Wrapping Up

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Although our updates have been sparse of late, our time at Solon Dixon has been nonetheless quite memorable. The last few weeks have included such things as intense sunburns, eastern indigo snakes, wild turkey and squirrel stew, and lizards lizards lizards!

Last week, Sean and I collected blood samples from lizards and ran blood assays, which, as Nicole mentioned in the previous post, helps assess immune response. Sean has returned to State College, where he is analyzing data and flexing his mad writing muscles as he works on the manuscript for this project. 

After a nice stay at the Langkilde Lab Lizard Room at Solon Dixon, the lizards from this project were finally due to return to the wild. Chris and I chauffeured our lizard friends to their home sites in Alabama and Florida to see them safely off. We will visit many of these sites again next summer; perhaps we will meet again, lizards!


Alex and Nicole also said their farewells for the summer, and Chris and I have started to wrap things up around here. We have been busy cleaning the lizard room, packing up the lab, as well as tending to the enclosures.  We recently found a baby glass lizard in one of the enclosures. Because it is a potential predator, we caught and removed it from the plot. What a pretty potential predator!

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This morning, Chris and I began the process of recapturing the juvenile lizards that currently reside in the enclosures. To our surprise and pleasure, we recaptured 34 of a potential 40 lizards today! Although I am new to this lizard thing, I am starting to gain an eye for spotting lizards. Care to test your luck? Here's what you are looking for:

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You try this one! There are two juvenile fence lizards here:

i spy part 1


Did you find them?

i spy part 2


Great! Now you're an expert! Earlier today, Chris and I were coaxing a lizard down a tree when we saw additional motion. Great, another lizard! 

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Wait. Oh wait. That is very much not a lizard. That is, in fact, a HUGE spider! With legs that look strikingly like a lizard's tail. Classy, spider. Very classy.

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A Thousand Words

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The joys of field work...

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Eight Weeks and Counting

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Wow - we've been on this research trip for over eight weeks!  Time sure flies.

My apologies for not posting a new blog in a while - things have been pretty busy...

Sean and I went on a whirlwind trip collecting blood samples from lizards at six different sites in Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas.  Shortly after getting back, I left for a quick trip home, and Sean went back to Auburn to defend his dissertation.  Congratulations, Dr. Graham! 

Meanwhile, Chris presented his research at the Joint Meeting of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists in Minneapolis by giving a talk entitled: Phylogeography and Invasive Spread of Two Cuban Anurans in the Southeastern United States. 

Alex successfully held down the fort while the rest of us were gone.  And although lonely and suffering from a bit of cabin fever, he took excellent care of the lizards in our absence.

In the next few weeks Sean and I (and Gail, once she arrives) will be collecting more blood samples from wild lizards to test their immune response.  While in the field, we use Sean's homemade centrifuge (photo below), comprised of a flexible tripod (my addition) duct-taped to a battery-operated personal fan, to spin down the blood samples.  Our microcentrifuge tubes conveniently fit in the hand-crafted wire holders attached to each fan blade.  It's a true work of art.

IMG_2865.JPGWe will be measuring initial (baseline) and secondary immune response of lizards to sheep red blood cells.  This sounds a bit strange, but is a common ecoimmunology protocol.

IMG_2961.JPGAll these blood samples mean lots of time in the "lab" running assays and such.  I'm going to be an expert-level pipettor by the time this summer is over...

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What've They Got in There...King Kong?

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At long last, our project building the enclosures has been completed. Nicole posted a compilation video earlier, but I decided to give a full walkthrough of the process to show the lengths that we're going to to ensure that our enclosures last the whole season (and keep all their occupants inside!). Before any real groundwork was done installing the fences, Travis and I spent an inordinate amount of time planning the layouts of the enclosures to make sure that the habitats inside were as similar as possible between the four plots. We dusted off our long-disused geometry skills and checked and double-checked our calculations to verify that the areas of each plot were the same. After our final bout with compasses and tape measures, we began scratching the outlines of each enclosure into the ground with a fire axe (see below).


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Travis holds the line while Chris scratches out the enclosure boundaries.


With our outlines in place, we rented a groundsaw (as seen in the earlier video and below) to cut trenches to lay the fence in. A groundsaw lives up to its name, as it is a device like a huge wood saw blade with a gas engine that is mounted onto three wheels. A screw raises or lowers the blade, and one/two people pull it backwards as it digs a 2 inch wide trench in the earth. Sean and I focused on pulling the groundsaw while Travis and Nicole became experts in the construction of the fences themselves.


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Sean and Travis hauling the groundsaw along


Travis was the reigning expert in building enclosures for fence lizards, although all of us have had experience building drift fences for various research projects. Travis planned well in advance for putting the fences together and brought a selection of gear to help him, including a pro-level tool belt with suspenders. Putting in a section of fence involved clearing the trench of any remaining roots and then placing one side of a 50 ft roll of flashing into the trench. We sank 2.5 ft posts of electrical conduit every 1.5 m (or as needed), and pulled the flashing as tight as possible against the poles. While holding the flashing, Travis used a tool he created himself to simultaneously punch a pair of holes in the flashing at the top and bottom of each pole. Zip ties were used to secure the flashing to the pole and the extra bits were clipped of to ensure that enterprising lizards don't have anything to grab a hold if they attempt to escape the enclosures.


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Travis girds himself for the rigors of enclosure construction


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Chris, Travis, and Nicole installing flashing to build the enclosures


Once the fences themselves were complete, we standardized the amount of cover inside each enclosure by removing extra shrubberies. We also created extra cover for the lizards by bringing in pallets and branches to serve as hides and perch sites. Taking shovels in hand, we carefully filled in any gaps along the fence edges by trucking in dirt and sand. After three solid days of work in the brutal Alabama summer, the shiny new enclosures passed their final inspection and were ready for their lizards occupants. All they lacked was a volunteer fire-ant-fighter company and a slew of lizards to enjoy their stays (detailed in future updates).


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As the only team-member with superhuman strength, it fell to Travis to haul cover objects into the enclosures


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Plots 1 and 2 in all of their glory

Reptiles as Gifts?

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Our number of herpetofauna species encountered on this trip continues to grow, and as of this point is close to 40, I think.  Chris has the official list and will hopefully write a blog entry about it soon.

Yesterday I saw two species that I've never seen before - an eastern glass lizard (Ophisaurus ventralis) and a pigmy rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius).  The glass lizard was found by Chris and Alex on their way to Chris' enclosures.  Knowing I had never seen one, they kindly brought it back to the dorms and left it in our kitchen/living room with a note written on a paper towel.

Photo747.jpgI didn't see the note, as it had been blown off the table by the air conditioner, and simply discovered a knotted pillowcase sitting on the floor.  Wondering what was inside, I gently poked at it and then opened said pillowcase.  Upon looking in, I said to myself, "I think this is a glass lizard."  My suspicions were verified shortly thereafter by Sean.

When Chris and Alex returned later I thanked them for the lovely surprise.  I then returned the lizard to where they caught it and tried to get some "natural" photos. 

IMG_2798.JPGGlass lizards are super cool because they have no legs and really long tails, and if you didn't know better, you could easily misidentify one as a snake.

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And then last night, we found a decent number of snakes while road cruising, most of which were copperheads and alive (yay!).  We were very pleasantly surprised to discover what Sean initially thought was a small copperhead (while driving past it), was actually a pigmy rattlesnake!  Super exciting!

IMG_2806b.jpgIt was hard to believe such a cute little snake could hurt you if you accidentally (or stupidly) picked it up.  I can definitely see how pigmies can be mistaken for nonvenomous snakes.  Yikes.

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Would It Help If I Got Out and Pushed?

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May 27th started well enough for our lizard team, with construction work on the enclosures filling the morning, and a supply run occupying the afternoon. As we set off after lunch in our then-trusted minivan to buy tools, materials, and groceries, little did we realize the epic journey of frustration we were embarking on. Travis and I worked through our to-do list in Andalusia and, before stopping at Walmart for the last of our groceries, we pulled in to Sunbelt Rentals to check prices on Ditch Witch rentals (for digging in the enclosures). As we mentally prepared ourselves to enter the fascinating cultural wonderland of the Andalusia Walmart, Travis slid the electronic fob* into the dash, turned the ignition, and...nothing happened.


Travis twisted the key several times in rapid succession and looked at me in confusion and disbelief. He flipped the lights on and off along with the wipers, proving that the battery was fine. We switched seats, and I tried turning the fob with the same results. We both glared at said fob and cursed the engineers who decided that fancy-dancy electronics were better than actual keys. Using a still functioning piece of technology, Travis' iPhone, we left a voicemail for Nicole asking for assistance, and then proceeded to analyze our situation and formulate alternative plans. We needed a vehicle to get supplies for the fence and as transport to our field site, so being without one would seriously cripple our ability to do work. Our plans were as follows: Plan B: Check with fleet services at PSU to get our car fixed quickly (not possible late Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend); Plan C: rent a car to use as a field vehicle (not possible late Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend), Plan D: Get Nicole to somehow get a car and pick us up (not possible late Friday afternoon of Memorial Day weekend); Plan E: Flag down a passing DeLorean, hit 88 mph, travel back in time to May 15th and get a car with a real key (not possible IRL); or Plan F: Chris and Travis have died of dysentery and frustration. In the end, we followed Plan Q.5378: Head to Walmart, get towed by the craziest tow truck ever, and get picked up and driven home by a clutch friend.


After another round of frantic fob twisting, pulling off parts of the ignition, futilely attempting to start our van with the valet key, and realizing that the odometer actually did say "bad key" instead of the mileage of the van, we called the only AAA-approved tow company in Andalusia, an outfit known as Cobra & Mystery Enterprises. No, we are not making this up. As I headed to Walmart to purchase enough food, drink, and supplies to last for an extended period of carlessness, Travis once again worked his iPhone magic, juggling calls to the PSU motor pool, the local Dodge dealership, and the unintelligible director of Cobra & Mystery Enterprises, and setting up a sanity-saving ride from our friend Mark Hainds, a local naturalist, accomplished hoghunter, and longleaf pine expert.


As the sun softly slid below the horizon and the stars winked into sight, your narrators were still left cooling our heels in the parking lot of Sunbelt Rentals. An estimated wait of 30 minutes for a tow had stretched to over an hour, and we began to wonder if the "mystery" of the Cobra & Mystery Enterprises was if the truck would ever show. After several more raspy, near-unintelligible phone calls to the tow truck operator, our efforts were rewarded with quite the vision, a cobra-adorned tow truck sporting metallic blue flames across the hood rolled into the lot next to us (Pics below). Note the prominently displayed AAA certification to convince customers that they aren't becoming stars in a B-grade horror flick.


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The driver hopped out of his cab, blocked his tracheotomy stoma with one hand, and began chaining our poor van to the back of his outrageously decorated truck. As the tow truck pulled away to deliver the van to the Dodge dealership for repair, Mark Hainds arrived, loaded us and all of our supplies into his car, and took us back to Solon Dixon. As of this post, it's been 10 days since the van's failure to start, and it's still sitting in a parking lot in Andalusia. We've rented a bright, red, ticket-magnet of a truck so we can do research, finished the enclosures and another set of behavior trials, and managed to waste over a day of each of our lives dealing with the minivan. Really, though, we're just grateful to still be alive after our surreal evening of Southern gothic.



*Editor's Note: An electronic fob is a newfangled key-like device which fits into an electronic ignition on the dashboard of a car. While it is not a key itself per se, it generally transmits a code to the engine to the car via radio waves which activates the ignition system**


**Editor's Other Note: 3 seconds after seeing this fob in State College, Chris said, "What do we do if this breaks?" The answer is above.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

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It's taken about about a week, 24 rolls of aluminum flashing, 80 rods of electrical conduit, and about a million zip-ties, but we are almost done building the outdoor enclosures that Chris will be using to conduct experiments on the effects of fire ants on lizard survival this summer and next.  I wouldn't say it was fun, but I suppose it could have been worse.  And fortunately, we didn't have any major accidents involving heavy machinery, etc.

CAM_0529.JPGI've assembled a short compilation video showing our progress (below).  What you can't see in the video is that it was close to 100 degrees outside and we were all pretty miserable.  Or maybe it was just me.



(Thanks to Tracy for recording all the videos!)

Picture Log

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As pictures are worth their weight in words, we've included a picture post to sum up our adventures in Tennessee and Arkansas as we're now firmly ensconced at our home away from home at the Solon Dixon Center in southern Alabama. Below you'll find pics and video of some of the locations we've visited and critters we've uncovered in our journey so far.


On a cloudy day at Burgess Falls State Park in Tennessee we explored the banks of the river and its waterfalls while looking for reptiles and amphibians in the nearby streams and woods.


Two views of the lower falls:


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A video taken from the top of the lower falls looking down and out over the valley.



Salamanders were abundant in the small, steep streams leading into the river. There we found lots of dusky salamanders and this southern two-lined salamander (Eurycea cirrigera):


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While we focused on capturing fence lizards for research at our two field sites (Standing Stone and Edgar Evins State Parks), we came across many other creatures in our searches, including this black kingsnake (Lampropeltis getula nigrita) which appeared to be stalking a lizard we had just caught.


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We also encountered a slimy salamander (Plethodon glutinosus), which are named for the sticky, slimy mucus that they secrete as a defense mechanism. Both Chris and Travis wound up with bits of the slime stuck on their hands for almost 2 days.

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Lastly, as we were exploring some rocks piers that provided perfect basking sites for fence lizards, we noticed someone else making use of the warm stone and sunshine; a young cornsnake was poking its head and a loop of its body out of a gap in the rock!

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Coming soon: An update on the lizards and setting up our first round of experiments in Alabama!





Going for the Record

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Just a quick update on the past few days...

We didn't have much luck catching on Tuesday and Wednesday because of the weather  - chilly and cloudy, a bad combination for lizards.  But we more than made up for it on Thursday with a record high 51 lizards caught in one day!!  Edgar Evins State Park is an amazing site for fence lizards, to say the least.

We then spent the past two days collecting at Standing Stone State Park/Forest... and ended up with 31 on Friday and 12 today. 

In addition to the having great lizard catching success, we've also seen a wide range of other herpetofauna, including box turtles, a rat snake that Travis almost stepped on, and a black racer (photos below).

We are heading to Arkansas tomorrow, keeping a select few lizards with us to bring to Alabama, and returning the rest to where we found them.


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A Firstful of Lizards

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The 2011 field season of the Langkilde Lab began with a fabulously uneventful drive from State College, PA to Cookeville (with an "e"), TN, our base camp for exploring Edgar Evins State Park and Standing Stone State Park, our two field sites in central Tennessee. The starting lineup of the Field Research Team consists of two seasoned veterans, lab manager Nicole Freidenfelds and post-doc Dr. Travis Robbins, and one greenhorn, incoming PhD student Chris Thawley. After intense negotiations, we secured excellent accommodations at the Thunderbird Motel (rooms complete with microwave, double sinks, mini fridge, and snore machine).

Our opening day in Tennessee was packed with several firsts, both research-related and otherwise, as we checked in at Edgar Evins State Park, a site where we had caught lizards last year and knew the ground well. Conditions were not promising, with heavy clouds and a high temperature in only the mid-50's, but we gamely scouted throughout the park, scanning for lizard silhouettes on trees, rock walls, and picnic tables. At a promising lakeside forest, we took to the hunt on foot, working across slopes of boulders and drowned trees dappled with occasional splotches of sunlight. In spite of the rather bleak conditions, Nicole soon spotted a large female sheltering in the cleft of a boulder. After some tense moments working her lizard snare into the recess, Nicole pulled out a gravid lady lizard and popped her into a cloth sack.

While we stood discussing strategy, Chris noticed another lizard clinging to the top of the same boulder and put his capture skills to their first test with a freshly-tied loop of dental floss. In spite of a stiff headwind, Chris managed to snag the lizard quickly, although his quick success was likely due to the torpid condition of the lizard itself. The remains of the day yielded little lizard-wise, as Travis managed to spot only one more juvenile, and clouds rolled in, eliminating even the scarce patches of sunlight.

Returning to Cookeville, the team worked up the first two catches of the trip. While the procedures for collecting morphological data have remained the same as in previous years, we also collected our first blood samples using filter paper. As seen in the picture below, Chris has a difficult time identifying the proper "pie slice" in which to put the samples.

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As the day's work wound down, we began the quotidian debate about where to have dinner for the evening. After some quick internet searching and ground-truthing, we settled on the Gondola (Gon-"doe"-la, accent on the second syllable; source: Travis Robbins) Restaurant, a local option specializing in Greek and Italian cuisine. We all raved about the generous portions and tasty food, and Nicole had her first-ever taste of both spanakopita and baklava (photos below). We'll definitely be returning for the moussaka later in the week. Full and sassy, the team returned to homebase at the Thunderbird to digest and rest up to continue the hunt in the following days. The night did bring one more first to the team, as Chris successfully slept through a full deployment of Travis' arsenal of nuclear-powered snores in his first attempt.

Baklava Before:

baklava1.JPGBaklava After:

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