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Professor’s Side-Blotched Lizards Become Latest Campus Inhabitants

October 26, 2021
Images by Veronica Adrover. Video created by Michael Ponce.

Every faculty member has to set up their lab when they join a new campus. But Professor Danielle Edwards literally built a key component of hers from the ground up.

The outdoor component of El Huevo — the Edwards Lab of Herpetology Uta Evolution Vivarium and Ovipositorium — is set on 1.2 acres adjacent to campus and the Merced Vernal Pools and Grassland Reserve. Edwards designed the facility and built 12 enclosures, with the help of students and local vendors, to house experimental populations of side-blotched lizards. The field site is partnered with a lab space for captive lizards.

She and her students released dozens of lizards into the enclosures in September and will study the color-polymorphic reptiles for behavior and mating system.

Edwards, a conservation and evolutionary biologist, studies how different traits evolve in various environments within and among species and through time. She began building the outdoor lab in 2016, and after a lengthy permitting and approval process, she and her students created the 12 individual enclosures — six with light-colored river rock, the others with white sand and black lava rock.

“In the wild, the lizards have a huge distribution, from California to Washington down into Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Colorado, and they experience a wide range of environmental conditions,” Edwards said. “They have speciated in two distinct ways. This species is color polymorphic, meaning it has multiple morphs or types within a population. The different colored lizards have different mating behaviors from one another. In side-blotched lizards, you can have speciation the traditional way — when populations are separated by habitat barriers, or you can get rapid speciation through changes in the number of morphs between populations. EL HUEVO offers a chance to test how losing morphs changes mating patterns, and how speciation occurs under these alternate routes with replication.”

Edwards, her graduate students Sam Fellows and Bianca Salazar, and undergraduate student Aleks Jones will conduct a variety of experiments, including monitoring mating patterns and involving collecting females and having them lay their eggs in the lab, collecting and rearing the offspring, as well as analyzing and preparing specimens in their indoor molecular lab.

Edwards is excited to get started on the research and said the new space affords a lot of opportunity.

“It allows us to do more targeted and more powerful experiments that can be done nowhere else," she said.

Lorena Anderson

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