Excerpts from Jim Conrad's
Naturalist Newsletter


from the April 8, 2012 Newsletter issued from the woods a few miles east of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

During my hermit days not far from here the Fire Ants provided low-grade misery throughout all my years, but Green Anoles, ANOLIS CAROLINENSIS, almost made up for them. They were everywhere, too, always peering down at me from walls, circling my breakfast campfires as, just in a few seconds, they changed from bright green to dull brown. Only rarely did they short-circuit my computer by entering through the fan opening to stalk across my circuit boards. I'm glad to find these interesting and congenial little dinosaurs still so common upon my return.

You can see one on a stem beside my trailer at the top of this page.

from the February 24, 2002 Newsletter issued from the woods a few miles south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Even more than the deer, armadillos and woodrats, during 90% of the year Green Anoles are my most companionable animal neighbors. I'm talking about a kind of green lizard found in the Deep South, ranging as far north as extreme southern Tennessee and southern North Carolina. Green Anoles are often sold in pet stores as "chameleons" since they can change from a vivid green to a dark brown in less than a minute.   Amazingly, the word "anole" is pronounced something like "eh-NOH-lee."

This week has been a warm, sunny one, so my camp and the gardens have been rich with anoles. I reach for a hoe and there's a Green Anole on the handle looking me straight in the eye. I'm working at the computer, something catches my eye at the screen door, and there's a Green Anole stalking a fly across the screen, and before the day is over he'll probably enter through the crack and do pushups on my scanner.

foot of Green Anole, ANOLIS CAROLINENSISThey escape the cold by wedging themselves into tight places where they "hunker down" until it warms. This winter there haven't been two weeks in a row when I did not glimpse a Green Anole warming himself in the sunlight on or near my trailer. This Wednesday I found a dead one who'd crept between two corrugated sheets of tin roofing lying on the ground, not reckoning on metal's easy conductivity of cold. I scanned his foot, and that's it at the right.

With low-power binoculars I often watch these animals. Low-powered ones are better than powerful ones because they focus closer. You can watch things just 9 or 10 feet away, and that's perfect for anole-watching.

Thing is, anoles do much more than just wander around stalking flies, beetles, spiders and the like. Males stake out and defend territories inside which several females have their own smaller, often overlapping territories. You see the patrolling males fanning out the large, pink "dewlaps" below their chins and chests at a rate of about a hundred times an hour. These displays are mainly to signal to other males that he's on the job so they'd better stay away. A patrolling male covers about 70 feet (27 meters) per hour.

All this is such hard work for a little green lizard that he can't eat enough to keep his health up. One study found that during a 4-month period about 70% of all males grew so exhausted that competitors invaded and took over both territory and females.

This is worth thinking about. If you accept that we humans have evolved according to the same principles as all other living things, then it seems that Nature is not above programming some of us for stressful lives doomed at the offset to end in frustration.

On the other hand, maybe the gratification of being an alpha male with a splendid pink dewlap and, at least for a time, a whole harem of ladies, makes it all worthwhile...

from the August 3, 2003 Newsletter issued from the woods a few miles east of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Thursday as I passed by my garden I noticed two male Green Anoles, ANOLIS CAROLINENSIS ("chameleon" lizards), circling one another on a fencepost. Clearly they were contesting territory. One was a little larger than the other, and the small one had about a quarter of his tail missing. The larger was slower but kept the high ground while the smaller was more aggressive and willing to attack. Both were bright green.

Finally they lunged at one another, their open mouths ending up crosswise to one another, each with a good bit of the other's upper or lower jaw in its own mouth. At first it appeared as if each was in an equally bad situation but then the larger one, in a matter of less than 30 seconds, turned dark brown- gray. During most or maybe all of the matings I've seen, the male remained bright green while the female turned a dark, leaden hue, so the thought occurred to me that maybe the big male sensed that he was at a disadvantage in the fight, and his darkening signaled his desperation or submission. Closer up I saw that the big one not only had one of his eyes inside the other's mouth, but also several of his head scales were dislodged, and he was breathing much faster than his smaller opponent. I think he considered himself to be losing the fight.

They remained locked together like this for ten minutes, the smaller one constantly shifting his body to get a better grip, the larger one just holding on. Finally they disengaged and the circling continued, the big one walking stiffly and seemingly dazed. Soon they attacked again and the same situation developed, except that this time no eye was covered by a jaw. After about ten more minutes the big one began turning green again and the small one started looking nervous, shifting his position more frequently but never improving his situation.

Somehow they came undone, circled one another some more, the big one always maintaining the highest position despite his swollen, wounded tongue hanging from his mouth's corner, and then they attacked again. The big one continued regaining his earlier bright green color and now the small one had as many loose scales and raw-looking spots as the big one. As they chewed at one another, sometimes one would lose his grip and the other would hold him in mid air while clinging to the side of the fencepost. Then the loose one would gain a grip, give a mighty twist and flip the other into the air. It was a tremendous fight.

After about 40 minutes from the beginning they disengaged, circled one another for a while, and then I saw it: The big one had returned to his former brilliant bright greenness but the small one now for the first time was darkening. And now the small one, for every five steps he'd take forward or sideways, would take six backwards. He still looked aggressive but unmistakably he was withdrawing from the fight as he grew darker and darker.

Finally just the bright green big one remained on the fencepost as the dark small one slinked away through the daylilies.

from the June 22, 2003 Newsletter issued from the woods a few miles east of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

This week I was standing in the barn when suddenly something plopped onto the concrete at my feet. It was two mating Green Anoles -- those green "lizards" sometimes called chameleons -- mating. The male on top still clutched the female, though they looked a little stunned. They had fallen at least eight feet (2.4 m). Judging from the splat made when they hit the concrete, it must have hurt. It took a minute or so before they decided to uncouple and wander off.

I've seen several pairs of mating Green Anoles this week. On Thursday a pair on the wooden fence around my new garden put on a real show. The male assumed a bright green color but the female took on a deep dark brown as they stuck together for a long time, in most cases for 30-60 minutes. The male sometimes nipped at the female's neck as he shifted position, and he kept his long tail curled beneath her, sticking out below her at a right angle to the axis of her body.

In earlier Newsletters I've made the point that the males of most bird species don't have penises. Since we know that birds evolved from reptilian ancestors, when we see Green Anoles mating so fervently we can be forgiven for wondering whether a penis is involved.

It turns out that male reptiles do indeed possess copulatory organs capable of inserting sperm into a female's reproductive tract. I suppose it's a matter of perspective as to whether the thing they have can be dignified with the name of penis. What this means is that male reptiles had them, but then most male bird species lost them. In fact, among the birds, only the more primitive species still have penises.

Maybe Mother Nature is trying to say something here. While most male birds don't have penises, they do usually display very elaborate courtship behaviors. But reptiles, who generally just grab or get grabbed and stick together during mating, do have penises. Therefore, maybe the flow of evolution is toward doing away with penises altogether -- to replace hardcore mechanical gee-whizery with complex and highly formalized or stylized behavior.

from the March 24, 2002, 2003 Newsletter issued from the woods a few miles south of Natchez, Mississippi, USA

Last Sunday I noticed two Green Anoles -- "chameleon lizards" -- at the corner of my trailer, a male and one of his ladies, snapping up one tiny meal after another. Up close I could see that they were feeding on tiny spiders crawling up the trailer's side.

The spiderlings were smaller than a pin-head and they climbed antlike, in single file. I followed their line to the trailer's base, saw how here and there their trail crossed silks stretched like bridges between grassblades, and eventually the line went below the trailer where undoubtedly a cocoon filled with hundreds or thousands of spiders had overwintered.

The migration route ended at a top corner of the trailer, where a dozen or so spiderlings walked around with their tiny rear-ends poked skyward, ejecting sun-catching flares of silk that wafted into the air like kites. As the silks grew longer, the wind's tug increased, a spiderling's rear-end rose higher and higher until the little arachnid stood on tiptoes, and then a certain puff of wind would come along, the creature would release its hold, and away it would drift on the wind. Most ended up just a few feet away in young Sweetgum saplings, but maybe some drifted high into the sky where they may have "ballooned" many miles, for "ballooning" is what this form of spiderling transportation is called.

Before I had approached, the anoles had been eating every spiderling that came along. The ones who ballooned into the sky were just those who made it to the trailer's top while I was there and the anoles were hiding. As soon as I went away the anoles returned and then again every spiderling coming up the wall was eaten.

Well, this is how Nature is. There's a sort of "rule" in Nature that more highly evolved species produce few offspring but provide a lot of care for them, while less sophisticated ones produce lots of babies and let them fend for themselves. This means that your chances aren't so good if you're a spiderling, but it also means that sometimes a couple of Green Anoles enjoy a good meal.