The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action


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The Natural State

Happy Memorial Day!

I am happy to report that the “uninvaded” team has returned to PA, lizards in hand–or bag as it were. Our team, consisting of Braulio,  Caty, and myself, traveled to Tennessee and Arkansas. Arkansas prides itself on being “The Natural State” for its “natural scenic beauty, clear lakes and streams, and abundant wildlife.” I can’t speak to most of that, but it does have lizards!

Fence lizard with a regenerating tail.

Fence lizard with a regenerating tail.

Rainy and overcast days slowed us down a bit. As ectotherms, lizards rely on external sources of heat, which means they like to bask in sunny spots in order to warm up. The thick clouds didn’t provide many good basking opportunities, but thankfully a few lizards made an appearance in the brief moments of sun.

Sometimes fence lizards like rocky habitat.

Sometimes fence lizards like rocky habitat.

2blendinMany other lizards like to bask on trees.

We did see a few sunny days, which gave Braulio and Caty the opportunity to catch their first lizards.

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Braulio with a Tennessee lizard.

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One of Caty’s first catches!

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Lizard selfies are the best selfies.

We even managed some “expert” catches, on more than one occasion slowly driving by a basking lizard and noosing it through the open car window.

Because we were looking for females, we of course became experts at catching males. One male lizard really hoped I was a tree. We tried to return him to his log, but on two separate occasions he ran up my leg. Sorry little guy!

Nope, not a tree.

Nope, not a tree.

Another male, pictured below, really surprised me. Lizards vary in coloration, but not usually by much. I’ve never seen a fence lizard so dark!

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A very dark fence lizard. His chest badges were impressive as well!

After two weeks of catching, we headed back to the lab. Our females are now happily housed in their nesting boxes, and one has laid her first clutch of the season. We’re all excited to see the resulting hatchlings!

Check back soon for more stories and photos from the field as well as updates on the specific research projects happening this summer.

We even spotted a fence lizard on a fence. So satisfying. A fence lizard on a fence. So satisfying.

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Word Clouds and Receptions

The end is near! I am happy to report that both Chris and I have submitted our final dissertations to the graduate school. What a relief!  Now that my dissertation is off to the printers, I decided to do some stats…

Unsurprisingly, the most used word in my dissertation (excluding common words), is “stress,” clocking in at a word count of 392 (out of 35K total words). Close behind were CORT (296), lizards (225), immune (201), and ants (144). Sounds about right! (The most used word was “of,” with a word count of 681. Fascinating!)

I couldn’t help but display this graphically, because who doesn’t love a word cloud?

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A word cloud featuring the most commonly used words in my dissertation. Note that “killing” applies to bacteria only! (Make your own at wordle.net)

For those of you keeping track, this is the “cleaned up” version–the original was quite overwhelming! I removed the citations and statistics as well as a number of prepositions,  less exciting words (“may” was a big one), and anything that occurred fewer than 20 times throughout my dissertation.

In other news, Tracy and I recently attended the 2016 Penn State Alumni Association Recognition Dinner, where I was presented with the Alumni Association Dissertation Award.

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Receiving the award. Thanks Penn State Alumni Association!

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Dave Eissenstat, head of the Ecology program, and Tracy helped celebrate at the recognition dinner.

The 13 graduate student winners were invited to talk about their research. I chose to highlight the last two chapters of my dissertation, which have been submitted to various journals. Here’s a sneak peak of the findings, as described in my short talk/acceptance speech:

My dissertation research addresses the circumstances under which stress produces negative consequences. Animals, including humans, have a way of dealing with stress, called the physiological stress response. This response involves a suite of changes in the body to help an animal deal with and recover from the stressor—these changes can mobilize energy and induce certain helpful behaviors to help deal with the stressor. Because of this stress response, experiencing a stressor isn’t always a “bad thing”.

That said, in order for these changes to occur, an animal temporarily pulls energy away from other systems that aren’t immediately important—like growth and reproduction. That means when stress is frequent, when it doesn’t go away, there can be negative consequences on these traits—on growth, reproduction, and immune function.

The immediate consequences of stress are fairly well studied, but we know less about how stress experienced during development or in previous generations can affect adult traits.

To investigate this, I took advantage of populations of eastern fence lizards that co-evolved with different levels of stress in the environment. Some populations co-occur with invasive fire ants, which bite and sting lizards. These encounters are stressful for the lizards, and if you’ve been stung by a fire ant, I’m sure you can relate. So this study system gives us a unique opportunity to look at populations that have long history—many generations—of high–stress and compare to populations that do not have history with this kind of stress.

My research reveals that ancestral history with stress is actually really important. If a lizard’s ancestors experienced high-stress, that affects how it responds to stress as an adult—regardless of its personal experience with stress within its lifetime. So it’s not what it went through, but what its ancestors went through, that determines how robustly it responds to stress.

But it turns out the combination of a lizard’s personal experience and its ancestors’ experience that determines the immune consequences of stress. Researchers don’t usually consider how stress in previous generations can affect physiology, but my research indicates this should not be overlooked

Understanding when stress will become beneficial and when it becomes harmful will allows us to better predict how animals will be affected by the increasing amounts of stress due to global change, and to better allocate resources to manage these effects.

I would like to thank the Penn State Ecology Program and my advisor, Tracy Langkilde, without whom I could not have completed my degree. I would also like to thank my boyfriend, Rich, for his support and the Alumni Association for the recognition. It is a privilege to have your support, and I am excited to join the thriving community of Penn State alumni. Thank you.

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Major thanks to my boyfriend, Rich, who supported me not only at the dinner, but throughout my graduate studies. You’re the best!

 


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Portland: Talks and Trolls

The fifth airport of the day was thankfully the last. I opted to save $200 in airfare by selecting a rather awful itinerary, but I’m not sure I would do that again. In spite of traveling during the post-holiday rush, by some stroke of luck I arrived in Portland on time (midnight local time, which felt like 3am!), eager to sleep and then take on SICB!

The 2016 annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB) began with a plenary talk by Dr. Terrie Williams from UC Santa Cruz. Dr. Williams discussed a number of her research projects involving the energetics of big carnivores. This of course meant many awesome photos of her study organisms, which include polar bears, pumas, killer whales, and lions. For me, the most memorable part of her talk was about her research on narwhals. Yes that’s right, narwhals.

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Narwhals doing their thing.

Williams described narwhals as “endurance animals.” They cannot swim very quickly and attempt to escape predator attacks by submerging under arctic ice and hoping to “outlast” the predator’s need for air. The normal resting heart rate of a narwhal is about 60 beats per minute (bpm), similar to humans, but this slows to about 20 bpm when they dive. However, narwhals are very sensitive to disturbance, including shipping noise, and, when disturbed, their heart rate slows to as few as 3 to 4 bpm! It takes over an hour to return to the dive rate of 20 bpm. The consequences of this drastic physiological change are unclear, and Williams wonders how these animals will be able to cope as the Arctic is further disturbed by seismic surveys and exploration for oil and other resources. Much of Williams’s other research was just as interesting (polar bears on treadmills!), and her talk was a fabulous opening the conference.

In addition to really cool talks like this, SICB is a great meeting for grad students to attend for several reasons. They have strong financial support to allow cash-strapped students to attend. For instance, SICB offers the Charlotte Magnum program, which gives discounted housing in exchange for volunteering to help out at the conference for up to a half a day (though you should find a friend since you’ll be sharing a bed or sleeping on a floor!). The volunteering involves helping at the registration desk or running A/V for a particular session. This can be a great chance to meet a cool group of scientists who are presenting in a session of special interest, and mostly just involves watching talks you want to see anyways!

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SICB student accommodations often include unheard of amenities, such as the incredibly rare toiletphone, so you can conduct business while….conducting your business.

SICB also offers special support for women grad students and post-docs as well as competitive grants for graduate student travel and research. The divisional structure of SICB also offers lots of chances to meet big-name scientists at smaller events, like socials, and provides great opportunities for networking or figuring out possibilities for your next position, either in a grad program or as a post-doc.

Lastly, SICB is one of the better-organized conferences out there (maybe due to all the brilliant grad students helping to run it!). Testing and posting your presentation is very easy (our lab’s videos of lizard behaviors always work at SICB…unlike at some other meetings…). This year, for instance, with registration, SICB included weekly passes for unlimited rides on the Portland public transit system, including the convenient MAX light rail, which made getting around Portland really easy.

Chris T and I were up for student awards in our respective divisions (the Division of Ecology and Evolution (DEE) and Division of Comparative Endocrinology (DCE)), and our talks were back-to-back on the first day of the conference. Our talks were well received, and we were in good company–the other talks in our sessions were great!

Also quite memorable was the Division of Comparative Endocrinology’s Data Blitz, which took place during the DCE social. In this event, speakers have 2 minutes to describe research results, and they usually do so in unconventional ways. Poetry, photoshop, and Star Wars references abounded. One speaker also told a story of a research assistant meeting–and leaving field work for–a unique and sensual man. Suddenly my field stories don’t seem so exciting!

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DCE’s flyer for the Data Blitz. I’ll be sure to attend next time I’m at SICB!

I also took the opportunity to explore the area. My first stop was to the unfathomably large Powell’s Bookstore, which boasts an inventory of over two million books. Two million!! I spent time in two of their eight rooms but easily could have spent hours perusing their stock. They also had a great quantity of board games and other novelty items. I should have brought a larger suitcase!

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Don’t be fooled, Powell’s takes up the entire block!

Just down the street from Powell’s, I stopped in at Billy Galaxy, which has an impressive display of (overpriced) vintage toys and collectibles from the 70s, 80s, and 90s. I drooled over some Star Wars and Jurassic Park toys and continued onward with my bank accounts intact.

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Billy Galaxy’s small but impressive store, with plenty of collectibles from Star Wars, Smurfs, Transformers, Jurassic Park, Nintendo, Godzilla, and more!

I also stopped at Voodoo Doughnut, a Portland staple. They had all kinds of novelty doughnuts, stuffed with colored cream and topped with cereals. I took on peanut butter oreo doughnut, which was delicious but horribly sweet. Definitely something to be shared. Next time I’ll bring a friend!

The unique and protruding neon sign at Voodoo Doughnut and the squished peanut butter oreo doughnut that I conquered.

The unique and protruding neon sign at Voodoo Doughnut and the squished peanut butter oreo doughnut that I conquered.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to investigate at least one antique store while in the area. I rather enjoy visiting antique shops and even have an instagram account dedicated to some of my more “unique” finds (h/t to Chris for the name!). I visited Antique Alley, which was only one light rail stop away from my hotel. As a troll collector, I was pleased to find more than a few to add to my collection, including the santa trolls pictured below. I can only imagine TSA’s reaction to scanning a bag lined with trolls…

Some recent acquisitions. I heart my trolls! | Antique Alley, Portland OR

A post shared by Antiques Freakshow (@antiquesfreakshow) on

All in all it was a successful trip, full of good science talks, satisfying food places, and even a few trolls.

 

Thanks to Chris T for adding in why SICB is such a great conference!


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Gearing up for SICB!

Happy New Year!

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New year, new beginnings. And hats. Lots of hats.

As we start to wrap up our holiday break, Chris T. and I are preparing for a trip to Portland, Oregon for the 2016 annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB). We will both be presenting talks on Monday.

I will be expanding on results I presented at ESA in August, which address how stress (fire ants) experienced in early life or in previous generations affect adult physiology and immune function in lizards. My talk is Monday, January 4th at 11:15 in room B110/111.

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Chris will be sharing his results from SSAR with a new audience. He will discuss how invasive fire ants have reversed geographical patterns in fence lizard ecology, including their behavior, stress responses, and morphology, across their range in less than 75 years. Chris’s talk is also on Monday, January 4th at 11:30 in room B114. A determined Langkilde Lab follower could attend both talks back to back in nearby rooms! 🙂

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Come say hello if you will be there!


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Science Communication and Art!

In addition to answering herp- and stress-related research questions, the members of the Langkilde are also very interested in outreach and science communication. I am personally quite interested communicating science and recently exercised my scicomm skills by interning with Penn State Research Communications. I wrote two stories over the summer and hope to write a few more later this year.

The first story covers the use of drones in research and conservation by recent Penn State Ecology graduate Jeff Kerby. Jeff does great work across the globe and is a photographer himself. Check out the story, entitled “Ecology on the Wing,” for more on his research and some of his photos. (For more of Jeff’s amazing photos, check out his flickr and instagram.)

Penn State graduate student Jeff Kerby used drones for his ecological research in Greenland and is sharing his expertise to enhance research and conservation efforts worldwide. Image: Martin Holdrege

Penn State graduate student Jeff Kerby used drones for his ecological research in Greenland and is sharing his expertise to enhance research and conservation efforts worldwide. Read the story at Penn State NewsImage: Martin Holdrege

The second story I wrote was a news story, which, unlike the “feature” story highlighted above, is written in AP (“news”) style and focuses on the results of a recently published paper. I summarized a study by Penn State Ecology and Neuroscience grad student Lauren Chaby, which was recently published in Animal Behavior. Lauren investigated whether stress in adolescence affects problem solving in adult rats. Read the story, entitled “Stress in adolescence prepares rats for future challenges,” for more information.

"Unpredictable stress can have dramatic and lasting consequences, both for humans and for free-living animals," said Chaby. Image: Lauren Chaby/Penn State

“Unpredictable stress can have dramatic and lasting consequences, both for humans and for free-living animals,” said Chaby. Read the story at Penn State News.
Image: Lauren Chaby

Thanks to my new connections at Research Communications, I was also able to revisit one of my other hobbies–paper cutting! As you may have guessed by our herp-flake holiday door, I am also a paper artist. I was commissioned to create three paper cut illustrations for a story about the evolution of skin color in the Penn State Research magazine.

Paper cut portrait of Nina Jablonski; Research at Penn State Magazine 35(2) Fall 2015

Paper cut portrait of Nina Jablonski, printed in Research at Penn State Magazine 35(2) Fall 2015

The story is based on the work of Penn State anthropologist Nina Jablonski. The first illustration is a portrait of Nina, based on a photo by Patrick Mansell. This is probably the most complicated portrait I have made to date!

Paper cut portrait of Nina Jablonski, created for the Research at Penn State Magazine.

Paper cut portrait of Nina Jablonski, created for the Research at Penn State Magazine.

Curious how this was made? Check out this work-in-progress video:

As part of Nina’s research, she and her colleagues created a map predicting skin colors of indigenous peoples based on ultraviolet radiation. I converted this map to paper for the story’s opening spread.

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The opening spread for the story, written by David Pacchioli.

Both the portrait and the third piece posed quite a challenge, as the black shadows blended into the background in one seamless piece. The third piece in particular was quite stubborn, but it turned out all right in the end.

Paper cut hands created for the Penn State Research Magazine. Based on a photo by Patrick Mansell.

Paper cut hands created for the Penn State Research Magazine. Based on a photo by Patrick Mansell.

I am very pleased with how these illustrations turned out! Pick up a copy of the magazine on campus to see them for yourself.

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Research | Penn State – Fall 2015. My illustrations can be found on pages 12-17.

You can learn more about my paper art on my website and facebook. I also take commissions–or at least, I will after defending!

 

Modified from a post originally at gailmccormick.wordpress.com.


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What Makes Stress Stressful?

Stress is a familiar concept to most people. Paying the bills on time, entering a week of exams, caring for a sick loved one, or even sitting in heavy traffic on the way to work. When you get stressed out, your body goes through a series of changes to help you deal with that stress. This stress response includes both physiological and behavioral changes and is generally a good thing! For animals, the physiological stress response can mobilize energy and trigger important behavior, perhaps to get away from a predator. It can also enhance immune function in the short term to prepare for wounding or infection that might occur as a result of that stressful encounter.  Short term stress is typically called “acute,” and the resulting stress response is very similar across vertebrates—because it works!

Stressors come in a variety of forms.

Stressors come in a variety of forms.

If stress lasts for a long time, however, there can be costs to using so much energy on the stress response. If you have ever become sick after a week of exams or a particularly challenging week at work, you know what I’m talking about. Long term stress—typically called “chronic” stress—can suppress immune function as well as growth and reproduction.

Sometimes, however, these generalizations don’t hold up—short term acute stress may produce negative consequences or long term chronic stress may produce positive outcomes. This got us wondering—just what is it about stress that might lead to negative consequences? We discuss just that in our latest paper published in General & Comparative Endocrinology, which is now available online.

Now published in GCE!

Results published in GCE.

Stress is typically defined by duration—as acute or chronic— in the scientific literature as well as in veterinary and medical practices. I wanted to investigate not only stressor duration, but also other characteristics of the stressor, like frequency and intensity. There is some evidence that frequency and intensity affect the outcomes of stress, but few studies have attempted to look at how they might interact with each other or duration.

To test these ideas, I exposed fence lizards to different stress regimes. I did not want to use a physical stressor, so we instead manipulated a stress relevant hormone. When the stress response is activated, the glucocorticoid hormone cortisol (in humans) or corticosterone (in lizards) is secreted by the adrenal glands. We often measure CORT as a proxy for stress, and we can give a lizard CORT to replicate the increase in CORT that occurs in response to a stressor. After dissolving CORT in oil, one simply drops the solution onto the back of a lizard and it is quickly absorbed. One can also put the CORT-oil solution into a hormone patch for a slower release. These work a lot like a nicotine patch in humans, just with CORT and on a lizard.

A fence lizard with a slow release CORT patch.

A fence lizard with a slow release CORT patch. Stylish!

We used different regimes of CORT application to help determine how duration, frequency, and intensity affect immune outcomes in lizards. After the 9 days, we measured the innate immune system in two ways [similiar to  this post], both of which roughly measure the ability of lizard blood to deal with foreign particles. One of these assess hemagglutination, which is the ability of plasma to hold sheep red blood cells in suspension. Higher scores indicate greater ability, or better immune function.

The completed hemagglutination assay.

A completed hemagglutination assay.

Some of our results were particularly interesting:

Two of our treatments would be considered “acute.”  Both were short in duration and differed only in the intensity of the dosage. Exposure to short duration low-doses of CORT  enhanced immune function (hemagglutination), while exposure to short duration high-doses suppressed immune function. This indicates that intensity is an an important factor when considering immune outcomes of stress.  This matches up with what we know about PTSD—short but intense stressors can have lasting effects in that context as well.

Additionally, while both of these treatments mimic “acute” stress, they produced opposite results. This demonstrates that the terms “acute” and “chronic” may not be enough to sufficiently characterize stress. These terms are also inconsistently used in the scientific literature, which only adds to the confusion.

Three of our treatments received the same average amount and total amount of CORT over each three day period and over the duration of the experiment but differed in how they were distributed–they varied in duration, intensity, and frequency. All three of these treatments, however, produced different outcomes—one enhanced immune function (frequent low doses), one suppressed immune function (infrequent high doses), and one was somewhere in the middle (slow release of the high dose). This suggests that average or total amount of stress (CORT) may not be comprehensive enough to characterize how the stress is experienced or accurately reflect its outcomes.

Although frequency and duration had lesser roles in this experiment, intensity was a major factor in altering the immune consequences of stress. We recommend that researchers consider and report aspects of stress other than duration, such as intensity and frequency, to aid our understanding of the consequences of stress. We should also move away from the terms “acute” and “chronic,” as they are inconsistency used and incompletely describe stress.

Because the environment is changing due to climate and human activities, wild animals will be exposed to new stressors or familiar ones more often. Determining what about stress leads to negative consequences is important to understand how species will respond to environmental change.

How will wild organisms respond to the stress of environmental change?

How will wild organisms respond to the stress of environmental change?

These results are published in General and Comparative Endocrinology. This research is also featured on the Penn State CIDD website, here.


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#ESA100

Earlier this month, the Chris’s and I traveled to Baltimore, MD for the centennial meeting of the Ecological Society of America. Because it was their 100th meeting, a great diversity of ecologists were in attendance. It was big!

I received a student travel award to help support my attendance at the meeting. Thanks ESA Physiology Section!

Thanks ESA Physiology section!

Thank you!

I am happy to report that all of our talks went well. It was also so great to see Langkilde Lab Alum Renee Rosier, who gave a talk on fence lizard nesting behavior.

Renee and I at the "photo booth."

Renee and I at the “photo booth.”

Penn State was very well represented at the meeting, and we frequently ran into our colleagues from the Shea, Miller, Post, and many other labs. We hope that their talks and posters lead to fruitful conversations!

We also attended many interesting talks, and Howey moderated a session. One of my favorite talks was given by Paul Abram from the University of Montreal who was investigating why some stink bug eggs have a darker pigment. The answer, it turns out, is very complicated, and it was fascinating to see the results of a number of small studies trying to pinpoint the nature of this pigment (which isn’t melanin!).

The Baltimore Convention Center houses many model ships. This large model was once used in the movie Ben Hur.

The Baltimore Convention Center houses many model ships. This large model was once used in the movie Ben Hur.

In the Exhibit Hall, the newly formed Science Communication Section encouraged passersby to #SketchYourScience. Thawley and I collaborated on this fantastic work of art:

#SketchYourScience

#SketchYourScience

Perhaps one of the most notable incidents occurred when the fire alarm went off during a session on Thursday. The Convention Center comfortably held a few thousand ecologists, but less so the surrounding streets! Luckily, this occurred near the end of a session, and the last few talks were squished into the remaining time.

While we were there, we couldn’t resist the chance to explore Baltimore. Chris and Chris partook of a dinner of invasive species at Alewife. Thawley had the Snakehead fishcakes, and I’m told Howey’s invasive boar sliders were excellent!.  After dinner, the Chris’s won trivia in a bar full of ecologists. Way to represent!

Thawley diving into his Snakehead fishcakes at Alewife.

Thawley diving into his Snakehead fishcakes at Alewife.

Howey enjoying his invasive boar sliders at Alewife.

Howey enjoying his invasive boar sliders at Alewife.

Renee and I had some fabulous gelato from the Little Italy neighborhood. We also took a science break one morning to check out the National Aquarium. We particularly loved the Australia exhibit, and we couldn’t resist sitting in on one of the dolphin demonstrations!

At the National Aquarium.

At the National Aquarium.

Everybody drools.

Everybody drools.

Moon jellies!

Moon jellies!

Behavior demonstration!

Behavior demonstration!

We had a great week in Baltimore, and we’re all looking forward to our next conference—for some of us, SICB! Hope to see you there!

#ESA100

#ESA100