The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

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Classing Up Scientific Outreach

I’ve loved teaching since I was a middle school science teacher all the way back in 2005 (oh dear!). But, as a Penn State graduate student, it can be tough to find ways to bring science to kids and even more difficult to get experience teaching a class at the university level. To reach kids with cool science education opportunities, many graduate students, including me, build outreach activities for different venues (which I’ve discussed on this blog before). But is there a way to meet both these goals, doing community outreach and gaining experience with more formal teaching, at the same time? In short, yes!

About a year ago, I, and two friends who are also Biology graduate students, Allison Lewis and Zach Fuller, were being stereotypical graduate students and lamenting our lots in life. We’re supposed to be educators but the University won’t let us teach classes to get experience! Are we spending all this time doing outreach for nothing? Will anyone use our materials again? Why are we so whiny? Fortunately, bewailing the status quo can lead to good things if you get an idea for positive change. Zach, Allison, and I decided that the solution was to incorporate our outreach experiences into a class that would facilitate other students in conducting their own outreach from their own experience.

We first went to work convincing the University to actually let us teach a class. It is harder than you might think to actually teach at a university: there are many hidden requirements I never knew about and lots and lots of paperwork. To cut through this red tape rehash, I’ll finish by saying that we A) went all the way to the Dean to get permission to teach an outreach class (with a major assist from some supportive Biology faculty) and B) got a workable budget, a room to host the class, and a spot with the University Registrar. At long last, BIOL 497F, Science Outreach and Communication, a 1 credit class was born!


The snazzy flyer for our class that we blitzed PSU with.

Of course, we also needed actual students for our class. We made up flyers and became very familiar with the distribution of bulletin boards in University Park. We spammed listservs and spammed them again. We asked our friends for recommendations, got the emails of incoming students before they were on campus, and plied professors for the emails of students they would recommend to take our class. By August, we had 13 enrolled students: 10 graduate and 3 undergrads. These students came into the class with a mix of backgrounds including neuroscience, biology, entomology, anthropology and ecology.

The first portion of our class focused on teaching a core set of skills: how to tailor activities to different age levels and audiences, how to design and plan effective outreach, and how to evaluate learning. We collaborated with professional educators from different University entities, including Mike Zeman from the Eberly College of Science Outreach Office and Larkin Hood from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence to bring their expertise to our class (thanks guys!). Our students worked in small groups to build their own lesson plans for an initial outreach activity and then presented those to the rest of the class for feedback. We worked as a group to provide constructive criticism and refine these activities to increase their focus and effectiveness. In the midst of this, we included several classes focused on other important science communication topics including writing for a general audience, the importance of outreach in grant-writing, and a panel discussion with professional scientists who are successfully incorporating outreach into their research and careers.

At last, after much practice, cutting out of small paper shapes, tasting starbursts, and wrangling stick insects, the first outreach program (and major grade!) of the class arrived on November 10th as our students presented their own outreach activities at Exploration U at the Bellefonte Area High School. Exploration U is a biannual science fair run by the Science Outreach Office in which Penn State scientists and community groups present short, interesting activities about their research or other scientific topics for community children and their parents (hundreds of them at each event!). Some of the more dramatic activities include an inflatable planetarium, making ice cream with liquid nitrogen, a snake handling exhibit (not venomous ones!) and battling robots. Five groups from our class spent the evening discussing various aspects of science with the crowds.


Kevin and Arash showing off their Bug-O-Vision activity.

Have you ever wondered how another organism experiences the world? Arash Maleki and Kevin Cloonan taught attendees how insects perceive the world differently from humans. Using colored glasses, they described how insects see different parts of the spectrum from humans and how insects may see “secret messages” such as targets or directional signals on flowers that are not visible to our naked eyes.

NC Botanical Gardens (1)

Check out lots of other awesome pics of how flowers look to different organisms at Dr. Klaus Schmitt’s blog.

Cam Venable, Emilia Sola-Gracia, and David Stupski addressed the question of how plants are found everywhere when they don’t get up and walk (or fly or swim) like animals do. The answer is, of course, that their seeds do move, including via wind, water, and dispersal by animals. The kids loved an activity where they were able to make their own seed (with the aid of a little Velcro) and attempt to disperse it by tossing onto a passing fuzzy felt dog.


Emilia shows a youngling the best way to “disperse” the seed he’s just constructed.

Styles Smith, Kokila Shankar, and Christian John created an activity that emphasized how animals’ limbs are adapted for the environments that they inhabit. Kids worked to match the skeletal structure of limbs to the animals that used them and then designed their own animals with different types of limbs. At the end of the activity, kids drew the habitat that their animal creations lived in and explained how their creatures were adapted to it.


Styles describes how to go about designing an organism while a participant and her brainy younger brother listen.

Have you ever wondered why some folks just can’t eat their Brussel sprouts? Rebecca Coleman, Chloe Philip, and Chris Schmidt designed an activity explaining the heritability of taste, specifically focusing on why some are sensitive to bitterness (such as in those cursed sprouts) and others seem relatively immune. Kids and their parents tasted both sweet, sweet candy (Dum-dums) and a paper imbued with PTC, a chemical which tastes nastily bitter to a portion of the population. Chloe, Chris, and Becki used this experience as an entree to discuss how traits are coded for in our DNA and how these are passed between generations.


As Becki and Chloe explain how traits are inherited, these kids are really developing a taste for science.

Carolyn Trietsch and Sarah Shugrue focused on how insects are adapted for different environments via camouflage, which prevents unwanted attention from predators (or allows predators to set up ambushes for unsuspecting prey)! They created an activity for kids to match bugs to their natural backgrounds and find hidden, camouflaged insects, including several live Vietnamese stick insects (which fascinated adults as well as the kids)!


A young Darth Vader stays on the Light Side by gently petting a stick insect.

All in all, our class’ outreach night was successful as an educational experience both for the families who attended and the students in our class, who gained valuable experience. Moving forward, these students are designing and conducting their own independent outreach activities. Some lessons include: the use and importance of photography, including via drones (!), in biological research at State College High, demos of insect life cycles at Mount Nittany Middle School, and a scientist-in-the-classroom visit via Skype to a Philly elementary school to discuss how awesome ants are! We’re proud of the creativity and dedicated work that our students have put in over the semester and are excited to see them continue to do outreach in the future. For me, this class has provided great experience: in designing a class from the ground up, learning to navigate bureaucratic pitfalls, and co-teaching a class with two other dedicated instructors. It’s also been inspirational to see the impact that a small but dedicated group of students can have in advancing scientific education. Looking forward we hope to make this class a yearly offering in the College of Science to encourage a growing culture of scientific outreach in the graduate student community.

If you’re interested in seeing a syllabus for this class, here you go!

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Do fence lizards take a chance and eat stinging ants when exotics advance? Indeed they do!

Part 2 of 2 in the fence lizard fire ant saga: Rapid evolution of fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus) in response to selective pressures imposed by red imported fire ants (Solenopsis invicta).

I’m a postdoctoral research fellow in the Langkilde Lab who studies the ecological mechanisms that result in evolution. My interests range from the evolution of life histories in response to climate change to behavioral evolution in response to invasive species to the evolutionary significance of culture.  Most of my research, however, is on Sceloporus lizards (AKA Spiny lizards or Swifts), focusing on their genetic and plastic responses to environmental change and the underlying interactions between physiological (e.g. hormonal), behavioral (e.g. resource use and niche construction), and epigenetic mechanisms. My research endeavors have brought me to Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, the subtropics of Florida, and inside Biosphere 2 in the Arizona desert, but I am currently focusing on lizard evolution in the southeastern US, which brings us to the current continued blog post.

So, in the first chapter of the Saga we found out that fence lizards are adapting to habitats where they coexist with fire ants, which quickly find and attack lizards when on the ground. Some fence lizards dance and run away from fire ants when attacked, and the number of lizards that exhibit this behavior increases the longer a population has experienced fire ants. See the first chapter of the Saga here.

Fire ants attacking lizards is interesting, but what is even more interesting is that this interaction can be turned on its head!  Ants are a normal part of a fence lizard’s diet, so why wouldn’t fire ants be susceptible to being eaten by a fence lizard? Fire ants are susceptible! We’ve noticed while in the field that fence lizards do occasionally eat fire ants during encounters.  Not surprising, until you pick up a little insider information about a strange twist.  One of Tracy Langkilde’s studies revealed that eating fire ants can decrease lizard survival!

If it is bad for lizards to eat fire ants, why do they do it?  In light of what appears to be evolution with regard to the dance and run behaviors, we hypothesized that fire ant-eating behavior of fence lizards should be less frequent in populations that have experienced fire ants for a longer time (i.e. more generations). We tested this by recording fire ant consumption during staged encounters between fire ants and fence lizards from both fire ant invaded (experienced) and uninvaded (naïve) lizard populations. We also tested both juveniles and adults because we knew that they have a tendency to respond to fire ants differently.

We found a complex relationship that somehow supports both what we already knew from previous experiments (adults in fence lizard populations are adapting to the presence of fire ants) and our newer hypotheses about juvenile lizards adapting to the fact that eating fire ants can be toxic!  It seems that adult fence lizards from populations that have been coexisting with fire ants for a long time eat fire ants much MORE frequently than lizards that have never experienced fire ants.  What!?

AntInsideMouth - T. Langkilde, T.R. Robbins

Photo credit: T. Langkilde, T.R. Robbins

Figure 2 - Robbins Langkilde 2012 - JEB

Fire ant consumption by lizards. The proportion of field-caught (a) and laboratory-reared (b) adult (open squares) and juvenile (solid squares) fence lizards, Sceloporus undulatus, from a fire ant-invaded and uninvaded site that consumed fire ants during fire ant attack. Points represent mean values ± 1 standard error.
Figure – Robbins and Langkilde 2012 J Evol Biol 25(10):1937-46

We also found, as we hypothesized, that juvenile fence lizards from populations that have been coexisting with fire ants for a long time eat fire ants much LESS frequently than their inexperienced counterparts.  So we see changes in feeding behavior in fence lizards after fire ants invade their habitat, just like we saw with the dance and run anti-predator behaviors. What is more fascinating, however, is that our results with regard to feeding behavior suggest what is called an ontogenetic shift in selection pressures.  That is, it is more adaptive to behave one way while young and then behave the opposite way when older!  Fire ant invaded habitats select (via natural selection) juveniles that do not eat fire ants, but can learn to eat fire ants once they grow up!

Next, obviously, we wanted to test if and how well juvenile lizards learn to eat fire ants.  Our hypothesis for this experiment was actually that the lizards would learn NOT to eat fire ants because they get stung in the mouth when they eat them. At some time during their life with fire ants they seem to learn to eat fire ants, but we thought it would be after they were adults because fewer juveniles from the invaded site had eaten fire ants when on the mound and under attack (see above).


Photo credit: T. Langkilde, T.R. Robbins

We were wrong!  When it comes to eating fire ants, the longer lizards are exposed to fire ants the more lizards eat them!

Figure 2 - Robbins et al 2013 - Biol Inv

Proportion of lizards from invaded (open circles and broken line) and uninvaded (solid circles and solid line) populations that ate a fire ant over a 6-day period. During this period lizards were fed 1 fire ant followed later by 2 crickets each day, representing a subsistence diet. Points show proportions ± 1 standard error.
Figure – Robbins et al 2012 Biol Inv 15: 407-415

We even found that more juvenile lizards from the invaded site ate fire ants during the experiment than those from the uninvaded site (lizards naïve to fire ants).  So, juvenile lizards appear to learn to eat stinging ants pretty quickly when they are not on a mound being attacked!  It changed from 50% to 80% of lizards eating fire ants within 6 days.  Maybe fire ants are addictive like hot sauce is for us! Endorphins can be powerful rewards.

I know, it’s a little confusing.  Juveniles from invaded sites (i.e. that have experience with fire ants) eat fire ants less often when on the mound being attacked (first graph), but more often when fed one ant each day over a 6 day period (second graph)?  Well, the two scenarios are a little different with a lizard being under attack by many fire ants in the first and in the other only being exposed to one lonely fire ant.  And that may have something to do with the it.

The effects of envenomation are mass dependent, so the fact that juvenile lizards are small means that they can be overcome by fire ant venom faster than adults. When a juvenile lizard is on a fire ant mound and notices many potentially stinging ants, it doesn’t think to eat them as much as it thinks to dance and run away.  However, away from fire ant mounds fire ants are often an abundant potential food source.  When fire ants invade habitats they pretty much take over and push out many of the other arthropods that otherwise serve as food for lizards.  Although eating fire ants can increase the chances of a lizard’s early demise, eating a few fire ants here and there will not overtly harm all juvenile lizards.  Even in the study that found an increase in mortality after eating fire ants there was still a 66% survival rate.  So, because venom effects are mass dependent, it’s possible that juvenile lizards that survive and grow up (and thus get bigger) can eat more fire ants (and get stung) without feeling the negative effects of fire ant venom.

Although natural selection appears to select juvenile lizards that do not eat fire ants when being attacked, it seems they like to get stung in the tongue as they become less young!  But this tale has yet to be completely sung! We only fed the lizards 1 fire ant per day, which may not be enough to make them learn to avoid eating them.  They may easily forget what they had for breakfast yesterday and thus need to experience eating and getting stung on the tongue a few times a day to learn to avoid eating fire ants.  Or not.  We are analyzing experiments we designed to test just that right now!

So the saga continues . . .