Monday, 21 December 2015

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Hot and Cold Running Lizards: Threatened by Climate Change or not?

The great majority of lizards prefer to live in places where daytime temperatures exceed 30 degrees Celsius. If you want to see a lot of lizards, or a great variety of species, head into the tropical and subtropical regions of the Earth. In the face of increasing global warming you wouldn't expect lizards to be especially vulnerable, right? As it so happens, opinions on the subject are mixed.

Back in 2009 a team of well-respected physiologists and herpetologists sounded an alarm: Global warming was coming fast, and with it many lizards would become extinct (University of Washington. "Tropical Lizards Can't Take The Heat Of Climate Warming."ScienceDaily, 5 Mar. 2009. Web. 18 Jun. 2013). That research team's leader was Raymond Huey, one of the intellectual powerhouses of reptile physiology. If Huey makes a claim in print, you'd better take it seriously.

But a few years later another team published a paper that presented the exact opposite case: in an ever-warming environment, most lizards would do better than they do now (Wiley. "Some like it hot: Cold-blooded tropical species 'not as vulnerable' to climate change extinction." ScienceDaily, 16 Aug. 2012. Web. 18 Jun. 2013.). The proposition that warmer climates will not threaten the majority of lizard species was supported by a separate study, also published in 2012 (Duke University. "Rapid changes in climate don't slow some lizards." ScienceDaily, 26 Nov. 2012. Web. 18 Jun. 2013.).

In March 2012 yet another study was published, this time supporting Huey's team and its conclusions (University of Lincoln. "Lizards facing mass extinction from climate change." ScienceDaily, 6 Mar. 2013. Web. 18 Jun. 2013.). That study's leader, , believes that warmer climates will drastically and negatively affect species that live at higher altitudes, especially those that produce live young instead of laying eggs. Then, on 17 May, another study concluded that climate change will barely affect lizards (Dartmouth College. "Climate change may have little impact on tropical lizards: Study contradicts predictions of widespread extinction."ScienceDaily, 17 May 2013. Web. 18 Jun. 2013).

This is how science is done. Scientists pick questions, seek answers, and often get conclusions that seem oppositional or totally unexpected. How, then, shall we choose which of several competing hypotheses to become our "truth"? We don't. Science is not democracy or hocus-pocus. We don't say something like, "well, three groups say that climate change will devastate lizards and two say they won't; let's go with the former." Scientists may come to consensus on many things, but should not do so on the basis of the number of published studies on a given topic. Too many studies provide excellent insight into a very tiny part of a question, but give us little or nothing from which to realistically extrapolate to, say, all organisms in a class.

In the studies mentioned above I see a few important limitations. Each study used only species from one genus (Anolis or Liolaemus). In the case of Anolis we have small species with short lifespans. Species with short lifespans tend to reproduce prodigiously, and in each generation may contain minute genetic modifications that could allow for greater thermal tolerance. Would the studies have gotten appreciably different results if a wider range of species been examined? Would size affect the results--say by comparing those tiny Anolis with 2m long iguanas?

The work being conducted is worthwhile, and is providing information that may become extremely important as the climate changes. However, I do not feel that the presentation of results based upon a very small sample of the species and environments concerned presents an accurate picture. Not all lizards might be so vulnerable, and maybe they are, but as of today there is no justification for claims that link any effect of climate change to the majority (or even a significant fraction) of the 4,500 species of living lizards.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Writing once more

It has been quite a while since I last kept a (fairly) regular work schedule. As my dear wife often says, "life is what happens while you're making plans", and that message has really been the description of life since... well, a few years now. I've been through several surgeries of the spine and eye, moved a few times, and been bogged down with either visiting doctors and physical therapists or making appointments to see them.


Whatever the new limits, which include entering my 60th year, I've regained a considerable level of my old "normal" and am determined to get back to work doing what I most love: studying and writing about animals. THIS blog will now be my link with readers and potential readers, to keep you informed of what I am working on and to give me some sense of there being deadlines.

Here's what's hot here! Besides the awful, muggy east-coast weather.

See the picture above? That is yours truly and his late, very dear dog, King (King is the good-looking one). Yes, I used to read to King, especially the brief news pieces in Science magazine and Herpetological Review. He was a very important part of my life from 1998 until 2009, and from him I learned that we (humans collectively) and I (specifically) may have underestimated or dismissed the intelligence of animals because we didn't know HOW to understand their languages. Initially, even though I could often only guess at what King was saying, I was fairly certain it had nothing to do with mathematics, prime integers, or any of the other things SETI people seem to think will dominate the first conversations between humans and – if they are out there – extraterrestrials. Think about it for a moment: which of these opening lines do you think would really get an interplanetary relationship off to a good start: 
a.      “Wow! I love the way you guys can moderate sub-angstrom wave oscillations,” or
b.      “Welcome to Earth! Let’s get a pizza and some beers and get to know each other!”
Fact: You’d get me hooked with option b. King, too.

So I am now chest-deep in the writing of the manuscript (translation: at 11 chapters, 31 000 words and going) with a self-set goal of completing the book by Christmas, 2013. Seems like a long time, doesn't it? The difficulty with it being an easy target (besides my vision thing) is that the research covers an incredibly broad swipe of the sciences. I've got pertinent data concerning intelligence and relationships in mammals, birds, reptiles, and octopuses, and each of those groups has amazing stories -- uh, data -- that supports the argument for their considerable mental faculties. No spoiler alerts yet. If you'd like to be a reviewer, someone who gets to read the rough drafts and then make suggestions for clarification and other improvements, please a) join this Blog and b) let me know of your interest. If I get responses, I'll post draft excerpts here on my Blog.

Cheerio for now, and good reading!

Invasive Species? (Published June 2010)

Bite of the Bandy-Bandy,

and other tales from the world of a herpetologist

There’s been a lot of talk about unwanted visitors. I’m not talking about in-laws or college students on an extended return from school. The visitors to which I refer have gone under a suite of pejorative titles: tramp species, non-native species, introduced species, and injurious wildlife. If you’ve been reading the herpetological magazines this past year, you are aware that Hawaii is now hip-deep in a campaign against such animals. There are few places that aren’t concerned, to at least a small degree, about preserving the “natural” order of local Nature. Noble efforts, in some cases, but a bit confusing in concept and confused in practice.

We have all been exposed to the stories about the invasion of Guam by brown tree snakes (Boiga irregularis), voracious “tramps” that have decimated much of Guam’s native bird populations. Considerable expertise and expense has been paid to eradicate the snakes, to limited effect. The biological fall of Guam became a rallying point for preservationist actions. How justified are such eradication stances?

Certainly we have witnessed unwise (and this a charitable choice of words) introductions around the world. Mongooses were brought to Caribbean islands that lacked venomous snakes in order to eliminate perceived venomous snakes. They decimated poultry and small native animals and contributed to increased diseases. Australians imported rabbits to provide some “familiar” European animals. Crop damage by rabbits is now almost legendary. As is the damage done by cane toads. Poor Australia; even when it didn’t import the troublemaker, it helped increase the threat’s population size. Unaware that cut-up sea stars (“starfish” to some) will grow into new sea stars, Australian fishermen and (?) biologists captured crown-of-thorns sea stars, hacking them to bits, and tossing the still viable remains back onto the reef!

I thought California led the pack in released wildlife paranoia until the Hawaiian issue came along. Does anyone with herpetocultural experience believe that Jackson’s chameleons are a threat to bird populations? Granted that an adult lizard might take a fledgling, how rare is this event? My gray cells hurt when trying to conceive of day geckos as “injurious.” Sadly, almost nothing of “native” lowland Hawaii is still in place. Humans long ago annihilated the few true natives, replacing them with agricultural lands, ornamental plant (non-native) farms and tourist facilities. Certainly Hawaii should conserve its remaining native wildlife, but few native species dwell near cane fields and swimming pools.

The preservation of natural areas, if intelligently conceived and enacted, should be given highest priorities. What is so often overlooked is the reality of the number and degree of invasiveness of so many “foreign” species. Herpetoculturists may cringe when told Jackson’s chameleons will devastate Hawaiian birds, or that alligators may proliferate and become a threat in San Francisco, but does anyone consider that the most destructive animals—barring the all too obvious humans—are domestic cats, rats, and assorted plants? Goats were a big problem, but they have been culled from islands ranging from Round Island to New Zealand. Round Island, a tiny mound in the Indian Ocean, has had its goats removed in a so-far successful effort to preserve the rare and endemic gecko, skink, and boa species. Too late, alas, for one of the boas, now considered extinct. Cats are pets, and few people really consider how much damage they do to small animals, native or not. There are many more critical battles to wage than those against questionably influential species.

In my “natural” California neighbourhood, I am surrounded by eucalyptus trees (Australian imports, brought over by some genius who incorrectly thought they would provide a good source of lumber), and Mediterranean ice plants covering the fragile sand dunes. Ice plants have broad, fine roots that effectively take all the water in the soil, crowding out native plants and insects. Many streams are filled with the large tadpoles of non-native eastern bullfrogs (imported as a food commodity), which have steadily been eliminating the native frogs. English sparrows are common here. Mediterranean fruit flies periodically threaten (mostly non-native) crops. If I want to see a “native” coastal community, I have to go to a State Preserve, where I must stay on the designated path. Natives are now rare and often threatened.

We are told that humans are the main movers of animals and plants, to the detriment of native species. Geological facts dispute this assertion; how can humans compete with events such as the ramming of North and South America to allow hitherto unprecedented exchanges of species? Winds, rafts, and temporary bridges also contribute to the colonization of islands and continents. To use Hawaii as an example again, how else did the volcanic islands—never connected to or even located near a continental mass—obtain its flora and fauna? Long before human colonization, rafts, winds and sea birds brought seeds, insects, spiders, and a few lizards. Humanity has merely accelerated the rate of species transport. As a biological species, humans must be seen as a natural—albeit very rapid and effective—factor altering the global biogeography.

Maybe it is time to take a different view of “non-native” species. Looking at the paleontological record, few species alive today were “native” to their present distributions in times past. Biogeography is the study of distribution and dispersal of species. The dispersal we see today is “natural,” unless we can truly see humans as separate from everything else on Earth. Maybe the preservation of diversity should be more focused on defensive actions in largely uninvaded habitats rather than offensive actions against new colonizers.

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Rights and Arms-bearing

The Second Amendment of the Constitution of the United States was written in different versions. Did you know that fact? As passed by the Congress it reads:
A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
But the text that was ratified by the States and authenticated by Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, is a bit different:

          A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people 
          to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.

As any qualified English teacher can attest, the first version is a syntactical abomination, while the second is a clearly expressed statement. Of course there is still plenty of room to argue whether the Amendment meant that arms were a right to militias, meaning military units--including the "civilian" units such as the National Guard--or any person who could, in principle, be on call as a militiaman. The question of just who has the legal right to bear arms (at present, just about anyone who can get a weapon) has been hotly debated for decades, and the debates will likely not abate and time soon. No debate abates.

But I ask a new question regarding the Second Amendment: Where, precisely, does it say that the right to bear firearms shall not be infringed? I mean, if I own knives (check) or a bat (nope) or a bow and arrows (nope) or a boomerang (check), then I also own arms, don't I? And if you add to that anything around the house that can be used as a weapon, then I own a bloody arsenal. Consider the mayhem and bodily harm that can be caused by a broomstick, forks, chlorine bleach, frying pans, and a bottle of fluid that is more than 3 fluid ounces! (I don't really know how that last could be used as a weapon, but the airport security folks say it is possible, and they ought to know.)

The really sad thing about any discussion on the subject of gun control (NOT confiscation) is that it doesn't happen. The pro-gun-ownership people trot out the Second Amendment, and everyone else melts back into a great sea of apathy. NO ONE has the guts to stand up long enough to present and defend any counter argument, least of all politicians.* Having even suggested that some sort of dialog take place probably assures my being listed now as an enemy of the state. Whatever.

But wouldn't it be something if just once someone with backbone came back with the argument that arms does NOT have to mean firearms? Why not? After all, the Constitution provides for freedom of speech but also draws the line at using it to do things such as shouting "Fire!" in a crowded and not-on-fire theatre. If you may speak freely but within limits, why can't the same principles apply to firearms? No one is allowed to own an operational tank, armed fighter jet, or nuclear weapon. So why does no one think guns are fair game for a bit more regulation?

Perhaps I just don't understand. After all, I long questioned where it was writ that "Thou shalt not kill, except by authorization of Congress".

* Politician, noun. 1. A vertebrate life form that possesses a skeleton so gelatinous in nature that they are often mistaken for invertebrates. 2. Any semi-intelligent humanoid that exists for the sole purposes of (a) getting elected to office and (b) getting re-elected as many times as possible.

Monday, 13 August 2012

We have nothing to fear but fear itself. Right?

I am a herpetologist. I have been herpetologically inclined from the morning of 6 April 1958. That was a date that I shall always remember, but it is not my point now. As a person who has had a deep passion for reptiles for more than 50 years (my god, when did THAT happen? 50? ME??) I am very aware that many, possibly most other people either do not like reptiles or loathe them. Also, most cases of such loathing come from fear, a fear taught to youngsters when they are impressionable and not yet able to observe the beauty and usefulness of reptiles for themselves.

What happens when a person is in a position where she can meet a reptile? I've had many opportunities to be the facilitator at such meetings, and what is most gratifying is that the human usually enjoys the experience. More than once I have had to go chase the person to retrieve the reptile! Fear can be overcome. Fear is the enemy, not the reptile. Learn to at least control your fear and you can achieve heights you would not think possible.

So now I ask this: Why are people afraid of cemeteries?

People we knew and loved, or at least liked, are the residents of those neatly tailored lawns for the departed. People like my wonderful grandfather, whom we lost to kidney disease in 1963. He lived long enough for me to really know and remember him, but not nearly so long as I'd have liked. Am I to think that he, gentle soul that he was, now has zombies as neighbors? If so, I am also confident that he would, in his afterlife, be as much my defender as ever he was in life. No, I'm not afraid of zombies.

The good 19-year old family friend, the one who had been the local grocer's delivery boy. He volunteered to go to Vietnam during the war there, worked his way up to sergeant, and died on some numbered hill, fighting a rearguard action until all his men had made it to the evac choppers. When he was on leave, he went to Thailand and sent me several photos of the snakes he found at the markets. He passed on 1n 1965, but I never worried that his ghost would roam around some cemetery waiting to scare the liver out of some poor visitor.

My best friend died from a cerebral edema in 1973, and my favourite professor in 1977. There were many other good friends, teachers, and family who left this world, including my parents in 1994 and 1996. Not all our beloved need be human, either; my dear dog and very long-time companion passed away in 2009, and another this past February.

I still miss them all, and I remember them and think about what I remember so those images stay with me until it's my time for a label, a jar, and a place on a museum shelf. But do I ever fear any of them? No. I cannot. I see a cemetery as a place where, sometime after their journey has ended, the souls of our friends, our family, and our pets have been laid with reverence and loving fondness. Sure, my dear lost ones are not in a single cemetery, nor even in the same state. But when I have to pass a cemetery, or visit one with someone I care about, I never thing about zombies and vampires and other horrors grown from our near-universal fear of death.

What do I see? Mainly, just a quiet place, where the scenery and location are peaceful, and we can remember and enjoy what memories are evoked. And if I don't get to see my grandfather or professor or parents or dogs, I tend to see those of someone else. So far, not one of them has tried to eat my brain, phlebotomize my jugular vein, or dismember me. Why, even the departed dogs have never peed on my foot!

Just something to think about as Halloween approaches. What if for once our costumes evoked pleasant images from good times with those no longer with us. Sure, you may still wear funny costumes and children may still extort treats from the neighbors. Maybe All Hallows Eve would be a nice time to remember those who were once near and dear to our hearts. And if you must go visit a cemetery, say "hello" to the locals on behalf of their loved ones who could not get there today.

Every time we learn how to destroy even a wee bit of fear, we get a wee bit closer to a world where people will have less to fight about and where our mental health as a species will be free of a little more stress. In my humble opinion, of course!

Link to herpetology books that I recommend.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Report from the Front with the Foul and Loathsome

Linnaeus, founder of the system of scientific naming of living things, sure didn't like reptiles or amphibians (back then, they were colectively just "Amphibia"), as he makes clear in his introduction to the group:

"Amphibia pleraque horrent Corpori frigido, Colore lurido,  Sceleto cartilagineo, Cute foeda, Facie torva, Obtuto meditabundo, Odore tetro, Sono rauco, Loco squalido, Veneno horrendo; non iraque in horum numerum sese jactavit eorum Auctor." *
"These foul and loathsome animals are abhorrent because of their cold body, pale color, cartilaginous skeleton, filthy skin, fierce aspect, calculating eye, offensive smell, harsh voice, squalid habitation, and terrible venom; and so their Creator has not exerted his powers to make more of them."
- Carolus Linnaeus (1758)

Things sure have changed in the past 254 years. Like the War of American Independence, the French Revolution, elimination of the bustle, flying machines, voting women, Prohibition, Lucky Lindy made it, Casey at the bat didn't, the Beatles, and a few other things. Yes, even in the early 21st century a lot of people, maybe even the majority, still agree with Carolus (Carl to his buds!). Too many of our neighbors still find herpetofauna "foul and loathsome". ("Herpetofauna"; now there's a word Carl would have liked.) That attitude is a subject I'll cover another time.

Given that my opinion of herpetofauna is the polar opposite, yin-to-his-yang, of Linnaeus, it comes as a wonderful "so there!" to see that he was way off when he wrote, "their Creator has not exerted his powers to make more of them". His original list of both amphibians and reptiles covered a few score of taxa. But with the massive world exploration and exploitation that followed in the next two centuries, the numbers of both groups has risen considerably. For instance--

There are some 8- to 9,000 species of reptiles described (depending on what taxonomists eventually do about a bunch of 'subspecies'). That's closing in on the number of described birds (11,000-ish) and mammals (3,500). As late as the 1990s a student in a herpetology course would still be taught that amphibians were the smallest group of terrestrial vertebrates, numbering about 3,000 to 3,200. Even so, what Linnaeus called Amphibia had gone from a group that he believed contained few species to a pair of groups with over 12,000! Yes, I respect Carl and all he's done for biology, but I do not like his derisive comments about my favourite creatures.

BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE. Yeah, the past 20 years have seen a blitz of exploration and reexamination of museum specimens, and added to the number of herpetological species at a possibly unprecedented rate. This next comment is aimed (respectfully) at Linnaeus:

Hey, Carl! Amphibians have cleared the--get this--SEVEN THOUSAND species mark! That's right, and you can read all about it here: (

The more carefully we look, the more we learn, and some of the discoveries are almost unbelievable. Like lots of amphibians do NOT go back to the water to reproduce. The earliest amphibian fossils (relax, Carl, I'll explain fossils to you later) had seven or nine fingers instead of four or five. Cave salamanders eat the dung of other troglodytes. The most noxious poisons produced naturally by living creatures comes from among the smallest frogs. We've discovered "sibling species", creatures that differ in mating calls, time of activity... but look so much alike that there is no physical way to distinguish between them. With 7,000 species, I can't get into all the news here, but there is an incredible world of newly discovered aliens living all around us.


* Want to read the whole Latin text for yourself... you know, go to the original source? Then go here:
Caroli Linnaei, Systema Naturae