The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

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Alabama Part II: Prep for experiments!

Hello again! After my first trip down to Alabama, I ended up catching a lot of gravid female fence lizards. I ended bringing them back to Penn State so they could lay their eggs.

Individual housing so we could figure out who laid which eggs

Individual housing so we could figure out who laid which eggs

They took to their new homes very well, as they were furnished with a half log for basking/hiding, and sand for laying their eggs.

She wasn't going to share her new home with anyone!

She wasn’t going to share her new home with anyone!

We spent most of every day with them, whether it was cleaning their housing, doing behavioral observations, checking for eggs, or feeding them.

You can imagine which part was their favorite!

You can imagine which part was their favorite!

It took nearly a month for all the mothers to lay their eggs, and it was not without excitement. Most of them laid their eggs in the nice, moist sand we provided, and their eggs looked wonderful. However some decided to rebel against that idea and laid their eggs directly under the heat lamp! Needless to say, those eggs needed some TLC.

Finally, when it was reaching about the time for the eggs to start hatching, we headed back down to Solon Dixon, AL to get ready for the second round of field work. I brought 2 volunteers with me again, and they have been an incredible help, not only with doing the work down here, but also giving great ideas and making the trip much more enjoyable.

Lexi (L) and Michaleia (R)

Lexi (L) and Michaleia (R)

The first order of business was returning the mothers back to where we caught them. Luckily, they all posed for me to take nice picture,


Lizards going back home!

After the mothers were safely back to their natural habitats, we got started on the biggest part of the preparation phase, making the outdoor enclosures. To do this we used aluminum fencing buried 6-10 inches into the dirt, supported by metal electrical poles. To make our lives easier, we rented a trench digger to dig the trenches for us!

Imagine a giant skillsaw that you pull behind you.

Imagine a giant circular saw that you pull behind you.

Using that helped speed up enclosure building a lot, especially since we had 4 to build.

The finished product.

The finished product.

Even using the trencher, it took many long, hot days in the field to get everything ready. Luckily there are a few cool and refreshing escapes close by!

A freshwater spring at Solon Dixon.

A freshwater spring at Solon Dixon.

We returned once again to the spring at Solon Dixon, whose 60F water made the 100F days much more bearable. In addition to the cool temperature, the spring also has a wealth of different organisms. This time, in addition to all the fish and spiders, we saw a crawdad and a frog!

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Also, while waiting for some aluminum flashing to come in, we were able to take a short trip to Destin, FL. The sand and water were beautiful, and the amount of fish, jellyfish, and invertebrates (with a surprise appearance from a shark!) was incredible.

O'Steen Beach

O’Steen Beach

But after the relaxation time, it was back to work. Once the enclosures were up, we had to remove the fire ants from half of the enclosures to give us high and low stress enclosures.


The “Fire ant removal” gear.

To do this, you pound a piece of metal into the colony, and then flood it with hot water. Around this time, we started seeing wild fence lizard hatchlings.

A little guy trying to blend in with white rocks....he will learn how to blend in better!

A little guy trying to blend in with white rocks…    he will learn how to blend in better!

With those sightings, we knew that our hatchlings would be next. And sure enough, a few days later, we had our very first eggs hatch.

3 little guys just hatching.

3 little guys just hatching.

Now that the hatching has started, we get to start stocking the enclosures with baby fence lizards and running behavioral trials. I am very excited to be able to finally run experiments with the hatchlings! I look forward to letting you all know how the experiments went.
Till next time,


Langkilde Lab Road Show

While I just went to the Evolution meeting solo, we’re entering an exciting period of conference attendance for the Langkilde Lab. In the next few weeks, we’ll have contingents attending two important conferences! Read on to check out the titles and some brief previews of our upcoming presentations, as well as the details on where/when we’ll be speaking:


First up is the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR) in Lawrence, KS from July 30th through August 2nd. Tracy, Chris Howey, Mark Herr, and I will all be roadtripping it out there and back with one day, 15 hour drives each way….paaaaaarty! The meeting will feature lots of cool herp-related symposia and talks, as well as live animal shows, a herpetological quiz, a silent auction, closing picnic, and field trips to Kansas herp sites as well as awesome presentations by the folks in our lab, of course.

Mark Herr will be presenting in the Seibert-Ecology section (he won a special undergrad honorable mention last year and is back for a chance at more glory this summer!) He’ll be showing that fence lizards actually develop a taste for fire ants once they’ve experienced them. We’ve found that this effect occurs consistently over multiple time scales, including within a lifetime and across generations. Mark will be warming up the conference, taking the stage at 1:45 on Friday in the Jayhawk room.


I’ll be discussing how invasive fire ants have reversed geographical patterns in many aspects of fence lizard ecology, including their behavior, stress responses, and morphology, across their range in less than 75 years. I’ll be kickin’ it live on the final afternoon of the conference, August 2nd at 2:30 in the Alderson Auditorium. I’ll also be warming the stage for Rick Shine, eminent Australian herpetologist, Tracy’s former advisor, and future prez of SSAR, who’s come all the way from the Land Down Under just to attend this conference.


Tracy will be talking about her research testing the effects of fire ant-induced stress on antipredator behavior, immune function, and offspring fitness of native lizards. Our results reveal an adaptive role of the stress response for surviving environmental threats. She’ll knock ’em dead after Rick at 3:30 in the Alderson Auditorium on Sunday.


and Chris Howey will be giving a poster on “Thermal preference, performance, and kinematics of the black racer” (no preview for this one, you’ll have to see it in person!) at the poster session on Saturday.

Drop by and see us if you’re at the conference!


Just a week after returning from SSAR, we’ll also be attending the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Baltimore, MD from August 9th-14th. This is the centenary meeting of the society, so it is apparently going to be huge (maybe 5,000 people!?!). Perhaps a little intimidating, but there should be no shortage of awesome science on display. Gail, Chris, and I will all be headed down and giving talks.

Stressful events encountered early in ones lifetime can have lasting consequences into adulthood (e.g. humans that were abused during childhood often have increased risk of depression as adults). At ESA, Gail will be discussing whether fire ants attacks that occur during early life—or in previous generations!—affect the adult stress response in lizards. Check it out at 8:20 on Tuesday the 11th in Room 347 (get your coffee and come on down!)


I’ll be giving a very similar talk to that at SSAR (see above), but elaborating a little more on how invasive species can alter patterns in many traits over large spatial scales. So if you get the chance, drop by to hear it at 2:30 on Tuesday the 11th in Room 329!

Chris will be presenting on how a specific disturbance, prescribed fire, changes how black racers interact with their environment and leads to increases in energy expenditures.  However, racers in the disturbed habitat are able to balance these energy losses by increasing the amount of time they are active on the surface and the amount of food they consume. Chris will be on stage at 4:00 on Tuesday the 11th in Room 323.

Ecological Effects of a Disturbance Event on Habitat_ESA_2015

We hope to see you there!



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Jenny’s Mobile Office and Other Insights from a Dissertating Mother

One might say that the Langkilde Lab is extremely fecund. Over a four-year period we welcomed five babies to the lab! One could make several hypotheses to try to explain our reproductive success – something in the water, something in the air… personally, I think our fearless leader, Tracy Landkilde, has created a safe environment conducive to child rearing. But, whatever the reason, regardless of whether it is related to Langkilde Lab-ness, on April 30, 2014, I joined the parent circle.

Getting ready to head home from the hospital with my husband, Travis, and our daughter!

Getting ready to head home from the hospital with my husband, Travis, and our daughter!

After the visitors left, the Mylar balloons deflated, and the gifts stopped trickling in, I was hit with the reality about the remaining work I still needed to do in order to complete my dissertation. Decades ago, my grandmother had been a graduate student studying psychology at the University of Wisconsin, and had chosen to leave the program following the birth of her first child in order to support my grandfather, also a graduate student. This was during a time when work-life balance wasn’t a buzzword, and there was virtually no support for female scholars raising families. Determined to complete my PhD, and with many parent-scholar role models in my life (several from the Langkilde lab!), I devised a plan to find the time necessary to write my dissertation. Often the places and ways I worked were unusual at best. Below I have compiled a Top 6 list of sorts – that is, a list of the bizarre and peculiar places and ways a mother to an infant found the time to write her dissertation.


Jenny’s Top 6 List of Places & Ways I Wrote My Dissertation

  1. “Jenny’s Lair” – an affectionate term for the makeshift office I used during the three months we lived with my in-laws in Wisconsin: an attic bedroom accessed by a narrow closet that led to a Swedish-style step-ladder. Every time I had to go to the bathroom I had to carefully descend the steep ladder – one misstep would send me crashing into the wall (which happened).


  1. One-handed. I needed to hold my baby with at least one hand to support her while nursing. This meant I had one hand doing nothing. A dissertator mother can’t afford to have one hand doing nothing! So, I would grab my computer and hunt and peck away at the keyboard. And let me tell you, I got very speedy at one-handed typing!


  1. Coffee shops in the wee hours of the morning. Sometimes the best way to guarantee I would get work done was to wake up before my baby or my husband. Fortunately, we have a coffee shop that opens at 4:30am in my town!**


  1. Kneeling in a completely dark bedroom, except for the glow of my laptop. I needed to keep the light off so my daughter would sleep. I couldn’t leave the room because she had fallen asleep on our bed and might roll off. I couldn’t put her in her own bed or she would wake up during the transfer. Solution? I grabbed the nearest cardboard box to use as a desk, and resumed my work in the dark.


  1. On my belly on the floor, laptop in front of me, with a sleeping baby sprawled lengthwise along the crook of the backside of my legs. She wanted to sleep so badly, but wouldn’t do it unless her body was touching mine.


  1. Jenny’s Mobile Office. My daughter’s naps were predictably unpredictable. They always occurred, but only when she finally surrendered to let sleep overtake her enthusiasm for having fun (I can’t imagine who she got that from…). Often she would fall asleep in the car on the way back from an outing, but would awake the moment I brought her inside. Since, as any parent knows, the spare moments gifted by nap time are as valuable as gold, especially for someone trying to write a dissertation, I was determined to find a way to keep my sleeping baby asleep! And so, I created Jenny’s Mobile Office. I put a lap desk in the back of my car, and anytime my daughter fell asleep while she was riding in the car, I would pull over, hop into the back luggage area, fold up my legs so that I just fit, open my laptop and work on my dissertation. The best part about this strategy? The views!


A glimpse of Jenny's Mobile Office. Desk, computer, back support, sleeping baby in car seat nearby - what more could a dissertating mother need?

A glimpse of Jenny’s Mobile Office. Desk, computer, back support, sleeping baby in car seat nearby – what more could a dissertating mother need?

One of the million-dollar views from Jenny’s Mobile Office – Bellingham Bay, looking toward Lummi Island and beyond, Orcas Island.

One of the million-dollar views from Jenny’s Mobile Office – Bellingham Bay, looking toward Lummi Island and beyond, Orcas Island.









I am delighted to say all of these peculiar places and ways I wrote my dissertation paid off. On Sunday, May 10 – coincidentally, also Mother’s Day – I received the best Mother’s Day present one could imagine: I walked across the stage at Penn State University clutching my diploma, with Tracy escorting me, my own mother beaming in the audience.

My PhD graduation fell on Mother’s Day – what an appropriate way to celebrate the accomplishments of a dissertator mother.

My PhD graduation fell on Mother’s Day – what an appropriate way to celebrate the accomplishments of a dissertator mother.

**This blog post was written in the wee hours of the morning: see List item #4


You Say You Went to Evolution, Well You Know…

During the past two weeks, I had the great opportunity to travel to Guarujá, Brazil for the Evolution 2015 meeting, a joint meeting of the Society of Systematic Biologists (SSB), American Society of Naturalists (ASN), and the Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). The trip down was super easy thanks to a not-very-full flight from Detroit straight to São Paolo (meaning only one layover!), and a conference shuttle from there to Guarujá. While Guarujá is a beach town on the southern Atlantic coast, it is currently the Brazilian winter, meaning that high temperatures on most days were only about 80 (the horror!), and nights were breezy and cool. I actually didn’t get in the water at all (so busy with the conference!), but the beach itself was lovely and full of quiosques (kiosks) selling snacks, sodas, and beers.


Sign outside the exhibition hall welcoming participants to Evolution 2015.

The conference consisted of days of talks followed by a social mixer, a special presidential lecture for each of the societies, and then a poster session, meaning there were activities from 8:30 am to 9:00 pm each day, with a break for lunch and two coffee breaks (the amount of coffee consumed was truly incredible….I did my own share). Fortunately the conference provided lots of snacks and finger foods that many folks (including me) made meals of, allowing us to avoid the pesky timesink of actually going to dinners. What adaptiveness!


In the exhibition hall, researchers could view posters or the beach, which was just outside!

Talks were organized into sessions of 6 or 12 presentations focused on a common theme (e.g. Speciation, Hybridization, Adaptation…), and talks were 12 minutes long, followed by three minutes for questions from the audience (though of course many presenters talked too long and had no time for questions…boooooooooooo). The conference featured six to seven concurrent sessions, so there were plenty of options for finding interesting science to learn about.


In addition to interesting science, there were also fire ants (Solenopsis) at the conference (though a different species than we have here in the US).

I gave my talk as a Hamilton Award Finalist. The Hamilton Award is sponsored by the SSE and given to the student presenting an outstanding talk at the meeting. It was an honor to be in the group of students presenting these talks (it was probably the best session I attended), and being a finalist also came with financial support from SSE (thanks to them!) which allowed me to attend the meeting in the first place. My talk, “An invasive predator, the red imported fire ant, alters latitudinal gradients of multiple traits in a native lizard” focused on how fire ants are altering latitudinal gradients in fence lizard traits, including behavior, stress responsiveness, and morphology. While previous lab research has shown that fire ant invasion affects the values of these traits, this new research extends our knowledge of these traits to the whole range of fence lizards and allows us to show that the changes we’re seeing due to fire ants are the opposite of the trends we see in areas without fire ants. This implies that fire ants can cause very strong changes in fence lizards (and maybe other species) over large areas and short times. More on this when we actually write it up for publication!


Celebrating finishing my talk the classy way: with a whole bag of Baconzitos!

In addition to giving my own talk, I also saw lots of sweet presentations at the conference. One of my favorites was entitled “Moth tails divert bat attack: Evolution of acoustic deflection” by Akito Kawahara, curator at the Florida Museum of Natural History. Akito covered the different ways in which moths can defend themselves from one of their primary predators, insectivorous bats, including acoustic aposematism, by which moths use sound to signal their unpalatability to bats, and acoustic jamming, where moths produce sounds that disrupt the echolocation abilities of bats. Akito’s research looked into why some moths, such as luna moths, have long, spiraling tails. Along with his collaborators, he found that the twirling tails scatter the echolocation signals produced by bats, convincing them that the tails are the largest target on the moth’s body. The bats often attack the tails, allowing the moth to escape with the cost of losing a tail…this can essentially give the moth two “extra lives.” For more info, check out this longer write-up (with cool videos!) from Ed Yong or read the published article.

By the last day of the conference, many attendees were pretty burnt out due to the near-constant inpouring of high-quality scientific information into our brains, so my roommate Peter and I decided to sneak away for the later half of the day and look for herps. We asked the incredibly helpful Carlos (one of our awesome hotel’s desk managers) if he knew where we might see some lizards or frogs, and he recommended a trail near his house on the southern edge of town. We hopped a taxi to a really beautiful beach, climbed across an aqueduct, and hiked a narrow trail over a mini-mountain right on the coast.


The Praia do Guiauba in the south of town, along with the “mountain” we hiked over. Very nice!

We were rewarded with a steep descent down a slippery mountain streambed onto a rocky cove with awesome views out to a local island.


Just a quick hike through some coastal forest.

On the return journey, we explored further up the stream and looked for frogs, finding two different species (of which we only got pictures of one….someone, I won’t say who, dropped the only specimen of the other before we could get pictures…). The one frog that did stay with us long enough for a picture is probably in the genus Physalaemus, and might be P. moreirae, an endemic to the area. I also accidentally stuck a rusty pipe into my elbow and had to get Peter to remove some pieces from my flesh once we returned to the hotel, but, since I’m up to date on my tetanus shots, the drama stops there.


Physalaemus are often called “dwarf frogs”, and as this guy was <1 inch, it’s not hard to see why!

After talking a security guard into calling a cab for us so we could actually return to the conference, we had a huge dinner of grilled fish and steak at a beachside restaurant before attending the final evening’s Super Social. Yes, it was actually listed in the program that way, and it did turn out to be quite super. Awards were announced, including those for the Hamilton Award (Alas, I did not win, despite making the most people laugh during my presentation… unfortunately that wasn’t one of the criteria on the grading rubric!). The social continued with an epic 4-hrs-with-no-breaks performance by a Brazilian cover band, featuring backup dancers, choreographed line dances, and costume changes. They ran through sets including Queen covers, classic rock, contemporary club, country, Brazilian hits, and disco. While I was dancing down in front with my friends, I felt a hand on my shoulder and turned around to find the lead singer pulling me onto the stage to do one of the choreographed dances. There was nothing else for it except to kill it onstage as a Brazilian rockstar, so I laid down my best moves to represent for the American contingent at the conference. To the best of my knowledge (and quite fortunately) no video or photographic evidence exists of this, so I’ll give you a pic I stole from a friend’s Facebook of the “country” music portion of the show.


Country music at its finest.

After the conference, I took a few days to travel around Brazil on my own. I visited Ilhabela, an island to the north of Guarujá that is 85% preserved as a park of the Mata Atlântica, the threatened Atlantic Forest biome. I stayed at a beautiful suite in a jungleiferous location, which independently hosted several other travelers from the Evolution conference.


Breakfast was on this porch, and the view was delicious!

While it was a bit chilly for herps, there were lots of beautiful endotherms (birds) present.

I also hopped on a diesel Land Rover for a 2 hr. jaunt along the one rutted, mountain road that leads across the island. On the other side I explored an awesome waterfall, Cachoeira do Gato, and mucked around in the rainforest looking for critters.


The Cachoeira do Gato adding more mist to an already cloudy day in the rain forest.


An unidentified frog I found in one of the streams near the waterfall. He was cold and not interested in fleeing. Perhaps some lessons from the fence lizards are in order.

I also hiked on the beautiful Praia dos Castelhanos (even though it was a cloudy day) and got eaten alive by the local borrachudos, a biting fly that left bloody streaks on my ankles…awesome!


Praia do Gato, just downstream from the waterfall. What you can’t see are the bloodletting insects swarming me while taking this panorama.

After hopping another night bus to Rio, I met up with an old friend and revisited some haunts in the city, including the iconic Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf) mountain.


Rio is pretty.


Probably the most topographically diverse city I have ever seen. The camera does not do it justice.

I also explored the Floresta Tijuca, and made some interesting finds, including seeing a rusty-margined guan, pretty waterfalls, a lost iphone, and one amazing moth.


Neato moth with clear spots in its wings. Something in the genus Rothschildia, I think…

I rounded out my journey with another night bus to return to São Paolo and a visit to the Instituto Butantan, a pioneering research center for snakes and snake venom treatment. They also have a collection of native herps and an old school, open air serpentarium, though given that temperatures were in the fifties, the outdoor snakes weren’t in the mood to be very active.


A captive golden lancehead viper (Bothrops insularis), a critically endangered snake endemic to only one island, Ilha da Queimada Grande, off the coast of Brazil.

On the whole the trip was a great educational experience, but I was super happy to return to the states and sleep in my own bed! In another week or so, I’ll start thinking about my next conference, the SSAR Herp meeting at the University of Kansas coming up in less than a month!