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Lizard scientist’s tip for BioBlitz: Look up

Among the scientists participating in the 2010 BioBlitz, in Biscayne National Park at the end of April, is Neil Losin, a National Geographic Young Explorer.

Losin received a grant from National Geographic in 2009 to study territorial behavior between species, specifically two species of exotic lizards that have taken up residence in Florida.

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Photo of Neil Losin by Nate Dappen

A Ph.D. candidate in the University of California Los Angeles Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Losin, 27, is also an award-winning photographer–a useful combination of skills for National Geographic field work.

Nat Geo News Watch asked him about the BioBlitz (a 24-hour inventory of every species in the park), his Young Explorer research grant, and his photography.

What will you be looking for in the BioBlitz?

I’ll be doing surveys of birds and herps (reptiles and amphibians). I’ve been a birder for many years but I’m studying lizards for my Ph.D. dissertation, so I’m pretty familiar with both groups of animals. Basically, whatever the BioBlitz needs, that’s what I’ll do!

How does Biscayne NP relate to your research? Hundreds of students are participating in the BioBlitz. Do you have any tips for them–as well as year-round visitors–for what to look out for and appreciate in the park?

I don’t work in Biscayne NP itself, but I do my research in South Miami.

Southern Florida is an incredible place for wildlife, despite the dramatic effects of human development.

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My advice for new visitors to Biscayne NP is exactly what I’d recommend for visitors to any natural area: first, use all of your senses.

The first sign of an animal might not be a flash of color or movement; it’s just as likely to be a vocalization or a rustle in the leaf litter.

Second, look up! When most people walk around in nature, they look down to avoid stepping in mud or tripping over rocks. But when you look at your feet, you miss a lot–especially animals like birds that spend much of their time above our heads.

Finally, keep an eye out for different species in different habitats. Animal communities can change remarkably quickly when you move from one habitat to another, and this is especially true in a place like Biscayne NP, where there may be different species on each island.

Tell us about your anole research?

I’m interested in territoriality, particularly territorial behavior between species. I want to understand why some animals defend their territories not only against members of their own species, but against members of other species as well.

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Photo by Neil Losin

In Florida, I study territorial interactions between two lizard species, the Cuban Brown Anole (Anolis sagrei), in the photo above, and Puerto Rican Crested Anole (Anolis cristatellus), below. Neither species is native to Florida, but both have been introduced and become established in the Miami area.

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Photo by Neil Losin

Anoles are great for studying territoriality–males use conspicuous signals to advertise their presence and deter intruders. These signals include “dewlap displays,” in which a male shows off a colorful flap of skin on its throat, and ritualized “push-ups.”

When these signals can’t resolve territorial border disputes, males may fight violently to defend their space.

So far, I’ve found that the anoles I study (A. sagrei and A. cristatellus) defend their territories against intruders of either species.

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Photos by Neil Losin

In 2010 I’ll be conducting some experiments to determine why they behave this way. I want to know, for example, whether the two species are competing for common resources.

I also want to learn more about the costs and benefits of territoriality between species.

Ultimately, I hope my research with anoles will help us understand how direct interactions between species can drive the evolution of signals and behaviors that mediate those interactions.

In addition, my anoles may provide some insight into the ways that aggressive interactions between species can influence the progress of biological invasions.

What specifically is your National Geographic Young Explorers grant funding?

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My NGS Young Explorers Grant is supporting my travel to Miami and Puerto Rico for this research project, as well as equipment and supplies I use for capturing, marking, and observing the anoles. Working in Miami and the Caribbean isn’t cheap, and funding from NGS has been invaluable for getting my project off the ground.

How does photography and science come together in your career?

I’ve been photographing nature for more than ten years now, and my photography is definitely linked with my scientific interests.

As a biologist with a particular interest in animal behavior, I approach my photography from a scientific angle. I try to capture unique moments in the lives of animals.

My goal in photography is to portray the amazing adaptations–both in morphology and behavior–that animals use to survive in a complex and changing environment.

Science contributes to my photographic process, but photography also plays a role in how I communicate science.

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Photo of Neil Losin in the Everglades by Nathan Dappen

To deepen the public’s understanding of the natural environment, I think scientists have to present their research in a way that’s not just accessible to non-scientists, but entertaining as well.

National Geographic has always been good at this, but organizations like NGS can only cover a fraction of current scientific research. The rest remains largely invisible to the public, buried in the pages of scientific journals.

Academic scientists need to become better teachers outside their universities, and I think that photography can play an important role in this process–even a single captivating image can really draw people into a story.

What other projects are you working on–or would like to work on?

I’m collaborating with Nathan Dappen (University of Miami) and Yoel Stuart (Harvard University) to study coloration in the highly variable poison-dart frog Oophaga pumilio. We want to understand why this species, which is avoided by predators because its vivid colors indicate its toxicity, has evolved so many different color morphs throughout its range.

I’d like return to bird research some day, but for now I’m content to let evolutionary questions guide my choice of study organisms–when I find a question that interests me, I choose an appropriate study system for addressing that question.

Apart from my research, I’m always working on new ways to combine my scientific and photographic interests and communicate science to non-scientists.

Visit Neil Losin’s blog

Found out more about National Geographic Young Explorers Grants

Visit the National Geographic Bioblitz Web site

Read more blog posts about the BioBlitz