In December, my third Scientists in the Field book “The Lizard Scientists: Studying Evolution in Action” will come out. It follows scientists studying evolution in the anole family of lizards as they adapt to new environments in the Caribbean islands. I’d seen a wildlife film, “Laws of the Lizard” and knew the story it tells of how lizards evolved independently on different islands to fill the same niches would appeal to young readers. What a great way to help them learn about the vitally important process of evolution in real time among living creatures, not just extinct animals like dinosaurs. We can actually observe evolution in action thanks to these amazing lizards and talented scientists!
Scientists in the Field from Clarion Books is a very special series. Readers learn about fascinating nature topics and find out how scientists actually “do” science. They are depicted as real people, not stereotypes wearing white coats in laboratories and looking serious. I loved writing my first book for the series about how Montana scientists use osprey chicks to measure the health of rivers in “Call of the Osprey.” “Saving the Tasmanian Devil,” my second book, gave me the opportunity to visit Australia and travel to Tasmania with my husband and our friend from graduate school Aussie geneticist Jenny Marshall Graves.
For ‘The Lizard Scientists,” I had hoped to join the scientists as they went lizard hunting in the Caribbean, but that wasn’t possible. They use very small boats and land on rocky shores, and they often don’t know when or if it will be safe to go because bad weather can endanger a small boat.
Luckily I had a perfect alternative, visiting anole scientist James Stroud as he studied anoles at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Florida. Several anole species from the Caribbean now live in Florida, and James traps and measures them over time to see how the different species adjust the sharing the environment in one research site.
There’s only one anole species that actually native to the United States. It has various names, including just plain ‘green lizard’ and ‘American chameleon,’ since it can change its color from green to brown. Many anole species can change color. Some have quite complicated patterns that help them melt into the background to avoid enemies.
James and his associate Kamau Walker take the lizards they catch back to their laboratory, where they photograph and measure each one in detail. They also give it a tiny ID tag under the skin so they can recognize it if they capture it again on another visit. All the data they gather over the years of the study add up to important information on the habits of the lizards and what they need to keep their populations healthy.
Other scientists study anoles in other ways while trying to understand how these adaptable lizards live and evolve. What happens when they move into cities, where it’s warmer and where there are more light poles than trees? And how well do they survive the powerful hurricanes that can devastate their island homes? How big does an island need to be to host populations of anoles? There’s no end to the questions for lizard-loving scientists to study, and I describe and discuss many of these interesting questions in “The Lizard Scientists.”