The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

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Alabama Part II: Prep for experiments!

Hello again! After my first trip down to Alabama, I ended up catching a lot of gravid female fence lizards. I ended bringing them back to Penn State so they could lay their eggs.

Individual housing so we could figure out who laid which eggs

Individual housing so we could figure out who laid which eggs

They took to their new homes very well, as they were furnished with a half log for basking/hiding, and sand for laying their eggs.

She wasn't going to share her new home with anyone!

She wasn’t going to share her new home with anyone!

We spent most of every day with them, whether it was cleaning their housing, doing behavioral observations, checking for eggs, or feeding them.

You can imagine which part was their favorite!

You can imagine which part was their favorite!

It took nearly a month for all the mothers to lay their eggs, and it was not without excitement. Most of them laid their eggs in the nice, moist sand we provided, and their eggs looked wonderful. However some decided to rebel against that idea and laid their eggs directly under the heat lamp! Needless to say, those eggs needed some TLC.

Finally, when it was reaching about the time for the eggs to start hatching, we headed back down to Solon Dixon, AL to get ready for the second round of field work. I brought 2 volunteers with me again, and they have been an incredible help, not only with doing the work down here, but also giving great ideas and making the trip much more enjoyable.

Lexi (L) and Michaleia (R)

Lexi (L) and Michaleia (R)

The first order of business was returning the mothers back to where we caught them. Luckily, they all posed for me to take nice picture,


Lizards going back home!

After the mothers were safely back to their natural habitats, we got started on the biggest part of the preparation phase, making the outdoor enclosures. To do this we used aluminum fencing buried 6-10 inches into the dirt, supported by metal electrical poles. To make our lives easier, we rented a trench digger to dig the trenches for us!

Imagine a giant skillsaw that you pull behind you.

Imagine a giant circular saw that you pull behind you.

Using that helped speed up enclosure building a lot, especially since we had 4 to build.

The finished product.

The finished product.

Even using the trencher, it took many long, hot days in the field to get everything ready. Luckily there are a few cool and refreshing escapes close by!

A freshwater spring at Solon Dixon.

A freshwater spring at Solon Dixon.

We returned once again to the spring at Solon Dixon, whose 60F water made the 100F days much more bearable. In addition to the cool temperature, the spring also has a wealth of different organisms. This time, in addition to all the fish and spiders, we saw a crawdad and a frog!

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Also, while waiting for some aluminum flashing to come in, we were able to take a short trip to Destin, FL. The sand and water were beautiful, and the amount of fish, jellyfish, and invertebrates (with a surprise appearance from a shark!) was incredible.

O'Steen Beach

O’Steen Beach

But after the relaxation time, it was back to work. Once the enclosures were up, we had to remove the fire ants from half of the enclosures to give us high and low stress enclosures.


The “Fire ant removal” gear.

To do this, you pound a piece of metal into the colony, and then flood it with hot water. Around this time, we started seeing wild fence lizard hatchlings.

A little guy trying to blend in with white rocks....he will learn how to blend in better!

A little guy trying to blend in with white rocks…    he will learn how to blend in better!

With those sightings, we knew that our hatchlings would be next. And sure enough, a few days later, we had our very first eggs hatch.

3 little guys just hatching.

3 little guys just hatching.

Now that the hatching has started, we get to start stocking the enclosures with baby fence lizards and running behavioral trials. I am very excited to be able to finally run experiments with the hatchlings! I look forward to letting you all know how the experiments went.
Till next time,

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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.


Solon Dixon’s fancy new classroom facility.


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.


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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Stress and Fence Lizards

Through the lens of conservation, I became interested in stress. My biggest interest is in how humans can cause stress in animals, and how that stress impacts them. To this end, I started studying the effects of stress within an individual. I looked at how stress changed different hormones and metabolites in adult male northern elephant seals, and how that response differed during different times of the year.


Adult male northern elephant seal (Mirounga angustirostris), about 1,500kg, asleep

This experience was great and fueled my excitement and curiosity about studying stress. I started talking with 2 professors at Penn State (Drs. Sheriff and Langkilde) about what they were looking into and fell in love with the project I am working on now. Instead of studying stress within an individual (stress the animal, see what happens to them), we are going to look at the effects of maternal stress (stress the mother, see what happens to their offspring). The other large difference was instead of being in California working on seals, I was going to be in Alabama working on eastern fence lizards!


A female fence lizard (L), the ones I am studying, and a male (R).

Even more striking then their back color is the color of their underside!


The dark blue chest and neck of a male eastern fence lizard.

I had never been to Alabama or worked with herps before, but I was incredibly excited. Last summer I was able to go down with Chris Thawley and he showed me where to look, how to catch the fence lizards, and many other things. That time, combined with Tracy, Gail, and his answering of my constant questions throughout the year (thank you so much!) helped alleviate some of my own stress about the field work.

So I had a plan laid out. I would get gravid female lizards from the field and have 1/2 be stressed, 1/2 not stressed. I would then take them back to the lab and have them lay their eggs, and then look at differences in the offspring. I thought that sounded pretty simple, but lizards prove to be an elusive bunch. So far we have all the females we need from Conecuh National forest, but we are being thwarted by the lizards in Geneva State Forest and Blakeley State Park. Luckily, I have 2 skilled field techs working with me, Michaleia and Miranda.


Michaleia drying a colored mark on the back of a lizard (L), and Miranda out in the field (R).

They have been a tremendous help in not only finding the lizards, but also collecting data and samples as well as catching the lizards. We have been learning so much about the area, the wildlife, and how to handle the lizards. The lack of lizards from Geneva and Blakeley has not curbed my enthusiasm about studying this amazing lizards, and I am looking forward to working with them more and getting into the meat of my research with them.


P.S. Here are some other interesting things we have been seeing down here.


Fire ants eating the tail of a fence lizard

And some other herps!


A gray rat snake, Pantherophis spiloides, blending into the leaf litter.


A southern toad, Anaxyrus terrestris, hanging out.


A ground skink, Scincella lateralis, found at our field station.


A green anole, Anolis carolinensis, perched on the side of a log.