Academic Minute Podcast

Lindsey Swierk, Binghamton University – Lizard Adaptations Through the Lens of Organismal Ecology

On Binghamton University Week: How do reptiles of different sexes solve the same problem in different ways?

Lindsey Swierk, assistant research professor of biological sciences at the Harpur College of Arts and Sciences, takes a closer look at anoles.

Swierk studies the behavior and ecology of species in a changing world. Her work primarily focuses on reproductive ecology, sexual selection, and animal communication using reptiles and amphibians as study organisms, exploring both fundamental questions and their conservation implications. Swierk’s research integrates an emphasis on the human impacts on species’ ecology. She conducts research in the northeastern United States and in the Neotropics.

Lizard Adaptations Through the Lens of Organismal Ecology

Anoles are the scuba-diving champions of the lizard world, able to stay underwater for more than 16 minutes. But for animals whose body temperature depends on the environment, time spent in cool water can have tradeoffs.

At the Swierk Organismal Ecology Lab, my team and I research lizards in the Anolis genus in the Neotropics. We helped to document that semi-aquatic anoles can dive underwater for long periods by rebreathing a bubble of air covering their heads. This trait may have evolved to allow anoles to use aquatic habitats to escape predators, and we’re looking closely at the functions and mechanisms of the behaviors and morphologies that may allow them to rebreathe underwater.

Semi-aquatic anoles seem to have evolved a sex-specific tradeoff between finding safety underwater and retaining body heat on land. This represents what we behavioral ecologists call an ‘optimization problem,’ where animals must balance the costs and benefits of performing particular behaviors.

New research conducted by myself, PhD candidate Alexandra Martin at Binghamton University, and Chris

Boccia from Queens University suggests that the sexes differ in how they solve this problem, since females have longer dives than males.

Longer dives mean that it’s less likely for a predator to be waiting once the anole returns to the surface. Females appear to trade the physiological cost of cool water for that extra safety since they don’t face the same pressure as males to look for eligible mates or defend territory.

The ways that animals can adapt to environmental pressures are astounding and have continued to inspire humans to push the boundaries of bio-inspired design. We are curious and excited to explore these ideas and plan to examine the function and mechanisms of this trait and others more fully in future research.

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