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Project: Phenotypic Plasticity, Evolution, and the Response of Tropical Lizards to a Rapidly Warming World

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Project title

Phenotypic Plasticity, Evolution, and the Response of Tropical Lizards to a Rapidly Warming World

Mentor name

Owen McMillan;


The internship will be located primarily at the Gamboa Lab in Gamboa, Panama (and nearby Soberania National Park), and will also involve occasional trips to Barro Colorado Island (BCI) and the surrounding smaller islands in Lake Gatun. At least one mentor will be at STRI at all times, though the day-to-day operations will be led by postdoctoral researchers and graduate students.

Project summary and objectives

Tropical ectotherms, having evolved in the relatively stable climate near the equator, are considered especially vulnerable to climate change. However, it is possible that adaptive processes such as phenotypic plasticity and genetic change may help mitigate the negative effects of a warming environment. Unfortunately, we know little about how these processes will play out as climate change progresses and whether they can meaningfully reduce extinction probabilities.

We have established a long-term field experiment whereby we have transplanted hundreds of slender anole lizards (Anolis apletophallus) to small islands in Lake Gatun (Panama Canal) which vary in their thermal conditions. We are tracking survival and reproductive success of lizards on each of these islands to understand how phenotypic plasticity and genetic adaptation may affect their probability of extinction in a warming world.

Mentorship goals

The intern will have the opportunity to get involved in a range of projects that we are conducting as a part of the broader goals of our research. The intern will learn a set of diverse skills. These may include: live capture and handling of lizards, habitat surveys, lizard activity surveys, behavioral assays, estimating thermal tolerance and performance, respirometry (measurement of metabolic rates), handling and operating a small boat, mark-recapture techniques, measurement of morphological traits, blood and tissue extraction, dissection, molecular techniques including PCR and microbiome studies, controlled photography and analysis of coloration, use of drones, and captive care and maintenance of lizards.

On our project, the intern will be part of a diverse, international group of scientists (undergraduate students, graduate students, postdocs, and professors) from several different institutions. The intern will also benefit from working at STRI, which hosts scientists from all over the world in a premiere research setting.

The intern would be expected to work 6 days a week with one full week off at some point during the internship. It is expected that the intern will be a coauthor on at least one major publication that includes data collected in 2023.

List of suggested readings

Neel LK, Logan ML, Nicholson DJ, Miller C, Chung AK, Maayan I, Degon Z, DuBois M, Curlis JD, Taylor Q, Keegan KM, McMillan WO, Losos JB, Cox CL. 2021. Habitat structure mediates vulnerability to climate change through its effects on thermoregulatory behavior. Biotropica: 2021: 1-13.

Logan ML, Neel LK, Nicholson DJ, Stokes AJ, Miller CL, Chung AK, Curlis JD, Keegan KM, Rosso AA, Maayan I, Folfas E, Williams CE, Casement B, Koyner MAG, Perez DJP, Falvey CH, Alexander SM, Charles KL, Graham ZA, McMillan WO, Losos JB, Cox CL. 2021. Sex-specific microhabitat use is associated with sex-biased thermal physiology in Anolis lizards. Journal of Experimental Biology: 224: jeb235697.

Rosso AA, Nicholson DJ, Logan ML, Chung AK, Curlis JD, Degon ZM, Knell R, Garner TWJ, McMillan WO, Cox CL. 2020. Sex-biased parasitism and expression of a sexual signal. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society: 131: 785-800.

Cox CL, Alexander S, Casement B, Chung AK, Curlis JDC, Degon Z, Dubois M, Falvey C, Graham Z, Folfas E, Gallegos Koyner MA, Neel LK, Nicholson DJ, Padilla Perez DJ, Ross XO, Rosso AA, Taylor Q, Thurman TJ, Williams CE, McMillan WO, Logan ML. 2020. Ectoparasite extinction in simplified lizard assemblages during experimental island invasion. Biology Letters: 16: 20200474.

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