Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lizard Project Days 4 & 5: No two days are ever the same in field biology.

We are already into day 5 of The Lizard Project.  Our team is settling in to our daily routine of working in the field, but when it comes to science in the field, nothing is ever really routine.

Yesterday, was a really full day.  We left at 6:00 am to get our rental pickup truck.  This is great for us, because we can now pull a trailer with all four of our kayaks and carry all of our gear in the back, all in one trip.
Tim caught a bumble bee with a lizard noose.  No way!
We did four Skype video calls with classrooms. The first call was to Adam Taylor's class in Nashville, TN at Overton High School.  They asked lots of great questions and Mr. Taylor even ran a live webcast of our conversation!  We then talked to 3 of Mr. Will Reed's classes at Kelly High School in Chicago.  The first conversation actually took place from the water while we were paddling the kayaks out to the islands!  We had  hot sunny weather and it was a great day for the lizards. We caught 76.  Tim also became a legend among our crew when he caught a bumble-bee out of mid air with his lizard noose.  If you don't understand why that is amazing, check out this quick video of a lizard noose in action. Now picture using that to catch a bumble bee in mid-air.

Threatening Sky
Today mother nature dealt us a completely different day to work with.  We got out to the islands around 9:00am, but it was cool and windy with storm clouds threatening.  We worked at catching lizards for 4 hours total on three different islands and only caught 6 lizards. Lizards are ectothermic or what you might know as cold-blooded. Because they are ecothermic, they can't move very fast when they are cool.  So on days when it is not sunny and hot, they spend most of their time hiding inside of trees or underneath palm fronds.  They are almost impossible to find under these conditions and we only found a few. We decided that any more time spent searching for hidden lizards was not worth it,  the sky grew more threatening and we spotted lightning. That was our cue to head for home.  We hurried to load up our gear in the boats and paddle for the dock.  We  paddled with a huge wind at our backs and loaded the kayaks onto the trailer just as the rain and hail hit.  No we are back at the field station catching up on data processing and waiting out the rain.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Lizard Project Day 3: The little things.

One of the best parts about doing research in the field is the little unexpected things that you get to see because you are spending time looking at nature so carefully. Today we got a lot of work done.  We measured dewlaps in the morning for 20 lizards, paddled out to islands M and K where we caught 76 more lizards, took a break for dinner and then measured, weighed and marked our catch.  We did a lot of work, but the things I will remember about today were the little things that happened in between the work.

While paddling between islands in our kayaks, we saw a snake swimming out in the middle of the estuary.  We paddled over to try and catch it.  Once Tim had it in hand, we realized that it wasn't a snake at all.  It was a eastern glass lizard, a species of lizard without legs.  It is a great example of convergent evolution.  They look like snakes, but they evolved this body completely independently.  None of us had ever seen one in real life (aka: the wild) before.

In the middle of working on the islands, we heard loud snorting and slapping noises.  In the estuary, we saw several dolphins swimming in the shallows.  Quite a site to see for us, since we all live in the midwest, nowhere near an ocean.

The other fun part of the day occurred as we chased down a large male anole.  Aaron spotted the anole in the tree, and it was eating the lunch of a fat spider.  Tim then tried to catch the anole with his lizard noose but accidentally caught the spider instead. The seconds later, Dan caught the lizard.

We are looking forward to more of the little things.  -Tim and Aaron

Monday, March 26, 2012

If you want to learn about evolution with lizards, you have to go to where the wild lizards live. Join us as The Lizard Project goes to the islands later this week!

Do you ever wonder how scientists learn about evolution? 
Follow us this week as Dan, Tim, Andrew and I will head down to the Guana Tolomato Matanzas National Estuarine Research Reserve and Tomoka State Park in Florida to continue an exciting experiment we began last year.  We are really glad to have you follow along as we do science and we are looking forward to answering your questions on line.  Let me tell you a bit about what we will be doing down there on our islands.  You can also follow on twitter @mr_reedy (#lizardproject) or on 

What questions are you trying to answer with your experiment?
All science starts with a question and the big question we are asking, “Why is there a 50/50 sex ratio in so many animal populations?” If you really think about it, this doesn’t necessarily make the most sense for an animal population.  Since a population can often grow faster with many females and few males, why is it that we so often find males and females in almost equal numbers?

When thinking about this we also wondered, “If the sex ratio, became really biased towards one sex or the other, how quickly would natural selection push things back to 50/50?

And,” In a world that is mostly female, would males have a better chance of surviving and reproducing? What about in a world that is mostly male?

What are your hypotheses?
The leading theory on the 50/50 sex ratio is that when the ratio gets out of balance, natural selection pushes it back towards 50/50.  For example when there are many male lizards all fighting for territory in the trees, you have a better chance of surviving if you are a female.  Therefore in a world with more males, a balance will quickly be restored as many males die before reproducing and many females survive to adulthood.  This is our general hypothesis.

We also think that in situations with biased sex ratios, natural selection will favor traits differently. We think that on an island with many males and few females,  the biggest males will be more likely to survive.  However, we think that on an island with few males and many females, the smallest males will have a better chance of survival and reproduction, because it will be easy for nearly all males to find a territory and mate. In this case, the large body size may be a waste of energy and be more noticeable to predators.

How are you testing these ideas?
With an experiment of course! Many people wrongly think that questions about evolution can’t be tested in the wild because evolution is a slow process.  However, evolution can be seen in the wild and measured if we look carefully. 

Since our question is big, so is our lab. Instead of testing animals in laboratory cages, we use entire islands as our animal enclosures for the experiments!

To test our hypotheses, we set up 9 experimental islands that did not have brown anole lizards living on them. On five of the islands we released a 66% male population and on the other four islands we released a 66% female population.  Before we introduced these populations to the islands, we took DNA samples and careful measurements from each of our founder lizards.  Now we will be able to check each year to see which individual lizards were most and least successful at producing baby lizards.  We will also continue to measure the future generations to see how natural selection is working to shape the evolution of these populations on the different islands.  We may be able to see evolution in action…but first we have to catch, measure, and take DNA samples from nearly every lizard on our nine islands.  We are going to be busy!

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Announcing the National Geographic supported Lizard Project’s partner educators!

The Lizard Project is thrilled to announce our partner educators who will be working with us to bring evolutionary biology from the field to their classrooms.  They are all outstanding educators who work hard every day to share the wide world of science with their students. We are looking forward to virtually visiting their classrooms through live video chats from the field.  In no particular order they are:

Adam Taylor, John Overton High School, Nashville, TN- We first found out about Mr. Taylor when he was live-casting his evolution lecture to his class over the internet! How cool is that?  He enthusiastically uses technology including twitter in class to get his students excited about learning.  He has also been involved with the National Science Foundation’s GK12 program which brings early career scientists into the classroom to share real science with teachers and kids. You can follow him on twitter @2footgirrafe

Erin Nash, Benton High School, St. Joseph, MO- Erin teaches a very cool zoology course to high schoolers where kids are “exploring the animal kingdom, one phylum at a time” through all sorts of exciting hands on methods. Her students share their experiences in her class with the world at and she blogs about innovative science education at You can follow Erin on twitter @erinlynnnash

Nick Riemann, A. Blair McPherson School, Edmonton, Alberta- “Put simply, Nick Reimann loves school and at times it can be difficult to distinguish between his excitement and passion for learning about science from that of his students.” That’s according to the Government of Alberta, which awarded Nick its highly prestigious Excellence in Teaching Award in 2011. It is that passion for science that drives Wide World Science and exactly what we are looking for in a partner educator!  Nick blogs at and you can follow him on twitter @scimann

Alan Goldberg and Will Reed, Kelly High School, Chicago, IL-
 I am lucky enough to work with these guys every day back home in Chicago.  Alan and I have been team teaching inclusion biology classes for the last six years.  Mr. Goldberg works tirelessly for his students, no matter what their needs.  In 2011 he was awarded an Oppenheimer Family Foundation grant to conduct innovative lessons with live animals and last year he was instrumental in running the test program for The Lizard Project’s live communications. Will, who holds a degree in chemistry from the University of Chicago and is currently student at U of C’s Urban Teacher Education Program, is student teaching in my room and is on his way to an outstanding classroom career in the classroom. You can follow Will on twitter @greedotron - Youngzine, an engaging and interactive CNN-like website for kids has quickly become one of the very best online current event resources for classrooms.  We are super excited to have them as partners and we will be posting updates from the field on their site and fielding online questions from kids. I think these kids said it best when talking about Youngzine.
"Wow...... That's just all I can say. Its pretty cool but... Wow"
"Really really really!!!!!!!! awesome! I love animals all together!!! The world is just so amazing! Great article!"
"This is crazy awesome ! One of my favorite Youngzine articles . Made my jaw legit drop."
"Great story for such a young age! Keep writing you have gift and are meant to share it with the world! GREAT JOB!"
Check out Youngzine at: or to learn more about the great team behind Youngzine go to

Gary Morris, Meredith Middle School, Des Moines, IA- Gary has worked with the National Science Foundation and Iowa State University’s Symbi GK12 program for two consecutive years.  Through this he has brought real science to his classroom in a unique way and helped to train two early career scientists in the art of science communication with the general public. We are super excited to have Gary hooked up with us this year!

Not a partner educator, but still wondering if you or your class can follow our adventures in evolutionary biology online?  You can indeed.  Drop me a line at aaronmreedy@gmail and we can talk about your class following, this blog or following on twitter with: #lizardproject