Monday, January 2, 2017

Week 1: 15 December 2016

We arrived on 15 December 2016 to an empty research station. The usual tasks awaited: unpacking and setting up the lab, moving into our room, and walking around to locate iguanas. This trip I would be assisted by my husband for 2 weeks; afterwards I'm on my own. The pressure felt immense to get everything accomplished before he left as well as enjoy Palo Verde and all its beauty.

With 30 Encounternet proximity tags, I decided to use 25 leaving a few for back up. Below is Yellow-Yellow-Blue re-beaded at the neck with her proximity tag attached. (She' none too happy about even gentle human handling; when else would she be restrained?)

With each capture, besides morphometric measurements, making sure I had a blood sample, replacing neck beads, and attaching a proximity tag, I also ran a personality assay, seeing how much movement an iguana would undertake in an arena with a predator replica.

Palo Verde OTS staff built m an arena with door that nicely fits my trap, as well as a ladder on which to mount a video camera. It works perfectly for my needs!

Trapping, tagging, and testing 25 animals went well -- we were done in a mere 5 days. And then, well, you know what happens in field work....

Friday, December 9, 2016

Field Season I: December 2016-March 2017

Male C. similis wearing an Encounternet tag.

It is almost time to return to Palo Verde, to warm weather and the dry tropics, to Ctenosaura similis research, and to all the joys and frustrations of field work.

GGG enjoying dappled sunlight.
Following the successful trial of the Encounternet System in Spring 2016 on nine lizards, I'll be tagging ~25 animals this tip to understand their social network structure and how certain drivers may contribute to who socializes with whom. Is it based on genetic relatedness? Are physical 'neighbors' increasingly social compared to more distant group members? Do bold animals prefer other bold lizards or are 'besties' occurring between different personality types?

In the first few weeks, my task is to trap 25 animals and collect morphometric measurements to understand current body condition and overall health. Iguanas are favorably inclined to enter a humane trap for fruit, so this part is not too difficult.

Once measurements are taken, I'll make sure the animal is PIT tagged, take a small blood sample if needed, and attached a solar Encounternet tag.

I then will evaluate the lizard in a personality test for neophilia/neophobia. In an 3 sq. meter wood box outfitted with a plastic raptor reminiscent of natural predators, I'll let each iguana explore for 5 minutes, digitally recording their every move (or lack thereof!) for future analysis. Bolder animals should explore more of the box and be more willing to approach the plastic raptor compared to shy conspecifics.

In between trapping animals and behavioral testing, I'll be setting up base stations to collect data stored on the Encounternet tags and checking that everything works. Once all 25 lizards are trapped, tagged, and tested, the system can go live and eight weeks of data collection begins!

I feel fortunate to work at the OTS Palo Verde Research Station, in a country as beautiful as Costa Rica. Of course, research is always only possible with the help of so many others -- the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Northern Colorado, and the ever gracious and seriously invaluable staff at PV OTS. Here's to a great season of lizard social research!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

WOG (White-Green-Orange) returns!

WOG: thin and home

White-Orange-Green, known simply as WOG, was first trapped and beaded in March 2013. A bold animal, she used refugia in the Big Tree area of the research station. WOG will park herself ~1.5 meters from a human, observing them as they observe her. She's an instructive and enriching element of my work.

WOG was part of the group selected to help calibrate the Encounternet tags. She wore #9, providing physical proximity data from 5 February 2016 to 24 February 2016 when I observed her walk across the Big Tree lawn, head down the hill, traverse the road, and disappear. She wasn't interacting with other tagged animals; we couldn't get any radio signal from her tag at all.

Truthfully, we felt all the while that she'd gone off to lay her eggs, as every other female in our group has also left and returned or is still out. (We are locating Yellow-Yellow-Orange on a daily basis as she does trail digs at various nests.) On 4 March 2016 WOG was sighted on the sidewalk right above one of her usual refugia -- thinner, having obviously laid her eggs -- and her Encounternet tag was gone.

We don't have much hope of finding her tag -- if undergound, we won't get a decent signal and it will eventually run out of power. Further, the nests are conglomerations of branches from a main opening, used by multiple animals at the same time, open and closed even on a daily basis and female after female may use the same spot. In other words, a needle in a haystack! 

Yes, how incredible is it that year after year, WOG has likely performed the same fascinating behavior -- leaving her daily home range with known refugia, travelling several hundred meters to a nesting site, only to come home to the same place. And she is not the only female we are observing completing this process -- White-White-Brown and Yellow-Brown-White have done the same thing and we hope Pale Blue-Black-Red and Red-Pale Blue-Pale Blue will soon head back home.
Iguana nest with tail drags

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Where have all the 'guanas gone? Long time passing.....

Solar Encounternet tag.
Once upon a time, a calibration study commenced. A small group of interacting Ctenosaura similis were chosen to sport solar tags that received and transmitted signals when animals encountered each other.

Thin Yellow-Brown-White after laying her eggs.
The scientists hoped they would wear the tags for about 6 weeks, after which they would be removed. In the beginning, all was well. But slowly, females in the study disappeared. Their radio signal strength indicators weakened and simply seemed to stop working.

Troubleshooting was impossible with no signal. Suddenly, female iguanas with no beads and no solar tags began nesting everywhere -- along the old airstrip, along the slope of the football field, in a dirt mound, in open areas of tilled soil.

Soon, a missing tagged iguana re-appeared, thinner, but behaving normally. Then the second missing iguana came home, also skinny. Between these two events, two other females left the study. By now it was obvious to the scientists that iguanas were laying eggs a bit earlier than reported in the literature.

Study males decamped from their breeding territory and seemed uninterested in pursuing copulations. Younger and smaller iguanas appeared, in crevices and on walls, potentially joining their larger adult counterparts. The social system was in flux.

Lighter brown soil of iguana nesting area.

C. similis head appearing out of nesting burrow.
Green iguanas, Spiny-Tailed Iguanas -- everyone was laying eggs, moving, closing down this chapter and readying for the new one.

Friday, February 26, 2016

White-White-Brown Returns!

C. similis nesting mounds
It may seem odd to declare the return of a missing iguana through a photo of nesting mounds -- but our best guess is that White-White-Brown, gone since 2/5/16, was off laying her eggs. Her return and sighting today showed us a healthy-looking but thin iguana. Tag intact, attached to her body, solar battery well charged, all is good.

Female digging her nest.

WWBr looking thin yet healthy! 
Part of calibration and deployment means attempting to understand how well tags work and endure the natural inclination of C. similis to shove themselves into small rock crevices, dead tree limbs, and all sorts of human-created refuge spots. We now have proof that nest digging does not damage a tag, and that the natural pattern of digging and resting will keep a solar battery charged. Or, at least in the case of WWBr, it works!

Of nine tagged animals, two are male. Of the seven female, two are missing with no tag radio signals. We are hopeful they, like WWBr, will return in good health, simply behaving normally.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Week Four: In which things go wrong...but also right

Yellow-Green-Yellow comes down Big Tree.
By mid-day on 5 February, we had deployed eight working tags on iguanas. A ninth tag, #3 wasn't charging correctly and had to be placed in a lower power mode.

On 10 February, tag #5 on White-White-Brown (WWBr) went Missing-in-Action, along with the lizard. We hope she is off on a great adventure and eventually returns. Her tag send no signal which may mean it is dead, or simply out of range.

White-Orange-Green, the famous WOG of this blog, decided there was little reason to come out and bask for almost a week. We watched with trepidation as her battery voltage drop. Luckily, WOG decided it was time to reappear -- and her battery is charging fine.

Every day we get up before dawn and download logs from the base stations. The logs are the physical proximity encounters between animals, all to understand their social structure. Base stations also record "pings" from tags so we know when and generally how far tag #5 was from any base station when it and WWBr went missing. Each base is managing to successfully "talk" to tags, receive log downloads, and cover a good physical area.

 Of course after bringing tag #3 to a good charging level, and spending two days trapping an animal that interacts with the tagged group, Pale Blue-Black-Red (PBKR), our twice daily voltage checks revealed the tag was again not keeping a charge. So, back into a low power mode.

To help understand the data logs, we are processing a number of days by hand. 8 days and ~7 tags is roughly 25,000 lines of tag-to-tag pairs, by day, time, and radio signal strength. It does tell a story!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Week Three: The System is Live!

Base Station location map.
At some point, our testing had to end, parameter decisions needed to be made, and the system to move from enclosed indoor place on to live animals in their habitat.

Base Stations were located near the group of animals we planned to tag and monitor. Two weeks of calibrations, a few days for percolation of plans, and we were ready to collect real data.

Solar Encounternet tag
Next task was trapping eight iguanas -- and luck was with us! We managed a dominant and subordinate male, and six females of varying personalities. Some are bold while others much more shy. The group, tagged in less than 12 hours, went live on 5 February 2016.

Another stream of issues: would the tags stay on the iguanas? Would we see lizards itching at the tags, suggesting they were annoying and changing their behavior?

The tags are powered by solar panels with the expectation that the natural basking behavior of a Spiny-Tailed Iguana would keep them charged -- would they really work that way?

Would the iguanas visit areas near enough to base stations to ensure proximity log downloads?

Will the raw data make any sense?

Like all new endeavors, getting over one hurdle simply means time to get ready for the next mess.

To save battery power, tags enter a "sleep mode" at the end of an iguana day, and the Base Stations follow an hour latter. This is reversed in the morning. I set clocks, download logs, and check battery levels starting at 5:30 am; tags awake at 6:00 am.

For the first week, it's important to see what Bases are being used by which iguanas, and making sure all animals are downloading interaction logs. We are mostly in good shape except for one iguana who does not seem to have come out of a hide in a couple of days. Tomorrow the hunt is on!

Rusty, our dominant male, wearing his tag.