Spring Break 2018: Anolis Symposium VII, Day I (with some historical context)

Anolis Symposium VII;
Miami-Dade county, Florida (18 March 2018).
Series: Spring Break 2018.

In February of 1972, Harvard herpetologist and evolutionary biologist Ernest Williams produced a technical two-year report reporting research progress funded by National Science Foundations Grant B 019801X. In this technical report, Williams presented and summarized current and progressing research relating to anole ecology, biology, and adaptation — work being conducted by a community of like-minded scientists working in communication with and around each other. Just as Williams was critically influential in evolutionary biology circles, so too was this technical document ultimately influential within the tighter, more-focused group of anolologists — those who study the lizards of genus Anolis  (a genus I’m rather enamored with). This 30-page, technical report was later dubbed “The First Anolis Newsletter.”

Two years later, in April of 1974, Williams picked up where he left off and produced “The Second Anolis Newsletter.” In his introduction to this second newsletter, Williams wrote

The first Anolis Newsletter was never so labelled. It was only an elaborate –over elaborate– report to the National Science Foundation which I secondarily made an in-house information bulletin. 

The informational success of the first bulletin/newsletter led me to believe that second and succeeding newsletters might be welcome, since they succeeded — for me as well as the rest of the group– in giving a sense of what was being done, why and with what results. I orally promised such a newsletter to many people but not until now, when once again the NSF has compelled me to write a report, have I got around to actually editing and sending out the long awaited SAN. 

Thus follows 73 pages or so of crafted scholarship and summaries of anole research reported in 1974 — long before the rise of the internet and modern publishing. We can think of these inaugural “Anolis Newsletters” as a kind of pre-social-media social media. In science, after all, there are innumerable discourse communities focusing on very specific lines of research and scholarship. Discourse communities such as the anolologists are spread across space. Without the internet and the constant status updating we know of today, then, it’s not too difficult to understand why such a newsletter would serve as such an instrumental tool for communication, information sharing, and even for community building. Such documents fostered and encouraged the sense of community within the ranks of those who studied All Things Anolis.

Three years later, in 1977, Williams released his “Third Anolis Newsletter.” Clocking in at 226 pages of typed manuscript, this third newsletter was not only a behemoth of scholarship and summary, but also of discourse community building. Williams began this third newsletter with a brilliant, most-excellent, and frequently-referenced anecdote:

It was while walking along a hedge row in the Dominican Republic, listening to a complaint that I and some of my co-workers did not frame hypotheses every day while in the field, that I invented (or recognized) the PRINCIPLE OF UNSYMPATHETIC MAGIC. This states that, if one arrives at any firm and vivid conviction about matters of fact or theory in the field, the NEXT observation will provide a contradiction. 

The principle is easily confirmed by any field worker. Note, however, that NATURE IS NOT DECEIVED. No opinion merely pretended to, i.e. not held with fierce conviction, will be responded to by a conclusive observation. The MALICE OF NATURE prohibits the PRINCIPLE OF UNSYMPATHETIC MAGIC from being a source of satisfaction to the field worker. 

Right from the start, there was a sense of playfulness riding alongside the scholarship. This was a discourse community enamored with and fascinated by its subject matter, yes, but it was also a discourse community that thrives on intercommunication and dialogue, on playfulness and the sharing of experiences. The Principle of Unsympathetic is a prime example of what I’m talking about. It was a wickedly clever and jovial expression of what I consider to be a GotDamTruth™ — and something I frequently hear referenced from anolologists far and wide.

At this point, however, the legacy of the Anolis Newsletter took a breather. It wasn’t until September of 1991 that the fourth Anolis Newsletter would find its way to the printed world. Edited by Jonathan Losos and Gregory Mayer, Anolis Newsletter IV served a slightly different function than the previous three installments.

In June of 1989, a symposium of anolologists was held at the American Society of Ichthyologists and Herpetologists conference in San Francisco. In the wake of that symposium, Losos and Mayer organized the fourth newsletter in order to:

  1. to allow investigators to inform others about their current research programs and future plans;
  2. to provide an outlet for speculation and theorization perhaps inappropriate for publication in more formal arena; and
  3. to present an opportunity for the presentation of data, in whatever format or state of analysis, that otherwise might be lost in the fog of time, never to see the light of day.

This fourth newsletter essentially served as both an endnote to the actual symposium itself and as a kind of launching point toward future directions and avenues of research.

Nine years later, on September of 1998, Ernest Williams passed away. The following June, Jonathan Losos and Manuel Leal published the fifth Anolis newsletter in the wake of Williams’s passing and the another Anolis symposium. In the preface, Losos and Leal wrote,

It has been ten years since the last Anolis symposium, held in San Francisco in 1989, and eight years since the publication of Anolis Newsletter IV. Consequently, on the occasion of the third Anolis symposium, held at Penn State, we thought that the time was ripe for another edition of the Anolis Newsletter series. As this volume attests, the last ten years have seen a remarkable expansion in the research being conducted on anoles, with many new workers joining the field. Nonetheless, the Anolis world has seen a major setback since the last newsletter: the loss of Ernest Williams. Surely, no one can doubt that, had it not been for Ernest, we would not be writing Anolis newsletters and holding Anolis symposia. That Anolis has become one of the model organisms for studying ecology, behavior, and evolution is largely a result of Williams’ efforts, both first-hand and by the people he trained (Stan Rand’s contribution at the beginning of the newsletter details the development of the Williams Anolis program and the history of the newsletters). Indeed, though he is gone, his legacy continues. A quick perusal of the Table of Contents indicates that (as far as is known to us) about half of the authors in this volume in some way are members of the Williams lineage. Ernest will be missed. We dedicate Anolis Newsletter V to his memory.

Indeed, the ambience and aura of Williams is felt far, wide, and deep in the Anolis community. Losos and Leal were not understating the legacy and impact of Williams on so many within and beyond the Anolis field of study.

Twelve years later, in June of 2010, the sixth Anolis newsletter was published and served as a closing note to the Anolis symposium held in October of 2009 at Harvard University. Dedicated to Stan Rand, a former student of Williams and an influential voice in early Anole studies as well as animal communication research, Mahler and Losos wrote in the preface

Anole biology has changed considerably in the last decade, and it’s been for the better! First and foremost, the field has grown explosively. The number of researchers, the variety of research disciplines, and the number of countries in which anole research is being conducted have all grown considerably in recent years. With nearly 400 named species, an extensive neotropical distribution, and an unmatched diversity of ecologies and morphologies, Anolis is well equipped for the increased attention.

Also though, Anolis research has blossomed in exciting new directions. Perhaps of greatest note, the genome of Anolis carolinensis was recently sequenced, making the Green Anole a genetic model organism and opening the doors for an astounding variety of genetic, developmental, morphological, and evolutionary studies. Perhaps less conspicuously, advances in anole husbandry have enabled a wave of experimental and developmental studies. New tools and techniques have also taken studies of anole functional morphology to new levels of rigor.

By this time, if it wasn’t already, genus Anolis had become one of the rock star taxa of evolutionary biology. The world of anolologists was no longer a niche group. It was a pivotal cluster, a constellation if you will, in the starmap of evolutionary biology and ecological research. As one generation gave way to the next, and as that next generation helped groom and pave the way for the next to follow, the discourse community of anolologists continued to expand and grow outward, exploring new means of communication not only with one another but also with a broader, general audience.

It was around this time that Anole Annals was launched online. An active, multi-athored blog of All-Things-Anolis, Anole Annals has grown steadily in its contributor base and its readership over the years. The first post on Anole Annals was published by Jonathan Losos on 21 November of 2009, one month after the Anolis symposium of October 2009. The post features a trifecta of haikus and is titled “By Yoel Stuart“:

Poe named an anole
williamsmittermeieror’m:
Ponder, weak, weary.

Perched on a warm day,
Dewlap dewlap dewlap dew –
Blackbird predation.

Dewlap and Toepad.
Adaptive Radiation.
Key Innovations?

Once again, humor splashed with interrogation, science accented with creativity — hallmarks of the anolis discourse community.

Over the following decade and through today, Anole Annals continues to shine clever and useful spotlights on damn near anything and everything related to genus Anolis — whether it be scholarship, creative expression, a commercial product, or something completely off the grid, and if you read closely, you can hear the faint legacies of the past continue to drift through the voices of today, just as today’s voices will carry through into the deep expanse of the future. The Principle of Unsympathetic Magic, as an example, is very much alive and well, thank you very much.

And so it is with all of that context and history that I travelled to south Florida during Spring Break of 2018 to participate in Anolis Symposium VII, an event organized by the illustrious and energetically engaging James T. Stroud. Even though it was technically the 4th such symposium, the collective anole world has fused its infamous newsletter series with its face-to-face symposia — and thus arrived Anolis Symposium VII held at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens in Coral Gables, Florida, on March 17th and 18th of 2018. As described on Anole Annals,

The aim of the symposium is to bring together Anolis biologists from diverse backgrounds to share their excitement and discoveries for these marvelous lizards. In this symposium, we hope to foster cross-disciplinary collaborations of people working with anoles and to broaden our general understanding of their biology and natural history. Miami was chosen not only for its spectacular anole diversity, but because of its ready access to anolologists living outside of mainland United States.

Miami, FL, is an ideal place in the USA to host this meeting! Over the past 100 years, eight species of Caribbean anoles have joined one native species in becoming established in south Florida. This meeting will be held on the weekend of March 17-18th 2018, which broadly overlaps with at least one weekend of the Spring Break holiday for most US schools, and does not conflict with other major meetings as far as we’re aware. We hope that this will facilitate good attendance! The symposium will be held at the Fairchild Tropical Botanic Gardens, which is home to a diverse community of exotic lizards, including six (!) species of anoles (read more about them here and on Anole Annals here!). [from “Save the Date“]

In the next post, I’ll share images from Day II of the symposium and some personal reflections on anoles and their value in my own life.

For now, here’s a slideshow of images from Day I of Anolis Symposium VII — from the symposium itself to our nocturnal afterparty of sorts:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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NOTE: My field buddy, Eric Alain-Parker, the dude who romps about the Florida peninsula with me in search of wildlife adventure, is the artist who designed the A. equestris graphic image for the Anolis Symposium VII banner and t-shirt (as seen above). That guy is wicked talented beyond measure. He also seems to enjoys swimming in gator holes, and that’s certainly something.

For your reading pleasure, here are the original Anolis newsletters in PDF format:

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