31 May 2012

The One Hundredth

 Lizard 100 captured today!
Some 'intense' preparation going on in the back of
my little car.
Today marks the day of the 100th lizard (thanks Isaiah, who nabbed that little H. maculata in the early afternoon. Yes, we are combining the numbers of two species (61 Holbrookia maculata, and 39
Sceloporus undulatus), but still, a cause to celebrate by going out for supper at a 'generalised' Asian cuisine common to small American towns. Believe me, I'm not knocking it. I definitely get a 'general' craving for sushi, curry, and pad thai after so much (New) Mexican food.

Jackie feeling the euphoria of ice cold water
down her back.

It was a pretty hot day today and missile testing (much of White Sands, and indeed southern New Mexico state is a US bombing and rocket range... the largest military installation in the country) prevented us from getting to our sites before 10:30 am. Hence we stayed out a little late today and had to bear the real heat of the windless day in the early afternoon.

Earlier this week we also pre-celebrated and ventured up to the Sacramento Mountains South East of the Tularosa Basin and dined in Cloudcroft. It is always an exciting shock to see the abrupt transition from the dry desert to the pine and fir dominated forest on the wetter side of the mountains.

Our most prolific interdune site for H. maculata... especially for its size. Only 30,000 square meters and over thirty lizards captured each field season.

Zooming out to a view of White Sands, which appears as if a lake, from Cloudcroft in Lincoln National Forest.
Tomorrow we finish our first set of interdunes - the "Admin Road" site (so named because these are just over from a road that starts behind the White Sands National Monument administration building). This weekend we will move on north-east to the larger interdunes at the "Dune Life" site (after the Dune Life visitor trail).

Good night 100th lizard!
-S. Des Roches

27 May 2012

Recapture Recapture Recapture!

Good Evening!
Well it has been a very busy few days... but I think it is about time I sketch out an overview of my current project for those of you who are yet unfamiliar.
Previously, my research focused on the ecology side of adaptation - especially habitat use and functional morphology (linking lizard's traits with how they perform - eat, bite, escape predators, and sprint).
The little striped whiptail (A. inornata) with a tasty, grubby snack under the shade on the ecotone of White Sands and the surrounding Chihuahuan Desert.
For her doctorate degree, one of my advisors, Erica B. Rosenblum, researched parallel adaptation of three species of lizards to White Sands. She found that not only do the three species show directional change in colour (they are more 'blanched' on White Sands), but they also generally have longer legs and broader heads for their body size. My results from two years ago also demonstrated that White Sands earless and whiptail lizards were larger than their darker counterparts living in the dark soiled Chihuahuan desert.

Jackie and Mikki checking out a muddy puddle outside the ecotone of White Sands.
For my current project, I am examining whether there is current natural selection on lizards living on the ecotone of White Sands. But HOW? We are using mark-recapture to determine whether lizards with certain traits (colour brightness, head size, limb length...) are more likely to survive from one capture event to another. We mark the lizards using elastomer tags (a fluorescent plastic polymer that I inject with an insulin needle just under the lizard's skin) and generate unique tags using five colours in four locations on the lizards' little bellies. This way, we can measure each lizard's features and keep track of each individual over subsequent capture events. If we do not recapture a lizard, it is likely it has died within the time since the last capture... there is of course, some chance a lizard has just wandered further away. By recapturing multiple times, we can increase our chances that we will find such distant travelers... and be more certain that we are accurately measuring differential survival in our sample populations.

Last year, we began the mark-recapture experiment on the lesser earless lizard, Holbrookia maculata.  We first sampled in May-June, and then recaptured in August. We had about a 60-70% recapture rate... meaning, we 60-70% of the lizards we captured in August were already tagged and had survived since the spring.
A male lesser earless lizard (H. maculata) after just being released. The black dot on his tail is another mark to show us that he has already been caught this time around. The mark is just done with Sharpie and will wash or shed off in a few days. The elastomer marks, however, are inert and mostly permanent, and can hardly be seen in daylight even when the lizard is viewed from below.
Our results from last year already showed some interesting patterns... lizards increased in condition (weight per body length) over the summer (as they fattened up in preparation for the autumn), lizards with higher condition in May-June were more likely to be recaptured in August, and finally, lizards that were brighter in May-June were also more likely to be recaptured. Further work this year will help us confirm whether brighter (whiter) lizards in better condition are more likely to survive on the ecotone.
Mikki readying her noose at our site, "AR02" (Admin Road 02)
This year, we are continuing our work with the earless lizard, and we have added the eastern fence lizard, Sceloporus undulatus to our study. So far we've  captured 13 fence lizards and 38 earless lizards, 24 of which were survivors from last year! It's shaping up to be a great field season... more next time on our locations and more stories from the field!

Goodnight 8 H. maculata and 7 S. undulatus sharing our apartment tonight...
-S. Des Roches

23 May 2012

Solar Eclipse

Good evening everyone,
A couple nights ago, 20 May, we had the great fortune to witness the Annular Solar Eclipse. That is annular (ring shaped), and not annual... an event like this last occurred in 1994, and will again in 2023. Although we were not in the direct line so to see a perfect "ring of fire," we did experience the ephemeral beauty of the juxtaposition of our moon atop our sun from atop a white sand dune.
The four major stages of the eclipse before sun and moon set together. I took this photo (and all my photos) with a Nikon D40x that I have had for over five years now. I also used a 70-300 telephoto, a polarizing filter, and tripod. 
I also put together a short video that I took with a small Canon handheld video camera through my sunglasses. The music is "The Light" by The Album Leaf.


More later on our good fortunes and frustrations so far!
Goodnight sun and moon! - S. Des Roches

19 May 2012

Hunting and Catching Practice

Good evening friends,

Jackie dangling a little lesser earless lizard
Today we ventured into White Sands for the first time this season with nooses in hand. For those of you who are not familiar... we use a slip-knot loop tied with dental floss on the end of a telescoping pup-fish fishing pole. We use this tool to literally noose and hang the small lizards from where they perch (see photo). Because lizards do not have collapsable spines like we mammals, they are not strangled when we pull the pole up and let the lizard dangle. We try not to let the little fellow hang there for too long, and we quickly un-noose them.

Isaiah with his first successful catch
Isaiah wandered off and caught his first lizard today without any help. He nabbed a beautiful male Holbrookia maculata, the lesser earless lizard. He went on to catch a couple others... and experienced the first frustration of lizard catching... chasing a little guy for half an hour through the yuccas!

Jackie also caught her first lizard today... the same lesser earless lizard that Isaiah captured and released. She also successfully noosed a Sceloporus undulatus, the eastern fence lizard, in one try!

Jackie showing off her little find
Mikki and I teamed up to get the third species inhabiting the dunes, Aspidoscelis inornata, the little striped whiptail. Lizard-hunters often have to pair up to catch these little wanderers... both their active foraging ecology (they are always moving around, looking for prey), and their relative lack of a neck (making it easy for them to slip right out of a noose), make it difficult to capture them on their own.

We all felt pretty content after capturing each of the three species in the heart of White Sands... we even had the pleasure of showing off one of our captures to 10 or so eager children co-inhabiting our apartment.

Mikki entertaining a growing crowd with jump
rope before we show them the lizard

Tomorrow we will continue to practice in White Sands and then travel to the mark-recapture sites on the ecotone to glimpse the moon coming between the sun and earth.

Until then, Goodnight wee white dune dragons!
-S. Des Roches

17 May 2012


Good evening followers.
I just wanted to quickly post and say we arrived safely in Alamogordo, NM yesterday afternoon. We've spent the last little while setting up the apartment and visiting the dunes.

After feeding my troops some delicious fried catfish (combined with some excellent roasted potatoes- thanks Isaiah), we settled down for the eve (oh yeah... and an intense ab workout?)

Driving through Wyoming
Stay tuned.
- S. Des Roches

14 May 2012

Charismatic Megafauna Day!

Before tonight’s post, I should mention the names of my charismatic megafauna companions – well, they are just H. sapiens sapiens, but definitely charismatic. Michaela Brinkmeyer is joining me in White Sands again this year after she discovered she simply did not have enough after last field season. Isaiah Hoyer and Jackie Howells are new additions… Jackie is from Berkeley, CA and joining us in Alamogordo after her Wednesday flight.

ALSO, please leave comments or click "FOLLOW"! The more feedback I get, the more I am aware that people are actually reading these ramblings... and the more likely I am to be motivated to write!

and now...

Good evening from Southern Wyoming. 
In keeping with our meandering mentality, we collectively decided to venture through Yellowstone National Park. This means we will be another two nights on the road (including tonight)… but we thought the decision was well worth it at the time. And even though we are now ‘behind schedule,’ we can certainly say our wayfaring was well worth it…

Personally, I had the most mammalian specious day I have perhaps ever had. Here’s the count… 
1.   Elk; Cervus canadensis
(well, not so super, but still exciting as the first sighting of the day)
2.   Mule Deer; Odocoileus hemionus
(again, kind of a boring creature of the ungulate kind)
3.   Pronghorn; Antilocapra americana
(now we’re getting somewhere… although this North American antelope is ubiquitous throughout these massive square states, it is still always a pleasure to envision this lithe animal racing away from the long-extinct Pleistocene cheetah):

5.   Grizzly Sow and two yearling cubs; Ursus arctos
(within five minutes of entering the park proper, we saw a crowd of adventurers with spotting scopes, binos and telephotos primed for the immortal capture of the mind and [digital] film):

6.   Bison; Bison bison -creative latin name there
(these huge beasts were a new one to me, although as common as cattle on the prairie):

7.   Female Bighorn Sheep; Ovis canadensis
(not new to me, although always special to see them so close and nicely dappled by the three-o’clock sunlight):

8.   A smiling coyote; Canis latrans
(no photo... we just glanced him from the road)
...and just when we were relishing the day’s biodiversity, in the warm slanted light south of the Tetons, I spot three or four little rabbits in the field… and yes, rabbits are lovely… but alas, Michaela points out, rabbits do not have long fuzzy white-tipped tails. Ah yes, Mother Nature decided that we needed a little more furry icing on our fauna-cakes
9.   Three little Vulpes vulpes pups darting in and out of their suburban burrows:

Thanks Isaiah for the long driving effort today so I could indulge in my photographic needs… driving, which, by the way, is not completed as I type this blog into a word document while still on the road to Rawlins, WY.

Goodnight ungulates, ursids, canids…
Oh! Was that just a grey owl!? Oh my yes it was.

-S. Des Roches

13 May 2012

Setting forth

Good evening.
We have decided to meander a little on our way down south. Today we took a scenic winding eastward route from Moscow, Idaho to Bozeman, Montana via Highway 12.

We had a spectacular lunch stop by the Clearwater on the far east edge of Idaho. I took some long exposure photos while the little purple butterflies fluttered around my wet feet.

After having dinner in Butt(e), Montana - why is it I am so immature that I find that hilarious? We drove another several miles and settled for the night in Bozeman.

Goodnight mountains, good night mule deer, good night osprey.
- S. Des Roches

12 May 2012

Eve before departure

Okay folks. Last year, I was a terrible terrible blogger. Fewer than a dozen posts? Really. I am going to have to shape up this field season.

Tomorrow we leave for New Mexico. In a fury we will finish packing up my little red car, Bellatrix, with her little black backpack (photographs to come) and escape the frenzy that is graduation weekend at the University of Idaho in Moscow. Tomorrow we hope to camp or, if poor weather or overly fatigued- motel, in either Montana or Wyoming. We will continue to trundle across the inland postage-stamp states, onward through Colorado into New Mexico... arriving in Alamogordo on the 15th May.

Stay tuned for a quick summary of my project, a wrap-up of last year's field season, and an introduction to this year's team.

Please tell your friends to tune in... and leave comments too! Last year I didn't realise the interest my blog had generated because I received only one comment total!

- S. Des Roches

Last year's trip through Montana