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March 22nd, 2006

university of california + lizards



Back in November I attended a seminar on Draco flying lizards presented by a member of UC Berkeley's herpetology department, while on Monday afternoon I caught a lecture by Richard Glor of UC Davis on "The Evolution of Species Diversity During Adaptive Radiation of Anolis Lizards". The focus of his research involves studying Anole lizards in the Greater Antilles (Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Hispaniola) and the role that microhabitats have played in influencing speciation on the islands. Adaptive radiation has led to the establishment of various ecomorphs - crown giant sp., trunk crown sp., grass-bush sp., etc. - that occupy similar niches on each island, yet a comparison of DNA base pairs suggests that species are more closely related to anoles from other microhabitats in the same locale than anoles from the same microhabitat in other locales, and this is true not only between islands but also across the same island.

Two hybrids have been found in Cuba, and Glor was also surprised to find two anoles mating in his lab that were from both different microhabitats and different islands. Perhaps a little unusual, but in his lizards' defense he claimed that he would probably be feeling quite desperate as well if he had bilateral (paired) penises and was kept sequestered away from other anoles for days at a time. The seminar itself was quite interesting, and my decision to stay after to ask a few questions resulted in an invitation from Glor and a couple of the university's biology Ph.D students to go out for drinks at a local hang-out for graduate students.

On the way over Glor asked about my own research interests in anthropology, and when I mentioned how I hoped to study linguistic exchange between non-'French' indigenous cultures in l'Hexagone he was quick to point out how his family had originally come from Alsace. ("Hey, so did mine!") I felt a little out of place from being both an undergraduate and a student from outside the School of Biological Sciences, but nobody else seemed to mind - plus, my ability to join their conversation on ratities (flightless birds) probably didn't hurt.

Considering the length of this entry I should probably save some of Glor's stories for another time; they were quite humourous though, so expect to see them some time in the future. Oh, the annoying woman from the Draco seminar was in attendance and asked a couple of strange questions. It turns out she's a member of the faculty here and has a habit of making condescending remarks during guest lectures; fortunately for me, anthropology and molecular biology are far enough removed that she doesn't attend any of the events sponsored by the anthropology department.

glor one

Most of the problems Glor encounters come as a result of a Dewar nitrogen freezer that he carries around in a duffel bag to help transport tissue samples from the Caribbean back to his lab in the United States. One of the stories he shared with our 'post seminar group' involved an airline official on his flight back from Cuba who came across the Dewar and wanted to know what was inside. Glor had the official dump the contents out into his hands to prove their innocence, and although he passed that particular test the official wanted to know why he was carrying around such a large container if he only had a few small vials inside - acting convinced that there must be something else hidden inside.

Glor told him there wasn't anything else inside - just a vacuum - which immediately raised the suspicions of the official. What's inside the vacuum? However, an explanation of how a vacuum, by definition, can't have anything inside wasn't enough to persuade him, as he claimed that it was impossible for there to be nothing inside. Realizing that the manufacturer's sticker was still stuck to the freezer, Glor suggested the airline employee call their number to get a second opinion, but when they dialed the number he was soon experiencing a sense of déjà vu -- Yes, but what's inside the vacuum ... No, that's impossible!. It's likely that the person on the other end of the line had some experience dealing with situations of that type in the past, as it only took a few minutes before Glor was finally left in peace - with the Dewar stored safely on the plane.

One of the graduate students joked about turning that into a test question for the introductory classes she teaches, if only to provide some extra stress and second-guessing among her students. If an instructor asked you to describe what was in a vacuum what would you say?

glor two

Intro and Part One.

A second dilemma arose during a flight between Cuba and the United States that included a stopover in Mexico for a few hours, and this time it had nothing to do with the Dewar stuffed in his duffel bag. We were told that airports in Mexico have a stoplight system for customs inspections where individuals walk up and push a button - if a green light shows up they can continue on to the next area, but if the light is red they have to stop. Glor received a green light, but joked about how he must have looked a little too relieved, as he was pulled aside as soon as he cleared the light.

The duffel bag with his Dewar freezer was described as 'personal effects' and wasn't searched, but when they checked his second bag they found 40 anoles that Glor was bringing back to the United States to study. He had all the appropriate customs paperwork filled out for the US government but was told that he couldn't keep the lizards with him while he waited for his final connection. Instead, they would be stored in a nearby warehouse until his connecting flight began boarding procedures. Glor wasn't thrilled with the arrangement, but realized that he didn't have much say in the matter. While waiting for his flight he also called the United States customs office to let them know about his arrival and quickly ran into a second problem related to his herps.

Certain biological specimens require a 48 hour advanced notice before they can be brought into the country, and, as he hadn't been able to set aside time to find a phone for international calls before leaving Cuba, Glor had been unable to notify customs of his special cargo. He tried explaining this over the phone, but was stuck with an uncooperative customs official. He was informed that everyone was already busy looking into a tiger that had been brought through the airport ("And who the hell brings a tiger through customs?") and that he would have to kill his anoles, as there was no way that official was going to allow them past customs and into the United States. Even claims that he had the government's permission fell on deaf ears.

With no other choice, Glor went back to find the airport official who had taken the anoles into storage to explain the situation as well as he could with his broken Spanish -- You know, I hate to tell you this, but I have to kill all of those lizards now. The conversation went back and forth for a moment, and once the official understood what had happened he was eager to offer his help in killing the anoles. A little strange perhaps, but it probably gave the customs agent as good a story about the 'crazy American' that Glor has about his experience in Mexico.