles), or buy your own on Amazon (just $1300!)


And sometimes people dress up as fire ants (though this is a little fire ant, Wasmannia auropunctata) to spread invasive species awareness.

And last, but not least, sometimes people even dress up the herps themselves. Here’s a tortoise dressed up for the Ren Faire (Friar Tuck-His-Head-Inside-His-Shell perhaps?) by the Minnesota Herp Society to raise awareness and funds: