The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

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Maternal glucocorticoid effects across life stages in fence lizards – new paper!

“Anthropogenic disturbance is a growing threat, and the physiological consequences of exposure to such stressors is gaining increasing attention. A recent paper published in the Journal of Animal Ecology explores the consequences of stress-relevant hormones for mothers and their offspring…”

Read more in David’s new paper, and featured blogpost on the Journal of Animal Ecology blog!



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Sex-dependent effects of maternal stress in lizards

Check out the second chapter of Dustin’s thesis on the “Sex‐dependent effects of maternal stress: Stressed moms invest less in sons than daughters”!

baby lizard

Multigenerational effects can have important and sex‐dependent effects on offspring. Sex allocation theory predicts that females should differentially invest in sons and daughters depending on sex‐specific fitness returns and costs of investment. Maternal stress‐relevant (glucocorticoid) hormones may be one mechanism driving this effect. We investigated how maternal stress hormones differentially affected sons and daughters by manipulating levels of the glucocorticoid, corticosterone (CORT), in gravid female eastern fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus) and quantifying reproductive investment and sex ratio of resulting clutches, and the mass, snout‐vent length, and body condition of sons versus daughters at hatching. We found no effect of maternal CORT‐treatment on the number or size of eggs laid or on the sex ratio of resulting offspring, but sons of CORT‐treated mothers were shorter, lighter, and of poorer body condition at hatching than were sons of control mothers. We found no difference in size or condition of daughters with maternal treatment. Our results suggest that maternal stress, mediated by elevations in maternal CORT concentrations, can have sex‐specific effects on offspring manifesting as lower investment in sons.

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Undergraduate research in the spotlight!

The Langkilde lab was well-represented at this year’s Undergraduate Research Symposium by three of our lab researchers! It’s been an excellent year for undergraduate research. Congratulations to Richard Novak, Kristen Sprayberry, and Andrea Racic on their poster presentations! Not pictured is Jennifer Heppner, who also completed a brilliant thesis in the Langkilde lab this year. It’s been a pleasure having you all in the lab, and we will be sorry to see you go – but look forward to hearing about your future endeavours!


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A New Blood Sampling Method for Smaller Anurans that Preserves Critical Features of Specimens

Another new paper from Dustin In Herpetological Review! Summary below.


Obtaining adequate blood samples is vital for most studies involving immunology or physiology. Anurans (frogs and toads) present a particular challenge for obtaining adequate samples, largely because of their relatively small size compared to other vertebrates.

Here, we propose a new method for obtaining large amounts of blood from the ventral abdominal vein of euthanized frogs, which we call the lethal abdominal vein of anurans (LAVA) technique.

We tested this method on the locally common Wood Frog (Lithobates sylvaticus –  pictured above). Using the LAVA technique, we were able to collect blood from 100% of frogs. Each frog yielded an average of 0.09 mL (range: 0.03 to 0.17 mL) of blood, which contained an average of 40 µL (range: 15 to 100 µL) of plasma.

We also found that neither size, ambient temperature, nor site affected our blood yields. We show that the LAVA technique is an easy-to-use method that yields high amounts of blood from anurans, and could be potentially viable in other small vertebrates.

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Offspring influenced by their evolutionary history more than their own experience in fence lizards

Check out the first chapter of Dustin’s thesis on the “Trans-generational but not early life exposure to stressors influences offspring morphology and survival”, recently published in Oecologia!

Environmental changes, such as the introduction of non-native species, can impose novel selective pressures. This can result in changes in fitness-relevant traits within an individual’s lifetime or across multiple generations. We investigated the effects of early life versus trans-generational exposure to a predatory invasive insect stressor, the red imported fire ant (Solenopsis invicta), on the morphology and survival of the eastern fence lizard (Sceloporus undulatus). We captured gravid lizards from high-stress populations with long histories of invasion by fire ants and from uninvaded sites. Resulting hatchlings were exposed weekly to one of the three treatments until they reached maturity (42 weeks): (1) sub-lethal attack by fire ants; (2) topical application of the stress-relevant hormone, corticosterone (CORT), to mimic the stress of fire ant attack; or (3) control handling. Exposure to post-natal early life stress (fire ants or CORT) did not interact with a population’s evolutionary history of stress to affect morphology or survival and early life stress did not affect these fitness-relevant traits. However, morphology and survival were associated with the lizards’ evolutionary history of exposure to fire ants. Offspring of lizards from fire ant invaded sites had longer and faster growing hind-limbs, gained body length and lost condition more slowly in the first 16 weeks, and had lower in-lab survival to 42 weeks, compared to lizards from uninvaded sites. These results suggest that a population’s history of stress/invasion caused by fire ants during ca. 38 generations may be more important in driving survival-relevant traits than are the early life experiences of an organism.


You can read more about Dustin’s research here and here! 

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Not all of the lab went south this summer; Kristen (one of our awesome lab undergrads) and I stayed at Penn State most of the summer, working on immune assays.  Kristen was the recipient of the Erickson Discovery Grant, and spent much of her summer on an independent research project, which involved measuring the effects of corticosterone (CORT) on the cell-mediated immunity (i.e. one way the body responds to a toxic or foreign substance) of eastern fence lizard females. She was also trying to determine if the lizards’ life history (whether they were from sites with or without fire ants) affected their immune function or interacted with the CORT treatment. Kristen just recently gave an excellent talk on her research at the Three Rivers Evolution Event (TREE) on Sept. 9th, where she was one of the only undergraduates to present a talk.

We also spent a lot of time this summer developing, improving, and validating several different immune assays for use in fence lizards, including ELISA assays for measuring anti-fire ant antibodies (IgY and IgM), complement function, natural antibodies, and the activity levels of heterophils (a type of immune cell that kills bacteria). Work on the assays for IgY, complement function, and natural antibodies is ongoing, but the IgM and heterophil activity assays are ready to be used.

The IgM ELISA assay was developed to work with as little as 10μl of plasma, and accurately detected anti-fire ant antibodies in a pool of plasma of lizards from Alabama, where the lizards are regularly exposed to fire ants. It did not detect any antibodies in a pool of plasma of lizards from Tennessee, at sites which have not yet been invaded by fire ants. The next step is to test the plasma of individual lizards from different sites, to see what proportion of lizards in various invaded sites have actually developed IgM antibodies to fire ants. Once the IgY assay is working, we should be able to better characterize the antibody response of the lizards to fire ants, and see if this helps them recover faster from fire ant stings.

IgM in the plasma of Alabama lizards

The higher the proportion of plasma from invaded (Alabama) lizards, the higher the signal from the IgM antibody.

Our heterophil activity assay is based off the assay described in Merchant, Williams, and Hardy (2009) for use in American alligators. To account for the much smaller blood volume of fence lizards, I altered the assay to work with 10μl of whole blood, and validated it in this species. This assay specifically tests for the presence of superoxide radicals, which are produced by heterophils as part of the oxidative burst used to kill bacteria and other organisms. When heterophils are more active (either because there are more heterophils or because the existing heterophils have been stimulated by something), the amount of superoxide in the blood increases. As part of the validation, we ran the assay with pools of blood treated with superoxide dismutase, which destroys superoxide, to test that the signal is actually caused by superoxide. We also ran blood with and without a stimulant of heterophil function, to determine if the signal reliably increases when heterophils are more active. The signal reliably decreases when inhibited by superoxide dismutase, and reliably increases when stimulant is added, indicating that this is a reliable test of heterophil function.

We also did a little bit of work optimizing the natural antibody test, increasing the sensitivity of the test so that it will work with less lizard plasma. And we also found a promising lead for testing alternative pathway complement function in fence lizards.

Aside from all the immunology work, we also got out into the field up here in Pennsylvania a little bit, although we didn’t find many lizards. All in all, it was a fun, productive summer.

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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.