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Researcher's Experience at Palo Verde

On August 24, OTS celebrated the Day of the National Parks in Costa Rica.  One of our three research stations in Costa Rica (we have a fourth in Skukuza – South Africa) is located within the Palo Verde National Park.  In honor of the Day, we talked with Ann-Elizabeth Nash, a Researcher and current PhD student at the University of Northern Colorado, studying the Spiny Tailed Iguana (Ctenosaura similis) at our Palo Verde Research Station.

OTS: Tell us about yourself? How did you hear about OTS?
Ann-Elizabeth Nash:  For my PhD research, I wanted to work with a lizard that lived in groups. As a behavioral ecologist, I also wanted a species that was not endangered. Through my reading I eventually focused on the Spiny Tailed Iguana, Ctenosaura similis -- El Garrobo -- and the previous research that had the OTS Palo Verde Research Station as the base. I then talked to several doctoral students at the University of Colorado at Boulder who had taken the graduate course and they confirmed that there were many Spiny Tailed Iguanas at Palo Verde.

OTS: Can you describe your research in Palo Verde? What are the objectives of your research?
AEN:  I'm interested in understanding how social groups operate -- what holds them together and what benefits the individual animals themselves derive from living in close proximity to each other.

It's important to understand that social does not necessarily mean cooperative as we often think of, such as some insects like honey bees, or birds that raise their young together, or primates that groom each other.

However, there is a social structure for most animals that is formed by daily interactions -- and those interactions are not random.

I use tools to describe and test the social structure of the group of Spiny Tailed Iguanas that live in the OTS station -- which individuals had many connections, which have few; which animals are important to keep small clusters connected and which are almost loners; and is the entire group densely connected or is it loose? These are classic social network analysis questions.

To gather that information, I use radio wave physical proximity tags that record when two lizards are closely interacting with each other (6 meters or closer).

I've individually marked more than 175 lizards just in the station -- some of who I've known since March 2013 and who live and use the same hide! The Spiny Tailed Iguanas form very stable groups which makes them a very useful study animal.

Once I understand the social structure, I can ask if an individual animal's personality contributes to the type of social connections it has -- so I run personality assays in the field. I can also ask if genetic relatedness is a driver for social connections -- is an animal in a group with sisters and aunts or is genetic relatedness not that important? 

OTS:  How will your research help in the conservation of the wildlife?
AEN: Studying and understanding how healthy populations operate is very important for how we may manage other closely related species. Almost all lizards in Iguaninae are threatened to severely endangered. We need to understand how they live naturally if we want to manage populations that may function naturally in the wild. The Spiny Tailed Iguana is perfect to help us understand what might be crucial for successful groups -- plus we are getting more current information about them as well. This research tells us about El Garrobo's genetic health as a group, their personality, social connections, and other elements of their life history including group stability, how long females leave for nesting, how males control females and the overall social structure, etc.  Squamata -- snakes and lizards -- are a great group to ask all sorts of evolutionary questions, including social behavior.

OTS:  Why Palo Verde?
AEN: The lizards brought me to Palo Verde, and the ease of working at the station makes it possible!

OTS: What do you like most about Palo Verde?
AEN: It's a small station with just enough classes and travelers to avoid feeling isolated. It is also comparatively less crowded -- so it is possible to walk and hike on your own and enjoy the pleasures of the outside world. I consider it a great gift to observe the incremental changes that happen across 3 months, and to challenge myself to learn more species that live in the park -- insects, plants, trees, birds, and of course, reptiles and amphibians.

OTS: If you were a researcher thinking about working at Palo Verde, what would you tell them?  Is there something you will suggest they bring?
AEN: It's a great place to work with a very responsive staff. You need to plan ahead and bring what you need for your research -- but staff can and do help with everything you need, from building a ladder and testing arena for my research to picking up supplies in town, to putting up (for me) with my language struggles!

It is also important to remember that field work can be lonely so it's good to take care of yourself. Yes -- pack that seemingly "fancy" thing if it will make you happy.

Palo Verde has reputation for being terrible regarding insects -- and I am very attractive to them! I also realize that compared to some times, I've still not had the worst of mosquito outbreaks. Still -- it is manageable!!  I've been doing research at PV since 2013 and have no plans to stop. I wanted a study animal and location that would be there for the rest of my career -- and I think I've found that!           

Last Updated ( 01/16/18 )
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