The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action


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Sweet Home Alabama

This summer marks the 10 year anniversary of working on the fence lizard / fire ant system. And I got to spend it at the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center. It was like coming home. I used to spend 3-4 months a year there but haven’t been back since 2011 (a cost of reproduction). And this year I got to share this with my mom and 5 year old.

Me, my mom, and my 5 year old hanging out with a gorgeous indigo snake.

Me, my mom, and my 5 year old hanging out with a gorgeous indigo snake.

Driving down the road that leads to the Solon Dixon Forestry Education Center (and all roads apparently lead to the Center) my heart rate increased, and I couldn’t stop beaming. It was wonderful driving through the longleaf pine forests, an amazing ecosystem that is being restored thanks for the efforts of organizations such as the Longleaf Alliance, and past gorgeous Cyprus swamps. I couldn’t wait to get there.

Longleaf sunset

A longleaf pine forest sunset – the view from behind our dorm.

Solon Dixon was pretty much like I remembered it, but there were a few noticeable changes. They have built a gorgeous new classroom facility – I need to find an excuse to take a class down here to take advantage of it.

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Solon Dixon’s fancy new classroom facility.

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Auditorium inside the new classroom facility.

And they had to gate off the road to the amazing freshwater spring as some folks were tearing it up looking for sharks teeth (this area used to be under the ocean many eons ago). This is a gorgeous but freezing cold freshwater spring that provides welcome relief on a hot Alabama afternoon.

David doing his best "creature from the black lagoon" impersonation.

David doing his best “Creature from the Black Lagoon” impersonation.

Crawfish

A resident of the spring.

Michaleia getting to know another visitor to the spring.

And since Solon Dixon is only a little over an hour from the gulf coast, we had to take a trip to play in the gorgeous white sands, and sample some of the best ice cream in the south!

Loving the white sand beaches!

Loving the white sand beaches!

Henderson Beach State Park

Henderson Beach State Park

Amazing frozen custard! And the chance to become a hotdog for a few minutes.

Amazing frozen custard! And the chance to become a hotdog for a few minutes.

We share Solon Dixon with the Auburn University forestry and wildlife students. And are fed like kings, including delicious dessert at least twice per day. My first year I blamed the tumble dryers at Solon Dixon for shrinking my clothes until I got home and realized my other clothes had mysteriously shrunk too. Waiting in the lunch line this summer I was met with a photo from years ago when Katie Boronow and I tagged along on a swamp walk with the forestry students. Oh sweet memories…

A photo from 8 years ago. That’s me in the yellow, front left.

Amongst all this fun, there was work to be done. I helped get David going with his project on maternal stress. And collected blood samples and information on badge coloration of female lizards for a project Braulio will be doing to see whether “bearded ladies” are suped up on testosterone. While we were stalking a large female one afternoon, we heard a huge rustle in the leaf litter. We quickly figured out it was not in fact a bear, but instead two males engaged in battle. They moved onto the railroad ties, and Michaleia caught some of the action on video:

We didn’t get the lady… hopefully the males had better luck.

 

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Undergrad Research in All Its Glory

The Eberly College of Science held it’s first Undergrad Experiences Poster Exhibit last week, which I coordinated in my current role as the Tombros Fellow for Undergrad Research in the Dean’s Office. It was a huge success – if I do say so myself.

Signage directing students to the poster exhibit, and featuring Lindsey Swierk and ** and ** (undergraduate researcher lab alum)

Signage directing students to the poster exhibit, and featuring Lindsey Swierk and Erica Green and Edward Owen (undergraduate researcher lab alum).

We had 47 undergraduates present their research and international experiences, and over 300 attendees!! The place was so packed that it was difficult to move. OK, so many of these students were there because their professors mandated attendance; but they assure me they would have come anyway (right?). All evidence suggests that everyone got something out of the experience.

Early in the evening – you can see the line of students up the stairs in the background, waiting to get in.

Early in the evening – you can see the line of students up the stairs in the background, waiting to get in.

Standing room only.

Standing room only.

I had several goals for this event. Many of the attendees were first year undergraduate students in their very first semester in college. Many of them have heard and maybe even thought about becoming involved in research. This gave them the opportunity to see the types of research being conducted in the College, and to ask the presenters about their experiences. (I tell them that they should become involved in research, but it’s been a while since I was an undergraduate so it’s much better if they get this from their peers).

The presenters had the opportunity to talk about their research with a scientific audience. (There is a University-wide Undergraduate Poster Session, which allows students to present to a general (non-scientific) audience).

Several Departments and Programs across the College sponsored prizes, and we had over 30 judges volunteer their time to select deserving students.

Our Excellence in Life Science Research Overall Winner, Josh Bram, with our guest alumni judge Dr. McManigle.

Our Excellence in Life Science Research Overall Winner, Josh Bram, with our guest alumni judge Dr. McManigle.

Our very own Mark Herr took out the Outstanding Poster Presentation prize provided by the Center for Brain, Behavior and Cognition (the same project for which he received honorable mention at JMIH).

Me and Mark with his award certificate. With everything going on, we forgot to do this on the night. So we staged a photo with a “hand” from Chris Howey and Gregory Reilly (our newest undergrad lab member).

Me and Mark with his award certificate. With everything going on, we forgot to do this on the night. So we staged a photo with a “hand” from Chris Howey and Gregory Reilly (our newest undergrad lab member).

And Cecilia Zemanek definitely wins the award for “most-productivity-in-the-shortest-amount-of-time”. Cecilia decided she was going to do a poster before even starting her research – and only 1 week before the presentation. She managed to design an excellent project on Mexican Jumping Beans, collect and analyze the data, and put together a fantastic poster in just 7 days. Extraordinary!

Cecilia at the Exhibit with her poster, and in the lab working on her lighting-fast research.

Cecilia at the Exhibit with her poster… and some beans!


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Fieldwork in Paradise

Fieldwork can be tough – long days, extreme conditions, ferocious insects.  There are usually also perks, which is why many people enjoy fieldwork.  Many biologists simply enjoy getting out into nature, getting their hands dirty, and escaping the office for a while.  But sometimes fieldwork takes place in such amazing locations that even non-biologists would be jealous.  I recently conducted fieldwork in just such a place…

Guana island: pristine beaches and gorgeous views.

Guana island: pristine beaches and gorgeous views.

Guana Island is a private island in the British Virgin Islands.  It’s largely untouched by humans, home to amazing animals, and accommodates <30 guests at any one time.  Guana Island attracts the rich and famous and, according to rumor, was visited by Nicole Kidman (a fellow Aussie) and Tom Cruise while they were courting.  Not surprisingly, rooms go for >$1000 a night – out of the budget of most biologists I know (actually, out of the budget of everyone I know).  Unless, the biologist is lucky enough to participate in Guana Island’s “Scientist Month.”  Every October, Guana Island generously opens their doors to biologists to conduct research aimed at better understanding and preserving the island’s unique biota.  The Langkilde Lab has had the fortune of participating in Scientist Month since 2010.  As PI, I spend more time behind a desk than in the field.  But this past October, I made an exception and spent a few days doing fieldwork in Paradise.

Some of the amazing inhabitants of Guana Island.

Some of the amazing inhabitants of Guana Island.

The Langkilde Lab was invited to Guana because of our research on the invasive fire ant, Solenopsis invicta.  We have been tracking the spread of these ants and documenting their impact on native species on Guana.

Making peanut-butter balls to monitor for fire ants – fire ants can’t resist peanut butter and so get attracted to our balls, which allows us to determine their presence.  Ghost crabs are also unable to resist the lure of peanut butter and often dug new holes next to our bait.  We had to wrestle the occasional crab as we tried to collect the baits.  The crabs were often attacked by fire ants, but didn’t seem particularly fazed.

Making peanut-butter balls to monitor for fire ants – fire ants can’t resist peanut butter and so get attracted to the balls, which allows us to determine their presence. Ghost crabs are also unable to resist the lure of peanut butter and often dug new holes next to our bait. We had to wrestle the occasional crab as we tried to collect the baits. The crabs were often attacked by fire ants, but didn’t seem particularly fazed.

This trip, my collaborator Kat Shea and I continued monitoring efforts and also started a project to assess the effect of these fire ants on the worlds most endangered Iguana – the Stout Iguana (Cyclura pinguis). There are only 300 of these iguanas left in the world, on a handful of small islands including Guana. These iguanas are threatened by invasive species: feral cats eat juveniles, and goats and sheep compete with iguanas for food and trample the nests, crushing the eggs.  They are also likely impacted by invasive fire ants, which are likely to pose a particular threat to the iguana eggs.  Our goal is to understand the threats to this endangered Iguana, and make management suggestions by developing population models.

Top: A juvenile Stout iguana in the hand and on the ground near a nesting sight; these iguanas are part of a long-term monitoring program.  Bottom: An impressive adult iguana that hung out right near the dining area, and an iguana nest that had recently hatched (you can see an eggshell in the foreground).

Top: A juvenile Stout iguana in the hand and on the ground near a nesting sight; these iguanas are part of a long-term monitoring program. Bottom: An impressive adult iguana that hung out right near the dining area, and an iguana nest that had recently hatched (you can see an eggshell in the foreground).

The work was hot and hard, but we were rewarded by frequent gorgeous views, delicious food, and great company.  We hope that we can repay Guana for their amazing generosity by contributing to the preservation of the island’s unique fauna.

The food was as beautiful as the views.

The food was as beautiful as the view.