The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

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Attracting Unwanted Attention

I’ve certainly attracted my share of unwanted attention: missing a key free throw in a basketball game when everyone in the crowd was watching, faceplanting while exiting stage right in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, or unconsciously ripping a huge burp at a fancy dinner. Fortunately, as a human, the stakes involved in these mistakes were fairly low: a little embarrassment and a good story once the shame had worn off. For many organisms, like lizards, however, attracting unwanted attention in the real world can have serious consequences…

From previous research in the Langkilde Lab, we know that invasive fire ants (Solenopsis invicta) can pose a serious danger to native fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus), and that fence lizards from areas invaded by fire ants respond to encounters with these ants with a variety of twitches and scratches to remove ants as well as fleeing more often to escape them.

We know little, however, about the behavioral rules that govern fleeing and twitching in these lizards. Do they flee more from all predators? Do they flee from all ants? We know the benefit of twitching and fleeing (not getting stung!), but is there any cost to these behaviors? Because we’re ecologists, we looked to answer these questions by conducting a series of experiments and published them in Animal Behaviour.

So, do fence lizards from fire ant-invaded areas flee more from other predators? Because we couldn’t let actual predators attack our lizards, I borrowed a stuffed kestrel (Falco sparverius, a well-known predator of fence lizards), rigged it with a wire harness, attached some very serious and scary-looking eyes, and swung it at unprepared fence lizards to see what their reactions would be.

Taxidermied kestrels are mostly as scary as the real thing.

We found that fence lizards from sites with and without fire ants fled from simulated kestrel attacks the same proportion of the time, and with the same strength and latency (reaction time), suggesting that fence lizards exposed to fire ants don’t flee more from all predators.

We next tested our fence lizards’ reactions to fire ants (which we’ve done before) as well as two types of native ants which might annoy lizards by running on them, but lack the venom (and danger) of fire ants. In fact, these native ants are important sources of food for fence lizards under normal circumstances. In these tests, we found that fence lizards from sites with fire ants fled more from all types of ants, not just fire ants, indicating that this fleeing behavior is generalized to multiple types of ants that they encounter, including those that don’t pose a serious danger.

For the more visually oriented, this series of experiments was illustrated super-well by Tali Hammond, a behavioral ecologist, who was interested in the paper (check out that sweet Sceloporus!)

Check out more illustrated papers by Tali: @mammalLady

So what might the consequences of this generalization be for fence lizards? For one, it’s obviously not ideal to be running away from something (i.e., native ants) that isn’t a threat and should be a meal. This could result in lower food intake or time wasted running away from non-dangerous ants, though we haven’t tested for these effects. More dramatically, twitching and fleeing break crypsis, a lizard’s primary defense against its visually hunting predators, including snakes, and birds of prey like the kestrel. While fence lizards are usually quite well camouflaged, imagine how easy it might be for a predator to spot a lizard jerking around as in the video above. We looked for evidence of this cost in our lizards by quantifying the amount of injuries (broken tails, scars, missing limbs) to lizards at sites with and without fire ants.

A missing “hand” is an example of injuries many fence lizards have.

We found that lizards from sites with fire ants do indeed have more of these injuries than lizards at sites without fire ants. This result suggests that fleeing from fire ants might attract unwanted attention from other types of predators. And when we consider that these lizards also flee more from native ants, which are common in the environment, these antipredator behaviors might have a serious drawback. It is important to note that this evidence is circumstantial; we didn’t see predators preying on lizards running from ants (this would be very difficult), and there could be other explanations for this pattern, such as differences in predator communities, or perhaps differing skill levels of predators. However, this work suggests that lizard that twitch and flee in response to ants may be attacked more.

So why do we see this behavior if it has these drawbacks? My personal guess is that it comes down to consequences. As a human, the consequences of my unwanted attention were fairly minor (shame). The stakes for fence lizards are a bit higher: fleeing can lead to running from your own dinner or attracting attention from predators. BUT the costs of not fleeing when attacked by fire ants are likely even higher (serious injury or death). And in many areas fire ants are much more common and likely to interact with lizards more frequently than snakes and kestrels. In other words, the lizards are likely making the best choice available to them. In the future, perhaps, they will adapt to distinguish between dangerous and native ants, allowing them to make more optimal decisions, and reduce the costs of these antipredator behaviors. More broadly speaking, I believe this research shows that we need to consider a wide variety of potential costs as well as benefits when looking at organisms adapting to changes in their environments.

The full paper in Animal Behaviour can be found here.


All Good Things…

There is unrest in the Langkilde Lab. Several members have declared their intention to graduate and leave the Penn State University.

This graduatist movement, under the leadership of the mysterious Doctor Thawley, will make it difficult for the limited number of graduate students left to maintain scientific rigor and order in the fence lizard universe.

Principal Investigator Tracy, the Head of the Biology Department, returns to the field to orchestrate the critical succession of power and saurian expertise in the upcoming research season….

A More Dramatic Version…

The past few weeks have been eventful ones in the Langkilde Lab. Gail and I were both repping the lab at the inaugural Graduate Student Awards Luncheon. I received the Intercollege Graduate Student Outreach Achievement Award, an award close to my heart, for bringing research to the community and “commitment to advancing the welfare of the public through scholarly pursuits.” Gail received her highly prestigious Penn State Alumni Association Dissertation Award which included a very spiffy and heavy Distinguished Doctoral Scholar Medal. Previous lab members have received both of these awards, and we hope that our new lab members will continue this tradition of excellence and outreach!


Gail receiving her totally legit medallion from Penn State President, Dr. Eric Barron.

Gail and I also both graduated this past Sunday. It was a great chance to hang out in the last row of the huge auditorium and crack jokes with Tracy, observe the diverse footwear of graduating graduate students, and attempt to determine the school with the most awesome PhD robes.


We were totally serious throughout the entire two hour ceremony.

Unlike some other awards ceremonies (*cough* Awards Luncheon *cough*), we were allowed to sit and walk together which was great. None of us tripped while negotiating the steep, narrow stairs to the stage, and I even managed to shake the President’s hand with something approaching poise.


I was the only graduate wearing formal Birkenstocks at the ceremony.

Afterwards, we gathered outside with our families and friends for a few pics to document our snazzy regalia and the fact that an institute of higher learning actually saw fit to give us advanced degrees.


That’s a wrap!

Lab Undergraduate Extraordinaire, Mark Herr, graduated as well (though we have no photographic evidence of this). Mark has worked in the lab for four years and published several papers. In recognition of his work, Mark received several lab commendations, including a certificate of excellence for Use of the Word “Devastating” on a Daily Basis and the Award for Forcing the Creation of a Special SSAR Award for Undergraduates.


Mark Herr is recognized for his efforts to reintroduce large mammalian predators to control overpopulation.

In spite of these losses, a new hope has arisen in the next generation of lab graduate students and post-doctoral scholars.

Tracy is leading the bulk of the lab force, including post-doc Kirsty and graduate students Cam, Dustin, David, and Michaleia, to Solon Dixon, where an old ally, Nicole Freidenfelds, will help them discover clues as to how maternal stress hormones influence behavior, stress physiology, and metabolism.

Gail has volunteered for one final mission in the field: training a team of lizard neophytes including Braulio and Caty to capture fence lizards, especially gravid females, at sites in Arkansas and Tennessee that remain uninvaded by fire ants. This team will return to the lab and allow these female lizards to lay their eggs. They hope to determine if ladies bearing typically male characteristics, in this case blue throat badges (“beards”), also have bearded offspring.

Stay tuned this summer for more exciting developments in the fence lizard universe!

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Even Mining Bees Do It

Animal life of all sorts was springing into action in Central PA this past week. The other day as I was prepping my bike to head into the lab, I noticed a fair bit of activity centered on the pair of dandelions (Taraxacum officinale) just outside my door. Dandelions are one of the first flowers to appear in the Spring and serve as important early sources of food for many pollen-oriented insects.

Upon further inspection, I noticed that a solitary female bee was feeding on one of the dandelion’s pollen and attracting attention from several suitors. Right as I returned with my camera, one of the male bees latched on to the female, and I settled in to observe the proceedings:

In the footage, you can see the male bee attempt multiple matings with the female (and seem to succeed several times). The female seems largely ambivalent to his attentions, preferring to devote herself to the delicious pollen repast in front of her and grooming her shapely antennae. At several points, other, less fortunate suitors make a quick pass at the lucky couple, but do not dislodge the primary male. The bees appear to be members of the genus Andrena, a diverse group of solitary mining bees found throughout the world (Thanks to Dr. Heather Hines for ID help!). These bees are a sign of Spring in many areas. Male bees often become active first and search for emerging females to mate with. Afterwards, they may conduct mate-guarding to prevent other suitors from fertilizing their mate’s eggs and increasing their offspring (and fitness). Happily, we had just talked about this in my Animal Behavior class (Biol 429), so I was able to use the footage you see above as an intro to my next class.

As the weather gets warmer (barring this past weekends’s snow (!) here), I’m looking forward to seeing many more species becoming active and all the neat behaviors they’ll be displaying.

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But Do They Make Omelets?

Short answer: Nope. Fire ants like their lizard eggs raw. Our recently accepted paper in the Journal of Herpetology “Invasive Fire Ant (Solenopsis invicta) Predation of Eastern Fence Lizard (Sceloporus undulatus) eggs” shows that fire ants do indeed eat fence lizard eggs in a natural setting, but, despite being known as “fire” ants, these hymenopterans haven’t quite mastered the art of cooking their food prior to chowing down. Get your non-final, still with a couple of mistakes, pre-print copy online (paywalled) or download one from this blog (posted for personal use of our readers courtesy of SSAR)!

At this point, you may be asking yourself, “Why should I care if fire ants eat fence lizard eggs?”, so I’ll discuss the impetus behind this project. Previous research in the lab had given us a good idea of how fire ants can impact juvenile and adult fence lizards: they are found frequently on the ground by fire ants, stung if they don’t run away, and can be envenomated when eating fire ants. BUT we knew incredibly little about what impacts fire ants might have on one unexplored life stage of fence lizards: eggs! And unlike juveniles and adults, these eggs can’t flee or twitch when attacked by fire ants; they remain in a nest for 55-70 days (depending on site and temperature), during which time they might be vulnerable to fire ants. Additionally, fence lizards often (though not always) prefer sandy sites with low canopy cover, where sunlight can warm the nest, exactly the type of microhabitat beloved by fire ants. And fence lizards build their nests 4-8 cm underground, right at the same depths where fire ants construct their underground foraging tunnels. We surmised that fire ants might come into contact with fence lizard eggs with some frequency, and, if fire ants ate the eggs, this might have a large impact on fence lizard populations.

Fire ants are known to eat the eggs of other reptiles, including those of snakes, turtles, and some lizards (such as anoles). To determine if fire ants were physically capable of eating fence lizard eggs, Jill Newman (a former lab undergrad who just started her master’s at Clemson…wooooooo!), Tracy, and I designed a small experiment. We presented fence lizard eggs to captive fire ant colonies and observed them penetrate the eggs in less than 30 minutes…a rather dramatic response! However, we also wanted to see whether fire ants might eat fence lizard eggs under more natural conditions. To address this, Jill dug holes in the ground to the depth of fence lizard nests and placed 12 eggs near fire ant mounds overnight. Upon examination, 11 of the 12 eggs had been punctured and eaten in less than a day!

The next summer, I designed a follow-up experiment to learn more about this type of predation. Specifically, I wanted to know how many eggs fire ants might eat, how quickly they might find them, and whether any environmental variables, like distance of a fence lizard nest from a fire ant mound, might affect predation. To address this, I started by collecting fence lizard eggs. A LOT of fence lizard eggs (over 150!…I resisted the urge to make my own omelet).

I couldn’t, however, just bury the eggs in the ground and check them after 24 hours (as Jill did) to answer my question about how long eggs might survive…I had to be (a little) creative. After reading about a similar problem faced by Kurt Buhlmann and his solution when he wanted to monitor turtle eggs, I developed a method allowing me to monitor the eggs daily without disturbing them (which might attract fire ants and increase predation).

For each nest, I dug a hole into the ground and sunk into it a clear, capped acrylic tube. I carefully replaced the sandy soil around each tube and placed six eggs (a small, but reasonable size for a fence lizard nest) next to the tube. I inserted a small piece of plastic transparency above the eggs and then carefully covered the whole arrangement with the soil. The transparency prevented soil from entering between the eggs and the acrylic tube, and, by lowering a video camera into the tube, I could count the eggs and see if they were being attacked by ants (or other predators). At each “nest” I also measured the amount of canopy cover and the distance to the nearest fire ant mound.


Diagram of nest tube with camera for viewing eggs underground.


…aaaaand what one of them looks like in the ground.

Each day, for up to 20 days, I monitored the nests and recorded if all the eggs were present. If I found ants attacking the eggs, I waited a few hours to let them eat the eggs (or at least let them make a start) and then dug up the nest to catch and identify some of the ants. I can definitively say that fire ants do not like to be disturbed when they are in the middle of a meal! Because of our innovative setup, it only took about 3 minutes a day to monitor each nest (check out a couple of examples below).

In our trials, we found that 24% of nests were attacked by fire ants within 20 days. Extrapolating this to the full incubation period of fence lizards using a mathematical model, we estimated that up to 61% of fence lizard nests are in danger of being preyed on by fire ants. We also did not find any relationship between how far nests were from fire ant mounds and how likely they were to be eaten. Given the high densities of fire ants at many areas in the Southeast, it seems likely that fire ants prey on a substantial portion of fence lizard nests in the wild. Of course, we know that fence lizard populations where we do our research are not in danger of disappearing. Fence lizards are doing fine even in the face of this predation, which is great news, and suggests that survival in other parts of a fence lizard’s life or high reproductive output may allow them to persist in fire ant invaded areas. In the future, I am aiming to build mathematical population models to understand the impacts of egg predation by fire ants, and see how this predation may affect populations over the long term.

One other point of note is that, for many species of southeastern herps that are declining, such as kingsnakes or southern hognose snakes, fire ants are often suggested as a culprit without any definitive proof. My project suggests that fire ants can indeed prey on large portions of the nests of some species, but also shows that one species is doing just fine even when fire ants may be making a buffet of about half of its nests. Moving forward, I would recommend that lab and field trials like those we’ve done be used to pinpoint if fire ants are indeed a threat to the eggs of these other species, and, if so, what proportion of nests are at risk.

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Classing Up Scientific Outreach

I’ve loved teaching since I was a middle school science teacher all the way back in 2005 (oh dear!). But, as a Penn State graduate student, it can be tough to find ways to bring science to kids and even more difficult to get experience teaching a class at the university level. To reach kids with cool science education opportunities, many graduate students, including me, build outreach activities for different venues (which I’ve discussed on this blog before). But is there a way to meet both these goals, doing community outreach and gaining experience with more formal teaching, at the same time? In short, yes!

About a year ago, I, and two friends who are also Biology graduate students, Allison Lewis and Zach Fuller, were being stereotypical graduate students and lamenting our lots in life. We’re supposed to be educators but the University won’t let us teach classes to get experience! Are we spending all this time doing outreach for nothing? Will anyone use our materials again? Why are we so whiny? Fortunately, bewailing the status quo can lead to good things if you get an idea for positive change. Zach, Allison, and I decided that the solution was to incorporate our outreach experiences into a class that would facilitate other students in conducting their own outreach from their own experience.

We first went to work convincing the University to actually let us teach a class. It is harder than you might think to actually teach at a university: there are many hidden requirements I never knew about and lots and lots of paperwork. To cut through this red tape rehash, I’ll finish by saying that we A) went all the way to the Dean to get permission to teach an outreach class (with a major assist from some supportive Biology faculty) and B) got a workable budget, a room to host the class, and a spot with the University Registrar. At long last, BIOL 497F, Science Outreach and Communication, a 1 credit class was born!


The snazzy flyer for our class that we blitzed PSU with.

Of course, we also needed actual students for our class. We made up flyers and became very familiar with the distribution of bulletin boards in University Park. We spammed listservs and spammed them again. We asked our friends for recommendations, got the emails of incoming students before they were on campus, and plied professors for the emails of students they would recommend to take our class. By August, we had 13 enrolled students: 10 graduate and 3 undergrads. These students came into the class with a mix of backgrounds including neuroscience, biology, entomology, anthropology and ecology.

The first portion of our class focused on teaching a core set of skills: how to tailor activities to different age levels and audiences, how to design and plan effective outreach, and how to evaluate learning. We collaborated with professional educators from different University entities, including Mike Zeman from the Eberly College of Science Outreach Office and Larkin Hood from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence to bring their expertise to our class (thanks guys!). Our students worked in small groups to build their own lesson plans for an initial outreach activity and then presented those to the rest of the class for feedback. We worked as a group to provide constructive criticism and refine these activities to increase their focus and effectiveness. In the midst of this, we included several classes focused on other important science communication topics including writing for a general audience, the importance of outreach in grant-writing, and a panel discussion with professional scientists who are successfully incorporating outreach into their research and careers.

At last, after much practice, cutting out of small paper shapes, tasting starbursts, and wrangling stick insects, the first outreach program (and major grade!) of the class arrived on November 10th as our students presented their own outreach activities at Exploration U at the Bellefonte Area High School. Exploration U is a biannual science fair run by the Science Outreach Office in which Penn State scientists and community groups present short, interesting activities about their research or other scientific topics for community children and their parents (hundreds of them at each event!). Some of the more dramatic activities include an inflatable planetarium, making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, a snake handling exhibit (not venomous ones!) and battling robots. Five groups from our class spent the evening discussing various aspects of science with the crowds.


Kevin and Arash showing off their Bug-O-Vision activity.

Have you ever wondered how another organism experiences the world? Arash Maleki and Kevin Cloonan taught attendees how insects perceive the world differently from humans. Using colored glasses, they described how insects see different parts of the spectrum from humans and how insects may see “secret messages” such as targets or directional signals on flowers that are not visible to our naked eyes.

NC Botanical Gardens (1)

Check out lots of other awesome pics of how flowers look to different organisms at Dr. Klaus Schmitt’s blog.

Cam Venable, Emilia Sola-Gracia, and David Stupski addressed the question of how plants are found everywhere when they don’t get up and walk (or fly or swim) like animals do. The answer is, of course, that their seeds do move, including via wind, water, and dispersal by animals. The kids loved an activity where they were able to make their own seed (with the aid of a little Velcro) and attempt to disperse it by tossing onto a passing fuzzy felt dog.


Emilia shows a youngling the best way to “disperse” the seed he’s just constructed.

Styles Smith, Kokila Shankar, and Christian John created an activity that emphasized how animals’ limbs are adapted for the environments that they inhabit. Kids worked to match the skeletal structure of limbs to the animals that used them and then designed their own animals with different types of limbs. At the end of the activity, kids drew the habitat that their animal creations lived in and explained how their creatures were adapted to it.


Styles describes how to go about designing an organism while a participant and her brainy younger brother listen.

Have you ever wondered why some folks just can’t eat their Brussel sprouts? Rebecca Coleman, Chloe Philip, and Chris Schmidt designed an activity explaining the heritability of taste, specifically focusing on why some are sensitive to bitterness (such as in those cursed sprouts) and others seem relatively immune. Kids and their parents tasted both sweet, sweet candy (Dum-dums) and a paper imbued with PTC, a chemical which tastes nastily bitter to a portion of the population. Chloe, Chris, and Becki used this experience as an entree to discuss how traits are coded for in our DNA and how these are passed between generations.


As Becki and Chloe explain how traits are inherited, these kids are really developing a taste for science.

Carolyn Trietsch and Sarah Shugrue focused on how insects are adapted for different environments via camouflage, which prevents unwanted attention from predators (or allows predators to set up ambushes for unsuspecting prey)! They created an activity for kids to match bugs to their natural backgrounds and find hidden, camouflaged insects, including several live Vietnamese stick insects (which fascinated adults as well as the kids)!


A young Darth Vader stays on the Light Side by gently petting a stick insect.

All in all, our class’ outreach night was successful as an educational experience both for the families who attended and the students in our class, who gained valuable experience. Moving forward, these students are designing and conducting their own independent outreach activities. Some lessons include: the use and importance of photography, including via drones (!), in biological research at State College High, demos of insect life cycles at Mount Nittany Middle School, and a scientist-in-the-classroom visit via Skype to a Philly elementary school to discuss how awesome ants are! We’re proud of the creativity and dedicated work that our students have put in over the semester and are excited to see them continue to do outreach in the future. For me, this class has provided great experience: in designing a class from the ground up, learning to navigate bureaucratic pitfalls, and co-teaching a class with two other dedicated instructors. It’s also been inspirational to see the impact that a small but dedicated group of students can have in advancing scientific education. Looking forward we hope to make this class a yearly offering in the College of Science to encourage a growing culture of scientific outreach in the graduate student community.

If you’re interested in seeing a syllabus for this class, here you go!

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Winter Is Coming; Herp While You Can

Since my summer has been full of writing and conferences and decidedly empty of time spent working with reptiles and amphibians, I decided to take advantage of a recent family wedding (congrats Tanya!) and do some herping in North Carolina, a state I haven’t spent much time in since my undergraduate days in the Herpetology Lab at Davidson College.

Even before arrival at my final destination, I spotted a promising sign: a green anole (Anolis carolinensis) out basking in the afternoon sun near the Forest Service office.


Ahhhh, sunlight.

I camped in the Uwharrie National Forest, a relatively small national forest with some nice campsites on Badin Lake.

Yep, pretty nice alright.

Yep, pretty nice alright.

While it’s been getting chilly here in State College, the climate in NC is still rather balmy with daytime temperatures in the 70’s and nighttime temps warm enough for a little reptile activity, at least on the roads. Unfortunately, warm roads with cars and cool weather are a pretty good recipe for snake deaths, and the first snake of the trip was a DOR (dead-on-road) scarlet kingsnake (Lampropeltis elapsoides). These gorgeous snakes are coral snake mimics and can be an unusual find.


DOR snakes often look a little bug-eyed…:*(

A full day of hiking around Badin Lake, and through streams and backwoods resulted in a decent turnout, including many of the usual suspects:


Bullfrogs (Lithobates catesbeiana) were common along the shoreline of the lake and in adjacent streams.


The most surprising thing about finding this black racer (Coluber constrictor) was that it didn’t bite me….what?!?


This little brown skink (Scincella lateralis), was moseying through the leaf litter in a sunny patch along the lakeshore. And yes, that is its “official” common name. Scientists are so creative!


Northern cricket frogs (Acris crepitans) were abundant throughout the forest and easy to spot as they used their outrageously long jumps (> 3 ft for a frog <2 in!) to escape approaching humans (me).


Northern dusky salamanders (Desmognathus fuscus) were holding out in a small spring seep in an area surrounded by muddy creeks and lots of horse poop.


Upland chorus frogs (Pseudacris feriarum) were active, but not chorusing, on a cloudy day.



This hatchling midland water snake (Nerodia sipedon pleuralis) was none to pleased to be removed from its natal creek (and bit me numerous times, as watersnakes are wont to do).


However, it calmed down (a bit) when return to its aquatic environs.

On the way back to PA, I couldn’t resist targeting one specific species, the Peaks of Otter salamander (Plethodon hubrichti). This species is found only along a 13 mile stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway near Peaks of Otter (surprise!) in southern Virginia and is under review to be considered federally threatened or endangered due to its very limited range. This salamander is named after the eminent citizen naturalist Leslie Hubricht (who also discovered the Red Hills salamander) and was so named after a bit of scientific skullduggery (you can read the story here). Finding this species was no problem thanks to a tip on a great locality from ex-Langkilde Lab member Sean Graham. I’d found a few, snapped a couple of pics, and was on my way home in under 15 minutes.


These ‘manders were all dirty from their stay under the local rocks, but, as I didn’t want to disturb the population too much, I settled for some slightly less polished photos.

And of course, I couldn’t resist stopping at some of the awesome overlooks scattered along the Parkway.


Even on a cloudy day, the fall colors were still very nice (even for a colorblind viewer!)

And with that, I’ll enter a long, dark winter of writing and working towards finishing my dissertation!

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We’re Not In Kansas Anymore…

…but we were last week! Tracy, Chris (Howey), Mark, and I roadtripped it from State College, PA to Lawrence, KS to attend the 2015 SSAR annual meeting, where we presented our research, heard lots of other exciting presentations, and had a great time. While the following is a travelogue of the past week for us, you can also check out the content of the research that we presented on.

Our travels began despairingly early (5:55 am) on a Thursday morning with Tracy picking me up from my place, subsequently rounding up the rest of the lab, and obtaining our fleet vehicle (a newish Chevy Impala named “Vlad”). One look at the GPS revealed how far we had to go: 1,021 miles to Lawrence.


It doesn’t look very far on this map…

The drive was filled with all sorts of fascinating sights and occurrences:


We started out with high levels of excitement!


The corn in Ohio was beautiful for the first hour or so….


but we were soon grateful for a change of state.


However, the corn in Indiana looked almost exactly the same as that in Ohio.

Upon seeing the vasts swathes of corn billowing across the landscape, Mark Herr, resident undergraduate student extraordinaire, asked perhaps the most profound question of the trip: “Is popcorn corn?” The older and wiser among us proceeded to explain that popcorn is indeed corn (Zea mays, though there are specific varieties that make the best popcorn) that has been heated until enough pressure builds in the kernel to pop out of the hull. The group also made use of our phones to learn other fascinating popcorn facts, including: popcorn has likely been eaten by humans for over 6,000 years and that popcorn is the official snack food of the state of Illinois. Speaking of Illinois…


We rolled into the Land of Lincoln, the 5th state on our trip.


We kept our eyes peeled for the highest point in Illinois, and we’re mostly sure this is it.


At this point, it seemed that the populace had become so bored with their landscape that they were digging holes and making hills in the middle-of-nowhere just to produce some topographical variety.


Crossing the wide Mississippi River, was a good indication that we were getting closer to our final destination!


At least until St. Louis foiled us with traffic…:(

Rush hour in the St. Louis area meant that our best move was to pull off of the cursed Interstate 70 to stretch our legs and fill our bellies with some much needed grease and starch. We accomplished this in the most delicious manner by checking Yelp for reviews of local fast food restaurants and settling upon Freddy’s Frozen Custard.


The crew destroying steakburgers, shoestring fries, and various custard concoctions in the balmy St. Louis evening.


‘Nuff said

The final leg of the trip saw us reach our destination at the University of Kansas and the Oread Hotel just in time to grab a glass of wine at the opening social and then drop off to sleep with visions of the next day’s talks dancing in our heads.

Our three days at the conference were a whirlwind of talks, poster sessions, chats between researchers, good food and drink, and late nights. Some of the highlights were:

A visit with “grandpa” Rick Shine, Tracy’s former advisor and eminent herpetologist, who also happens to be the president-elect of SSAR.


One big, happy, research family.

Enjoying the beautiful weather and gorgeous campus.


View from the top of the Oread Hotel, where the closing picnic was held.

At the annual SSAR herp auction, there were many amazing finds to be had, including lots of herp-themed artwork, rare books, and the highest-grossing object of the night, legendary herpetologist Bill Duellman‘s personal machete from the 1960’s (with a winning bid of a cool $700).

I took home a selection of anuran auditory history with vinyl of Charles Bogert’s Sounds of North American Frogs and 78’s of Voices of the Night, the first frog song recording release in the U.S.


A sexy face for sexy frog songs.

The keynote speaker, David Hillis, showed the rest of the crowd how it is done by arriving with a cardboard box bar for making margaritas and martinis.


Auction revenues increased in direct proportion to the number of drinks dished out from David Hillis’ bar.

And of course we actually did discuss our research occasionally.


Tracy discussing the benefits of stress for fence lizards when dealing with fire ants.

We also did not go home empty-handed in the awards category, with Mark Herr taking 2nd place in the Herpetological Quiz (undergraduate division).


Mark enjoying being the only male lucky enough to snag a seat at the “Eminent Female Herpetologist’s Table” during the picnic.

The final night ended with a party in the backyard of local host, Rich Glor, an exceptionally fashionable gentleman.


Rich rockin’ the stubbies.

And no herpetological systematist function would be complete without David Hillis schooling some youngsters in leg wrestling.


Another one bites the dust (after being flipped over completely). Photo courtesy of Kelly Zamudio.

The return trip was, not surprisingly, very similar to the outward journey. We were denied the opportunity to visit recent lab graduate Brad Carlson (via a slight detour), due to Brad becoming a father for the second time <48 hours before our trip…congrats Brad!


Most of us were exhausted from the trip, but Howey proved to be a tenacious driver, powering through the boredom of I-70.

We also fulfilled a wish of Mark’s by getting a drive-by glimpse of the St. Louis Arch.


Perhaps the least scenic photo of the Arch ever taken.

As day faded into night we were hit with dramatic thunderstorms and downpours, but nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for the next herp meeting (New Orleans!) or the fact that we were closing in on a return to our own beds.


The home stretch.

We’ve got one more lab conference this summer, a visit to the meeting of the Ecological Society of America (just next week!) so keep your eyes peeled for a final set of conference proceedings coming soon!


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!




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!

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Making a Case for Supporting Science

This past week, I, along with fellow PSU Chemistry grad student Jared Mondschein, battled our way through horrible traffic into Washington, DC to attend a 2-day workshop about science policy given by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). The Making our CASE (CASE=Catalyzing Advocacy in Science and Engineering; DC loves acronyms) workshop brought together students from over 40 different institutions to learn about how science is funded by our government, how science serves the public interest, and how we, as scientists, can better be a part of those processes. The first night featured a networking reception in the Washington Plaza Hotel where the workshop was held and which provided easy access to the AAAS building as well as the Capitol complex.


View from our hotel room west across Thomas Circle and Downtown. Unfortunately, the pool wasn’t yet open for Spring…

The workshop began in earnest the next morning with a session about how the federal budget process works and the role of various agencies in creating and advising on the budget, which was led by AAAS staff and folks from the legislative and executive branches of the U.S. government, including the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP, of course). Matt Hourihan covered the history of Research and Development (R+D, natch) funding in the budget, and discussed how R+D funding (in constant dollars) generally increased up to around 2004, but has since leveled off. In general, Defense spending accounts for about half of all the nation’s R+D expenditures, which was a little bit of a surprise to me. I was also surprised to learn that the National Science Foundation (NSF, which has been the major funder of almost all research I have been involved in as a graduate student), makes up a relatively small portion of the R+D budget. For the life sciences, the greatest source of funding by far is the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

R&DAgencyIn the past, there has been strong bipartisan support for R+D, including basic research, as this is broadly recognized as a driver of economic growth and development. However, with sequestration and other budget cutting moves, R+D funding has been cut as well, and funding levels may be reduced through 2021 (depending on how the budgeting process plays out). For more info, check out the AAAS R+D Budget Primer.

Much of the workshop focused on the particulars of how science funding is actually determined (proverbially, “how the sausage is made”). In this case, the R+D budget is determined in broadly the same way as other types of funding. The President puts forth a budget request, which is followed by proposed budgets from both the House and Senate. The two arms of Congress attempt to produce a budget that reconciles their spending differences and will also not be vetoed by the President. If this is not achieved by the end of each September, the government may shutdown…oops! As such, the proportion of the budget devoted to science is balanced with many other factors. However, since a decline following the Space Race, the proportion of federal discretionary spending allocated to R+D has remained fairly constant.

BudgetDISC_0The afternoon of Day 1 featured a role-playing activity asking participants to work as congressional committee members to reconcile an appropriations bill and make hard science funding decisions. We also learned about the distinction between Policy for Science and Science for Policy. Policy for science refers to the government’s funding of science and directives for how that money is allocated to various agencies and the priorities given to different research areas. Science for policy is the use of scientific information to make informed policy decisions. Science for policy is one way in which scientists can serve the greater community.  After a long day in conference rooms without seeing the sun, I took off to enjoy the lovely weather in DC (sunny and 70!) which had brought the cherry trees into full bloom. A 30 minute stroll from the hotel brought me to the National Mall and Tidal Basin where I enjoyed the beautiful trees (along with thousands of other people) and took in some familiar DC sights.


The Jefferson Memorial along the Tidal Basin with cherry trees in full bloom.


Tourists and residents alike were enjoying a balmy late afternoon on the Mall.

On the second day of the workshop, we ventured to the Capitol building and entered the new Congressional Visitor’s Center. We had a long wait on a rather rainy day, but once inside we were treated to a meeting with Rush Holt: former representative (D-NJ), plasma physicist, 5-time Jeopardy champion and defeater of IBM’s Watson, and current CEO of AAAS.  We also listened to engaging presentations on how Congress is structured, and the finer points of how budgets are passed from subcommittees to become the law of the land. Towards lunchtime, we heard from a panel of congressional and committee staffers about how bills are negotiated in committees, and best ways to discuss issues with staffers.


Huddled under an arch at the Capitol Visitor’s Center to avoid the rain at the beginning of Day 2.

On the way back to AAAS HQ for the afternoon sessions, Jared and I took the tunnel from the Capitol to the Library of Congress for a quick tour around the interior, which is beautiful. Definitely recommended if you find yourself in DC!


The awesome main hall and ceiling in the Library of Congress.


View into the main reading room of the Library of Congress. Better be quiet!

The final sessions of the workshop included discussions with lobbyists and advocates as well as some science policy career advice and discussions of jobs and fellowships, including the AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellowships. Jared and I also worked together to craft an approach for our meetings with legislators and staff on the Hill that Penn State had lined up for us the next day. We had to create a simple, clear message that we could deliver in the 10-15 minute meetings that we had with the offices of various representatives and senators. We chose to focus on how Penn State supports a diversity of research programs, from my basic ecological research (the lizards from this blog!) to Jared’s work searching for new materials for fuel cells. Many types of research are needed to meet the ecological and technological challenges of living in a rapidly changing world. Both of our labs are supported by NSF, which is the primary government agency supporting most basic research. We also wanted to describe how Penn State encourages collaborations between departments and researchers and supports us in developing our projects.


Posing for a quick snapshot in front of AAAS HQ after a long day of meetings and strategerizing. This was quickly followed by a dinner of Disco Fries and Root beer and an early bedtime.

On our last day in DC, Jared and I worked the Hill from 9 in the morning to 7 in the evening. We met with staff from the offices of Pennsylvania’s two Senators, Bob Casey (D-PA) and Pat Toomey (R-PA), as well as Steve Israel (D-NY), Jared’s Congressman. We also personally spoke with two representatives: Rep. Pat Meehan (my own Congressman!, R-PA) and Glenn “GT” Thompson (R-PA), the representative for PA District 05, which contains Penn State. We also rode in an elevator with Rep John Lewis (!!, D-GA), who was super nice. In general, the folks we talked to were supportive of science funding at both the federal level and at Penn State in particular, but they acknowledged that most types of discretionary spending are under pressure in the current Congress. We also had the chance to attend an informal Penn State alumni get together and debate science funding with other representatives and staff from multiple agencies. Hopefully, our visits and discussions will have put a personal face to scientific research and communicated the importance of continuing federal support for scientific research.


Meeting with Glenn “GT” Thompson in his office at the Capitol. Notice the Penn State football in the cabinet on the left! Also, I am probably the only person on Capitol Hill with any sort of facial hair.

All in all, the CASE workshop was a unique (and exhausting…so many meetings!) experience for me and an introduction into a part of the scientific process I have rarely considered. Hopefully, I will be able to use this experience to better communicate science to a broad range of audiences, including our elected officials, and advocate for science throughout my career.