Caturday Felid: Anoles vs. Predators

May 16, 2009 • 10:31 am

by Greg Mayer

The terrifyingly threatening predator on the left (which closely resembles my first cat, Kitty Cat) appears ready to enjoy a quick snack at the expense of the anole on the right (which closely resembles my first lizards, Gilbert and Ignatius). What’s that, you say? An anole? Not a gecko?KittehGeico


Our endangered friend is not a gecko, a type of lizard that has been popularized by commercial ventures ranging from Hawaiian tourism to insurance, but rather an anole, a member of a quite distinct family of lizards. In particular, it is Anolis carolinensis, the green or Carolina anole. They are native to the southeastern United States, and have long been popular in the pet trade. Jamaican acquaintances have told me of how the arrival of a house cat can clear out the anoles in their garden, but I don’t greatly fear for our friend here: I’ve seen an anole on Grand Cayman, faced in a similar manner by a predatory bird, dash between the bird’s legs and make good its escape.Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree, by Jon Losos

Anoles are the neatest of all lizards, with about 300 species ranging from the US to South America and all over the West Indies, and showing a great diversity of morphology, ecology, and behavior.Β  One of the neat things about anoles is that they are great natural colonizers.Β  The species group to which Anolis carolinensis belongs originated on Cuba, and has colonized the southern US, the Bahamas, Little Cayman, Navassa, and Half Moon Cay and the Bay Islands off the coast of Central America. Through human introduction, Anolis carolinensis is now widespread on islands in the Pacific, including Hawaii.Β  The populations on the West Indian islands are variously considered endemic species or subspecies, and are a good example of geographic speciation, discussed by Jerry in chapter 7 of WEIT.

Studies of the colonizing abilities of anoles, and many other neat things about them, were pioneered by E.E. Williams. Anole studies have been carried to new levels by my friend and colleague Jonathan Losos, and he has a book on anoles coming out this summer, which everyone should read to find out more about their evolution, ecology, and biogeography.

14 thoughts on “Caturday Felid: Anoles vs. Predators

  1. So those little lizards which scoot up and down my house and run across parking lots where I shop, are not geckos? (I live in Florida).

    1. There are lots of species of lizards in Florida, including geckos. If they’re scooting up and own your house by day, they are probably anoles; if they’re doing it by night, they’re probably geckos. Running across parking lots could be anoles or several other possibilities, but very unlikely to be geckos. Also, geckos are not bright green (except for a group called day geckos from islands in the Indian Ocean).

  2. I am a huge anole fan. I grew up watching them for hours at a time as a kid (in south central Florida). I even have a stuffed toy anole that I named Losos. But I am continually disheartened by the northern spread of A. sagrei and other invasive introduced species that tend to displace our charismatic native anoles.

    Leslie, although there are many lizards in Florida, what you describe sounds like anoles to me.

  3. I bought the book! Anoles have always been near and dear to my heart.

    I grew up in the island of Hispaniola, and we have several species of them. They are referred to as ‘alagartos’, which is the spanish word for ‘lizard’ (lagarto) with an ‘a’ or ‘al’ suffix. ‘al’ is arabic for ‘the’; so i had assumed this word was a moor loan word, but learning that they are endemic to Cuba, that can’t be right… I just now noticed how similar the word is to ‘alligator’. but enough etymology!

    We used to build little nooses out of a tall grass that grows locally, and snare the Anoles off the side of a tree. If you place two in a jar, they will viciously fight each other! I know, I know – horribly cruel. What can I say, seems to be a common trait of young male humans.

    1. I’ve been to the DR a couple of times to study anoles. There are 40+ species there. Most people called them ‘lagartijas’, which means roughly little lizards, and they are of course little compared to some other Dominican lizards (iguanas) and the American crocodile, which occurs on the island. In almost every village we would find someone who was a keen natural history observer, who would know the different kinds. We would ask about the species we wanted, the one with the ‘cola amarilla’ (=yellow tail; actually a small patch on the bottom of the tail), and most people wouldn’t know which one that was, but the local natural historian would know. In the French islands such a person would be the ‘maitre bois’ (master of the forest); I didn’t find a name for them in Spanish.

      I’ve never been to Haiti, but a colleague who was studying folklore there collected some specimens of anoles, and recorded their names. They were ‘zanolit’ (not sure about the final consonant), which is the Creole definite article, z’, combined with anoli(t), which is where the Latin Anolis and English anole come from. Interestingly, Creole combines the definite article with the noun, just as in the English ‘alligator’ from Spanish ‘el lagarto’, and the Dominican ‘alagarto’, which is surely not Moorish but a contraction from ‘el lagarto’.

      Nooses on sticks or fishing poles are still how scientists catch anoles, but small West Indian boys with grass nooses are still the best lizard catchers.

      1. that’s right, Lagartijas! haha, you know spanish better than this old dominican… πŸ™‚ Now that you mention it, I’m recalling that ‘alagarto’ may have specifically referred to a particular, dark green, large species. sorry, it’s been over 30 years since my lizard trapping days!

        wow, over 40 species? I can’t wait to get my Anole book, I’m going to dazzle my relatives with my newfound critter knowledge next time i go back to visit.

  4. just did an etymology check – the english word alligator comes from the spanish ‘el lagarto’. πŸ™‚

  5. Thank you, Greg and Diego. The anoles are fascinating to watch. My indoor kitty cats are thrilled when they can stalk one on the patio.

    Some have the ability to expand their throats (red or yellow) and I assume this is for the lady anoles benefit πŸ˜‰

    I love how they can release their tails when captured. It’s like they’re equipped with a James Bond special weapon.

    1. The throat fan, or dewlap, is a flap of loose skin extended by cartilaginous rods of the hyoid skeleton (remnants of the gill arch skeleton of their piscine ancestors; see WEIT chap. 3). In most anoles, the fan is big in males and small in females. They extend the fan in territorial defense, to attract mates, after particularly large meals, and after (and sometimes while) escaping from a predator. the fan is pink to purplish in Anolis carolinensis, and scarlet to red-orange with a yellow to cream edge in Anolis sagrei, the two most common anoles in Florida. They don’t drop their tails, but they break off without too much pressure.

  6. Anoles were my first pet (when I was about 12 years old). I remember one day coming home from school and seeing on of them on top of the other biting the back of its neck. At first I thought they were fighting and was quite worried; then I picked up the pair, turned them over, and realized they were mating. Never did get a batch of eggs out of them though.

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