The Lizard Log

The Langkilde Lab in Action

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We’re Not In Kansas Anymore…

…but we were last week! Tracy, Chris (Howey), Mark, and I roadtripped it from State College, PA to Lawrence, KS to attend the 2015 SSAR annual meeting, where we presented our research, heard lots of other exciting presentations, and had a great time. While the following is a travelogue of the past week for us, you can also check out the content of the research that we presented on.

Our travels began despairingly early (5:55 am) on a Thursday morning with Tracy picking me up from my place, subsequently rounding up the rest of the lab, and obtaining our fleet vehicle (a newish Chevy Impala named “Vlad”). One look at the GPS revealed how far we had to go: 1,021 miles to Lawrence.


It doesn’t look very far on this map…

The drive was filled with all sorts of fascinating sights and occurrences:


We started out with high levels of excitement!


The corn in Ohio was beautiful for the first hour or so….


but we were soon grateful for a change of state.


However, the corn in Indiana looked almost exactly the same as that in Ohio.

Upon seeing the vasts swathes of corn billowing across the landscape, Mark Herr, resident undergraduate student extraordinaire, asked perhaps the most profound question of the trip: “Is popcorn corn?” The older and wiser among us proceeded to explain that popcorn is indeed corn (Zea mays, though there are specific varieties that make the best popcorn) that has been heated until enough pressure builds in the kernel to pop out of the hull. The group also made use of our phones to learn other fascinating popcorn facts, including: popcorn has likely been eaten by humans for over 6,000 years and that popcorn is the official snack food of the state of Illinois. Speaking of Illinois…


We rolled into the Land of Lincoln, the 5th state on our trip.


We kept our eyes peeled for the highest point in Illinois, and we’re mostly sure this is it.


At this point, it seemed that the populace had become so bored with their landscape that they were digging holes and making hills in the middle-of-nowhere just to produce some topographical variety.


Crossing the wide Mississippi River, was a good indication that we were getting closer to our final destination!


At least until St. Louis foiled us with traffic…:(

Rush hour in the St. Louis area meant that our best move was to pull off of the cursed Interstate 70 to stretch our legs and fill our bellies with some much needed grease and starch. We accomplished this in the most delicious manner by checking Yelp for reviews of local fast food restaurants and settling upon Freddy’s Frozen Custard.


The crew destroying steakburgers, shoestring fries, and various custard concoctions in the balmy St. Louis evening.


‘Nuff said

The final leg of the trip saw us reach our destination at the University of Kansas and the Oread Hotel just in time to grab a glass of wine at the opening social and then drop off to sleep with visions of the next day’s talks dancing in our heads.

Our three days at the conference were a whirlwind of talks, poster sessions, chats between researchers, good food and drink, and late nights. Some of the highlights were:

A visit with “grandpa” Rick Shine, Tracy’s former advisor and eminent herpetologist, who also happens to be the president-elect of SSAR.


One big, happy, research family.

Enjoying the beautiful weather and gorgeous campus.


View from the top of the Oread Hotel, where the closing picnic was held.

At the annual SSAR herp auction, there were many amazing finds to be had, including lots of herp-themed artwork, rare books, and the highest-grossing object of the night, legendary herpetologist Bill Duellman‘s personal machete from the 1960’s (with a winning bid of a cool $700).

I took home a selection of anuran auditory history with vinyl of Charles Bogert’s Sounds of North American Frogs and 78’s of Voices of the Night, the first frog song recording release in the U.S.


A sexy face for sexy frog songs.

The keynote speaker, David Hillis, showed the rest of the crowd how it is done by arriving with a cardboard box bar for making margaritas and martinis.


Auction revenues increased in direct proportion to the number of drinks dished out from David Hillis’ bar.

And of course we actually did discuss our research occasionally.


Tracy discussing the benefits of stress for fence lizards when dealing with fire ants.

We also did not go home empty-handed in the awards category, with Mark Herr taking 2nd place in the Herpetological Quiz (undergraduate division).


Mark enjoying being the only male lucky enough to snag a seat at the “Eminent Female Herpetologist’s Table” during the picnic.

The final night ended with a party in the backyard of local host, Rich Glor, an exceptionally fashionable gentleman.


Rich rockin’ the stubbies.

And no herpetological systematist function would be complete without David Hillis schooling some youngsters in leg wrestling.


Another one bites the dust (after being flipped over completely). Photo courtesy of Kelly Zamudio.

The return trip was, not surprisingly, very similar to the outward journey. We were denied the opportunity to visit recent lab graduate Brad Carlson (via a slight detour), due to Brad becoming a father for the second time <48 hours before our trip…congrats Brad!


Most of us were exhausted from the trip, but Howey proved to be a tenacious driver, powering through the boredom of I-70.

We also fulfilled a wish of Mark’s by getting a drive-by glimpse of the St. Louis Arch.


Perhaps the least scenic photo of the Arch ever taken.

As day faded into night we were hit with dramatic thunderstorms and downpours, but nothing could dampen our enthusiasm for the next herp meeting (New Orleans!) or the fact that we were closing in on a return to our own beds.


The home stretch.

We’ve got one more lab conference this summer, a visit to the meeting of the Ecological Society of America (just next week!) so keep your eyes peeled for a final set of conference proceedings coming soon!



Langkilde Lab Road Show

While I just went to the Evolution meeting solo, we’re entering an exciting period of conference attendance for the Langkilde Lab. In the next few weeks, we’ll have contingents attending two important conferences! Read on to check out the titles and some brief previews of our upcoming presentations, as well as the details on where/when we’ll be speaking:


First up is the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR) in Lawrence, KS from July 30th through August 2nd. Tracy, Chris Howey, Mark Herr, and I will all be roadtripping it out there and back with one day, 15 hour drives each way….paaaaaarty! The meeting will feature lots of cool herp-related symposia and talks, as well as live animal shows, a herpetological quiz, a silent auction, closing picnic, and field trips to Kansas herp sites as well as awesome presentations by the folks in our lab, of course.

Mark Herr will be presenting in the Seibert-Ecology section (he won a special undergrad honorable mention last year and is back for a chance at more glory this summer!) He’ll be showing that fence lizards actually develop a taste for fire ants once they’ve experienced them. We’ve found that this effect occurs consistently over multiple time scales, including within a lifetime and across generations. Mark will be warming up the conference, taking the stage at 1:45 on Friday in the Jayhawk room.


I’ll be discussing how invasive fire ants have reversed geographical patterns in many aspects of fence lizard ecology, including their behavior, stress responses, and morphology, across their range in less than 75 years. I’ll be kickin’ it live on the final afternoon of the conference, August 2nd at 2:30 in the Alderson Auditorium. I’ll also be warming the stage for Rick Shine, eminent Australian herpetologist, Tracy’s former advisor, and future prez of SSAR, who’s come all the way from the Land Down Under just to attend this conference.


Tracy will be talking about her research testing the effects of fire ant-induced stress on antipredator behavior, immune function, and offspring fitness of native lizards. Our results reveal an adaptive role of the stress response for surviving environmental threats. She’ll knock ’em dead after Rick at 3:30 in the Alderson Auditorium on Sunday.


and Chris Howey will be giving a poster on “Thermal preference, performance, and kinematics of the black racer” (no preview for this one, you’ll have to see it in person!) at the poster session on Saturday.

Drop by and see us if you’re at the conference!


Just a week after returning from SSAR, we’ll also be attending the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America (ESA) in Baltimore, MD from August 9th-14th. This is the centenary meeting of the society, so it is apparently going to be huge (maybe 5,000 people!?!). Perhaps a little intimidating, but there should be no shortage of awesome science on display. Gail, Chris, and I will all be headed down and giving talks.

Stressful events encountered early in ones lifetime can have lasting consequences into adulthood (e.g. humans that were abused during childhood often have increased risk of depression as adults). At ESA, Gail will be discussing whether fire ants attacks that occur during early life—or in previous generations!—affect the adult stress response in lizards. Check it out at 8:20 on Tuesday the 11th in Room 347 (get your coffee and come on down!)


I’ll be giving a very similar talk to that at SSAR (see above), but elaborating a little more on how invasive species can alter patterns in many traits over large spatial scales. So if you get the chance, drop by to hear it at 2:30 on Tuesday the 11th in Room 329!

Chris will be presenting on how a specific disturbance, prescribed fire, changes how black racers interact with their environment and leads to increases in energy expenditures.  However, racers in the disturbed habitat are able to balance these energy losses by increasing the amount of time they are active on the surface and the amount of food they consume. Chris will be on stage at 4:00 on Tuesday the 11th in Room 323.

Ecological Effects of a Disturbance Event on Habitat_ESA_2015

We hope to see you there!



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Don’t Prey on Me: Part 2

Note: This is a follow up to my first blog on this project. For the background and an explanation of the study, see Part 1

By Mark Herr

The field season is heating up for my summer Timber Rattlesnake project! As described in the first post, we’re using foam models of rattlesnakes to measure how the risk of predation varies between the different summer basking sites used by gravid female rattlesnakes. This project is a sub-project of the main study being conducted by Chris Howey looking into the effects of prescribed fire on rattlesnake ecology in general, and for most of the summer up until now I’ve been assisting with that study while we’re waiting for the gravid female snakes to arrive at their summer gestation sites. Well, it seems that they’ve (finally!) arrived, and so this week Chris, Alex (another one of the field techs on the rattlesnake project), Tom Radzio, and I have been deploying models and initiating the first field phase of the study!

Here I am with a beautiful yellow phase female rattlesnake that we found down the mountain below one of our known gestation sites. If she’s gravid then hopefully she’ll head up to the top to bask!

Here I am with a beautiful yellow phase female rattlesnake that we found down the mountain below one of our known gestation sites. If she’s gravid then hopefully she’ll head up to the top to bask!

One of our black phase models deployed against the substrate. We take a photo of each model after we place it out in the field so that we can reference them when examining them for signs of predation at the end of the deployment.

One of our black phase models deployed against the substrate. We take a photo of each model after we place it out in the field so that we can reference them when examining them for signs of predation at the end of the deployment.

Tom Radzio is a graduate student who’s currently pursuing his PhD at Drexel University. He’s an old friend of Chris’, and was generous enough to (awesomely!) provide us with field time-lapse cameras that we can use to record the happenings on the gestation sites while we aren’t there! Tom has used these cameras in his research on Gopher Tortoises in Georgia, and they should be incredibly valuable for us in this project, as they’ll let us truly see what’s happened to the foam snake models while they’re deployed. We were previously planning on trying to decipher any potential predation attempts on the models by examining the imprints left in the foam (as has been done in other studies) but now we’ll be able to look at the footage and see for ourselves exactly what happened!

Tom and Chris (in the tree!) setting up one of the cameras at a gestation site.

Tom and Chris (in the tree!) setting up one of the cameras at a gestation site.

We’ll be leaving the cameras up for the rest of the summer, and hopefully we’ll be able to record not only what happens to the foam predation models, but also anything interesting that the actual snakes using these sites are doing during the day. We might be able to use this data to figure out when the snakes are emerging at the different sites and when they go back underground for the night. Questions like that will help us to explore the other side of this project: how do the thermal qualities of the sites differ from one another? Do snakes need to emerge at different times, or stay out longer, at some sites because they are thermally inferior? Hopefully the cameras will help with resolving some of those issues.

The final setup! You can see the two lower arrows pointing at two models, one black and one yellow. The top arrow shows one of the cameras that’ll record the site for later analysis.

The final setup! You can see the two lower arrows pointing at two models, one black and one yellow. The top arrow shows one of the cameras that’ll record the site for later analysis.

Of course, our primary tool for examining those questions will be the copper thermal models that we’ll be placing out at the gestation sites very soon -as early as this next week! They’ll go out after we retrieve the foam models from the sites at the end of this first deployment (which’ll be on Monday – we’re keeping the foam models out for one week at a time).

I’m excited that this project is finally in full swing, and hopefully we get some interesting results over the course of the summer! Also exciting is the fact that I received an SSAR Roger Conant Grant In Herpetology for this project! I had applied this winter during the semester and was anxiously waiting to hear back, and now we’ll be able to use this grant to assist with some of the costs associated with the cameras and models. I’m so happy to have received the grant, and I couldn’t have done it without Chris and Tracy who helped to devise the project!

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Panhandling in Florida

While it still seems like the weather is feeling March Madness here in State College, with all our wavering between warm and cold, rain and snow, I spent a couple of days of my spring break in the panhandle of Florida, camping, letting my skin remember what humidity is, and, of course, herping! While the only herps I’ve seen up North so far are spring peepers, the season is considerably more advanced down South. In the Apalachicola National Forest and surrounding areas, I encountered temperatures >80 degrees, trees with leaves, and even got a mild sunburn. In the midst of driving to campsites and hiking, I also stumbled on a small sampling of the huge herp biodiversity present in this forest.  The first herp I came upon was this juvenile cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus) on the road to my campsite. His stopping in the middle of the sand road made him a nice target for a huge pick-up barreling down the road, but, after some creative car parking and arm waving, I managed to convince the other driver to leave this little fella in a non-flattened condition.


Not old enough to have any hairs on his chinny-chin-chin. This little bugger was all of 16 inches.

As I prepared to use my handy snake hook to help him off the road, this snake was kind enough to give an open-mouthed smile for the camera with a cottonmouth’s trademark, white grin.


No, I was not dangling any delicious rodents just out of the frame.

Much of the forest consists of pine flatwoods, but there are also sandhill areas and intergrades between these habitat types. In these areas, I found plenty of our old friends, the Eastern fence lizards (Sceloporus undulatus). Both males and females were out basking, and in some cases, beginning to establish territories for the upcoming season. I also found a young male with fully developed badges who was only 44 mm long (snout-vent length)…an early bloomer!


A male fence lizard surveying his domain.

In the amphibian category, I turned up a few Southeastern slimy salamanders (Plethodon grobmani) by rolling over downed logs (and carefully replacing them!). This species is part of the slimy salamander complex and has a neat pattern of white blotches underneath and golden flecks above.


I also traveled to Ochlockonee River State Park in Florida, right next to both the National Forest and St. Marks Wildlife Refuge. This was a neat little state park with a few trails and some great opportunities for canoeing/kayaking on the river.


The view from the riverside trail in Ochlockonee River State Park.

The park also had some interesting animals, including even a mammal, the generally rare, but locally common white squirrel! These squirrels are just mutants of the normal Eastern gray squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis), that were introduced to the area within the past century. They’re not albinos, as they still have pigments in their eyes and usually a darker stripe down the back, but they do appear rather striking. I had no idea that these squirrels were in the park, so I was initially pretty surprised to find one hanging out right next to my campsite.


A slightly blurry picture of one of the white squirrels in the park. You can see the dark eye and beginning of the darker back stripe in this photo. Other squirrels seem to treat them normally, as the normally pigmented gray squirrel seen here was doing his best to court the white one!

Of course, the park also has an abundance of herps. I came across several barking treefrogs (Hyla gratiosa) on the sandy trails at night as they were moving to and calling in the flatwoods ponds.


A barking treefrog pauses for a quick snapshot before continuing its journey to a nearby chorus.

The last herp of the trip in Florida was the same as the first, a juvenile Cottonmouth crossing the road. This one picked the same characteristic posture as the first and also had a very pretty yellow tail tip which is common among some juvenile pitvipers.


I also found several other species, including oak toads, southern toads, southern leopard frogs, bronze frogs, ornate chorus frogs, and an eastern diamondback rattlesnake (which didn’t sit still for long enough to grab photos), and a very squashed pigmy rattlesnake (which sat too still…:*(

As field season ramps up in the lab, we’ll have more research updates right here (as opposed to updates on recreational herping).

In other news, the lab is also preparing to send a contingent to the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Amphibians and Reptiles (SSAR). After dominating the awards last year, we’re off to a promising start this year. Both Mark Herr and I received 2015 SSAR Conference Grants from the Gans Collections and Charitable Fund covering our registration fees for the meeting! We’ll have more news on that front this summer!

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What Happens When Hundreds of Herpetologists Get Together?

This past week, the servers, waiters, bartenders, and other townsfolk of the fair city of Chattanooga, TN were probably all wondering similar things: who are these crazy people blocking the sidewalks, clogging our bars, and loudly discussing reptiles, amphibians, and fish all over town? And why do they have an inordinate fondness for Hawaiian shirts? The answer, of course, was that the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists (2014 edition) was in town for their annual conference. The Langkilde Lab sent a sizable delegation to the meeting with 6 attendees: Tracy (the PI), Chris Howey and Travis Robbins (the post-docs), Mark Herr and Mark Goldy-Brown (the undergrads), and me (the lone grad student). Starting on a Wednesday morning, we all piled into a fabulous white whale of a Chrysler minivan and roadtripped our way down to Chattanooga. Our first evening got off to a blazing start when, upon receipt of our pizza and beer at Community Pie, we were forced to tell our lovely waitress that her story of a friend being swarmed and attacked by 15 fascist cottonmouths was, in fact, bogus. We also had a grand time at the informal social sipping a few local brews while wondering at the ludicrousness of Sharknado 2, which was playing throughout the hotel bar.

Chris Howey and I in a deep conversation about what is the best way to hold one's hands while giving a scientific presentation.

Chris Howey and I deep in conversation at the social about the best way to hold one’s hands while giving a scientific presentation. Note the multiple Sharknado screens in the background.

JMIH kicked into full gear on the following day, with a morning of plenary speakers and an afternoon full of student presentations in the various awards competitions. Mark Herr, one of a very few undergraduates presenting at the conference, delivered a cracking talk about the relationship between stress levels and defensive behaviors in Cottonmouths. Placed in the last slot of the day, I spoke about my research from this past summer looking at how the adaptations which we see in fence lizards to fire ants (namely fleeing and twitching) may actually be maladaptive in certain situations. Fence lizards seem to react with increased flight and twitching to native ants, which don’t pose a threat, and this behavior may attract attention from native predators such as hawks and snakes (see this previous post for more info about reactions to hawk predators). I also showed data from the past four years which links higher rates of injuries (such as those I wrote about here) with the presence of fire ants. So perhaps this adaptation, while useful to survive fire ant attacks, has some serious costs as well.

Both Mark’s and my presentations were judged for the Henri Seibert Award in Ecology given by SSAR for the best student presentations at the meeting, and we did the Langkilde Lab proud. Mark won a special Honorable Mention, with the judges noting how impressive his work was for an undergraduate. I received the first place award, which, in addition to having a congratulatory letter, came with a chunk of ca$hmoney and a book of my choice from sponsors CRC Press. On the whole, a successful evening for the lab!

Tracy, Mark, and I with big grins after the awards were announced at the SSAR business meeting.

Tracy, Mark, and I with big grins after the awards were announced at the SSAR business meeting.

Other lab members presented their research as well, with Chris Howey chairing a session and talking about the effects of prescribed fire on thermoregulation of snakes, Travis discussing the long-awaited results of his fence lizard breeding experiment (too complicated for me to write up here!), Tracy discussing bearded ladies, and a guest appearance from lab alum Sean Graham looking into the effects of fire ant invasion on Caribbean anoles. Mark Goldy-Brown presented a poster detailing just one piece of the great work he’s done as an undergraduate looking at the effects of fire ant envenomation on fence lizard physiology.


MGB all spiffed up and ready to discuss the effects of fire ant venom on fence lizards.

By the time Sunday evening rolled around, we were all nearing exhaustion. The meeting had many highlights, including an opening reception at the Tennessee Aquarium; the facility was amazing and strolling through the exhibits with great food and bars spaced throughout (including the chance to pet Lake Sturgeon!) was a great experience. We also sampled lots of the great food and beverages on offer in Chattanooga and enjoyed local attractions like free outdoor concerts, a Chattanooga Lookouts minor league baseball game (with multiple used car giveaways), and others. But the choicest of attractions was the SSAR/HL auction on the final night of the conference.

Each year the SSAR/HL auction takes donations of a diverse set of herpetologically themed items for a fast-paced auction to raise money for student travel to the next year’s conference. Bidding wars often break out for even banal items, and the drama only increases throughout the evening as BAC rises and bidding inhibitions become lower. This year’s auction was MC’ed in part by Sean Graham, who kept the bidding at a blistering tempo with a speed round, and everyone in the lab came away with at least one prize from the auction. For myself, I sprung for an original 1875 print of “Check list of North American Batrachia and Reptilia, with a systematic list of the higher groups and an essay on geographical distribution” by E. D. Cope, one of the founders of North American herpetology.


The first published Bulletin of the United States National Museum (now the National Museum of Natural History)! It is now mine.

Most people purchased books, but Tracy fended off all comers to walk away with one of the hits of the night: a t-shirt emblazoned with a meticulously detailed guide to snake hemipenes (based on the research of a good friend from Down Under, Scott Keogh).


A triumphant end of auction for the Langkilde Lab and associates!

Come Monday morning, it was time to head home to State College, hoping that four consecutive nights of sleep deprivation had resulted in only temporary insanity. Travis opted for his own special recovery breakfast, destroying a gargantuan slice of chocolate cake from the diner attached to our hotel.


Travis’ epic morning-after nosh.

Meanwhile, the undergrads, despite their youth, higher metabolisms, and generally whipper-snappery, seemed to feel the effects more than the older, more experienced hands, and required some serious naptime in the backseat of the van on the return leg.


The greenhorns seem to be plumb tuckered out in the backseat…awwwwwww.

All in all, the Langkilde Lab rocked JMIH 2014, and we’re looking forward to future editions. With so many folks recently moving on to bigger and better things, future JMIH meeting will be a chance for Langkilde Lab reunions par excellence!