The lab is currently busy with a variety of field and lab-based projects. In April/May, Cam, David, Tom, and I were in Alabama collecting lizards. Here’s a glimpse of what the long trip to the South, and our work there, looks like! Check back later in the summer for more on the continuation of this project.
Hello, my name is Heather Engler. I have been working as a research assistant in the Langkilde lab since May 2016. And yet my background is not in biology. Instead, I have a B.S. degree in Accounting from Murray State University. So how did I wind up going from business to biology?
I began dating Dustin Owen, my boyfriend, while he was at Austin Peay State University. I was fascinated with his reptile research because I have always enjoyed learning about animals. So I naturally took an interest in his new eastern fence lizard research here at Penn State. I was really lucky that Tracy Langkilde didn’t mind me spending time with Dustin in her lab. I got to learn about all sorts of things from various lab members.
Last summer, Dustin and some of his new lab mates caught lots of eastern fence lizards to be used in their research projects. They were busy with their research, so they needed someone else to take care of the lizards on a daily basis. Since I had not landed an accounting job, Dustin put in a good word for me with Tracy. Luckily, she was willing to give me a chance.
I absolutely loved taking care of those lizards last summer! Some of the females became gravid, and I got to help collect the eggs after they finished laying them. After all of the females had laid their eggs, it was time to incubate them in the lab. One random day in July, I was checking on the eggs and noticed some tiny bodies. The first of the eggs had hatched! It was so cool because the hatchlings were so little compared to the adults. Since we were short staffed at the time, I got to help record the morphology data on the hatchlings. I even learned how to toe clip them. I had never done this kind of work before, so it was a fun learning experience.
Since I had done such a good job with the adults, Tracy let me also take care of the hatchlings. And it has been a blast watching over those lizards. It won’t be too much longer until they’re fully matured adults. I’m even getting to help on a side project concerning them. Braulio Assis, one of the current grad students in the lab, has been taking photos of the juvenile lizards at 9 week intervals. One of the things he wants to know is if testosterone levels are related to the size of male cloaca scales. I’m helping to answer this question by measuring the area of the male cloaca scales in the photographs of the male juveniles. I get to use this really cool software, called ImageJ, to trace around the scales in order to get the measurements.
If you had told me 5 years ago that I would go from working in the accounting department of an engineering firm to working in the lab of a world famous biologist, I wouldn’t have believed you. But here I am. I have moved from business to biology, and I couldn’t be happier.
[posted on behalf of Heather Engler]
The Langkilde lab has recently returned from its annual pilgrimage to the SICB (Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology) meeting, which this year was held in beautiful New Orleans! All our lab members presented talks, and had a great time networking, catching up on top research, and telling people about our own.
Below are some of our thoughts on the meeting, summaries of what we presented – and some tips for conference-goers from all fields!
“I talked about a paper I’ve been working on from our field season in Alabama last summer. Animals encounter environmental stressors daily; how does frequent, low-level stress influence survival and reproductive success? We show that, in Eastern fence lizards, a daily dose of low-concentration stress hormone led to increased adult mortality, and decreased hatching success of her eggs. This was the first conference I’ve been to where animal behaviour hasn’t been the primary focus – this reflects my broadening interests – I’m really excited by integrative research, so this meeting was a great way to see what other people are doing in more mechanistic fields (physiology, genetics, etc). It gave me lots of ideas for taking my own work forward!
My top conference tips are to contact people in advance that you want to talk to – that way you’ll be less likely to chicken out of approaching them! And – make use of Twitter before, during, and after the conference. It’s a great, informal networking tool. I met up with loads of top researchers that I’d first contacted on Twitter, and made lots of new friends!”
“I presented on the impact of a stress treatment on maternal behavior and offspring physiology and morphology. The thing I enjoyed the most was getting to meet not only senior researchers but also new researchers and hearing both of their perspectives.
My tip is to go to the socials and groups at night. They are fantastic places to talk with and meet people.”
“We already know fire ants are an invasive predator to many organisms, including fence lizards. What I want to focus on is the interaction of Fence Lizards and Fire ants, but as a prey source. This is the first step in my research, by using this study system, to understand how native species adapt to invasive species. The academic side of me really enjoyed meeting other scientist and just chitchatting in informal ways. The 24 year old side of me loved the location of SICB, considering it was in New Orleans!
Tips for conferences: Well this was my very first conference and I was worried about how to interact with so many bright and accomplished minds. The best and most cliché bit of advice I have, is simply be you. There is no point in putting on a different face, if you’re not even comfortable in it.”
“The water chemistry of vernal pools are often impacted by the environment. Changes in the pH and UVB impact the larval amphibians that live there. But how? Stay tuned for an upcoming publication! I LOVED meeting new people. I especially enjoyed meeting people who are working outside of my field of study. Their perspectives on my work are often very different than those within my field and I learn a lot from them.
My advice: TALK TO EVERYONE! You never know who you will meet. If you see a poster you don’t usually have an interest in, just stop and ask a question. If nothing else you may make a friend!”
“Going to SICB for the first time was fantastic, and New Orleans is a peculiar, very musical city, which I appreciated a lot. Being exposed to research from large variety of fields in biology certainly allowed me to appreciate other research areas better, so I definitely recommend attending talks that are out of your comfort zone. You never know what new ideas you might come up with!
Another valuable tip I have is, to never underestimate the power of a 25-minute nap during lunch break. The amount of information you receive over multiple days in a conference can be a bit overwhelming, so it’s important to rest whenever possible. It also helps you enjoy the nightlife better!”
Many of you would have played with Mexican Jumping Beans as a child. Ever wondered why it is that they jump? I presented some undergraduate-led research revealing what motivates this fascinating behavior.
Now that our field seasons are (mostly) over, the members of the Langkilde lab have been busy processing the blood samples we collected over the summer.
As I wrote last time, most of us are looking in some way at the impacts of environmental stressors on an animal’s behaviour, and the characteristics of the offspring they produce. In order to test these questions, we need to be able to quantifiably measure the stress levels of the animals we study.
To do this, we took blood samples from our study species in the field to measure levels of “stress hormones” (glucocorticoids, factors produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress). These hormones circulate in the blood, and correlate with the baseline stress levels of an individual – the more glucocorticoids we find in the blood, the more stressed an animal is. We determine the concentration of glucocorticoids in our blood samples by first centrifuging the sample to separate red blood cells from the plasma (the clear fluid in the eppendorf tube below), and then running the sample through an enzyme immunoassay.
Enzyme immunoassays work by using antibodies that bind to the factor of interest in a sample – in our case, the steroid hormone corticosterone. We add a known amount of plasma to each well of the plate (above right), and in each well, the corticosterone in the sample binds to the antibodies. The antibodies that aren’t bound by corticosterone are bound by a conjugate tracer, which gives off a colour. So, in the plate above, the more “yellow” the well appears, the less hormone it contains (meaning that more free antibody sites have been left to bind with the yellow tracer-bearing conjugate). We can compare the “yellowness” of each well with wells containing a known amount of hormone, and this allows us to calculate the concentration of hormone in each sample:
I’ve had a lot of fun learning these techniques this Fall, processing my lizard samples, and helping Chris process some of his rattlesnake samples! I’m looking forward to reporting back on the exciting results these data contribute to over the next few months.
When you tell people you are going to be studying lizards in Alabama for the summer, you get used to a raised eyebrow or two. The heat! The snakes! The bugs! When I told people I was going to be deliberately seeking out (ecological) public enemy number 1, fire ants, everyone made clear what I already knew – the theme of my summer was going to be STRESS.
In fact, stress (and in particular, maternal stress during gestation) is exactly what took me to Alabama. Stress during pregnancy can alter the characteristics of the resulting offspring, from morphology to behaviour. That’s assumed to be a bad thing. But could stress experienced by mothers during gestation actually program offspring for life in a stressful environment, giving them an advantage in the long run? This was the question I set out to test during my first, recently completed, field season.
For this study we focused on the eastern fence lizard, Sceloporus undulatus, a species well known to our lab. This lizard is particularly well suited to studying maternal stress because, as is the case for many reptile and amphibian species in the South East, it is subject to the considerable stress of coexisting with fire ants. We know a lot already about how fire ants change the behaviour and physiology of fence lizards – but what about the effects on the next generation through maternal stress effects?
A question this complex, with more than one generational level, required a number of steps. Step one was capturing gravid (carrying eggs) female fence lizards, which we did in May and early June. Having worked previously on mammals (meerkats) and birds (fairy wrens and hihi), this was a new and exciting experience for me! Safe to say, fence lizards (and herps in general!) quickly stole my heart.
Our next step was bringing the females into the lab, and subjecting them to a highly controlled “stress” treatment – a very low dose of a stress hormone every day, the equivalent of a single fire ant sting. It’s important to note that this is NOT a pain treatment – we use the hormone corticosterone, which is released as part of a lizard’s natural stress response, and which has a number of downstream effects including helping the body’s metabolic system turn amino acids into carbohydrates for use as fuel. In short, our treatment was tricking the lizards’ system (but not the lizard) into thinking they were in a stressful situation.
The next step was waiting for the females to lay their eggs, at which point our stress treatment ceased, and females were ready to be returned to the wild. We incubated their eggs (incubation takes around 50 days) and waited for the babies to hatch to begin the next step of our experiment…
We hypothesised that if maternal stress was adaptively programming offspring to be be better suited to a stressful environment (for example, by making them more responsive to predators, or better able to cope with frequent stressors), then we should see offspring from stressed mothers surviving better in stressful environments than offspring from mothers that did not experience stress during gestation.
To test this, we needed to create “stressful” and “non-stressful” environments in which to put the offspring. When we weren’t catching females or incubating eggs, we were building four 20x20m outdoor enclosures for this purpose! Thankfully, life in Alabama with fire ants everywhere is stressful enough, so we didn’t need to artificially create a stressful environment. To create a “non-stressful” environment, we removed fire ant mounds from two of the four enclosures. We hypothesised that in these enclosures, offspring from unstressed mothers should do best.
Once the offspring hatched, we put them into the enclosures and monitored their survival by checking them every day (not an easy task, they are small and wily!). I also recorded their habitat use, how far they were moving within the enclosures from their release spots, and how they responded to small, short-term stressors, like being picked up to be weighed. I’m now in the process of analysing this data, and am looking forward to seeing if our hypotheses hold true. Watch this space!
So, lizards aside, how did I cope with the stresses of a summer in Alabama? The heat – loved it! The snakes – try and keep me away from them! The bugs – who cares?! The people – a whole lot of new friends. There may be a million ways to die in the South, but there sure are a million and one things to love.
I arrived in the Langkilde lab to take up a postdoc position (held jointly in the Sheriff lab) in March – and it’s been a brilliant first few weeks of getting to know not just a new lab and study system, but also a new country!
I grew up on a small island on the west coast of Scotland, which explains a lot about my love of the outdoors and exploring the natural world (also my love of whisky, bagpipes, and anything fried in batter). I was awarded a BSc in Zoology from the University of St Andrews in 2009, and then moved south of the border to take up a PhD position at the University of Cambridge.
For my PhD, I was interested in investigating how much helpers help in cooperative societies. Why might one individual provide help to another (for example, by assisting in rearing their offspring), and what determines how much they help? I looked particularly at allonursing behaviour, which is when a female nurses the offspring of another – in humans, we call this (now fairly rare!) practise “wet-nursing”. I had an amazing study system at my disposal to help me answer some of these research questions – the Kalahari meerkat!
After my PhD I moved to birds as model systems for researching maternal, rather than helper, investment in offspring. For my first postdoc project (with Dr Rose Thorogood), I investigated how food- and carotenoid-supplementation regimes in the endangered hihi in New Zealand might influence the outcomes of brood hierarchies and sex ratio variation. I was also awarded a research grant from the Association for the Study of Animal Behaviour to test whether maternal investment in offspring in a cooperatively breeding bird, the red-winged fairy wren, varies according to helper care. You can find out more about these projects, and my PhD research on my website.
I am really excited to join the fence lizard team and the Langkilde lab to work on unravelling the complex relationship between invasive fire ants and eastern fence lizards in the US. My projects will be looking at how stress influences fence lizard moms, and what the downstream consequences are for offspring survival and behaviour. We are heading to Alabama to start studying these guys in one month – so stay tuned for excitement from the field!