Sunday, August 9, 2009

The Haitian Cascade Anole - It Lives!

One of the most remarkable lizards in the world was discovered three decades ago on and around waterfalls in northern Haiti. With it's remarkably long, spider-like limbs and tendency to scramble over slick rocks and underwater when sighted the Haitian Cascade Anole (Anolis eugenegrahami) is unlike other lizards in the world. It's been reported only once since the 1980s (by a Dominican naturalist who visited Haiti around four years ago). The man who made the most recent observations reported that the species' only known habitat was heavily degraded, with extensive human activity and none of the impressive native trees that were reportedly present when the species was first discovered. A week ago, I came to Haiti on a trip led by my colleague Luke Mahler from the Museum of Comparative Zoology with the goal of reporting on the natural history and conservation status of this species, as well as obtaining fresh tissue samples for phylogenetic and population genetic analyses.

After two days of searching, we located a few streams near the type locality that seemed appropriate (albeit only marginally given the lack of large trees and rapidly flowing water). Then, while wandering up a small trickle that was being actively used by dozens of locals for bathing and the washing of clothes we spotted a striking black lizard on a rock face. Success! It was an adult male cascade anole! We quickly found a few more animals in the same vicinity. While capturing the first specimen, a gaggle of more than 30 local Haitians accumulated. By the time I caught it, there was literally a man playing a guitar immediately behind me, making the scene a bit surreal (see photo). Although we were initially overjoyed, the discovery was bittersweet. We couldn't find any more animals in the region, or even any more habitat that seemed remotely suitable. The exposed rock of the other streams in the region was 43C in the sun, hardly suitable for a black lizard whose only known locality was heavily shaded. Fearing we might cause the extinction of this remarkable animal, we released the only animals we caught.

The next day, we decided we needed to seek out more habitat and followed a tip from a local that we could find a series of waterfalls not far from the city of Plaisance if we walked a 6km trail. What we found after an hour and half of hiking was the most remarkable scene I've ever encountered during my career as a field biologist. As soon as we spotted the waterfalls I rose my binoculars to my eyes and began scanning the rock faces. Within seconds I'd spotted a large adult male cascade anole immediately adjacent to whitewater rushing over rocks. Moving further, we found that the rocks in this area were crawling with cascade anoles. We saw more than a dozen in less than an hour. After obtaining ecological data, video and tissue samples, we made our most remarkable observations when we watched the animals behavior underwater (more on that later!). Lizard lovers rejoice - the Haitian cascade anole lives on! Now the work must begin to preserve the scant habitat that remains.

Image legend: (1) an adult male cascade anole displaying! (photo by Mahler), (2) close-up of cascade anole, (3) cascad anole paradise, (4) attempting to noose a specimen from the waterfall locality (photo by Mahler), (5) first locality at which we found the cascade anole (note the people bathing and washing clothes and the pig in the foreground), (6) the scene behind me after catching the first animal.

14 comments:

myrmecos said...

That's incredible news! It gives me some hope for the Haitian ant Linepithema flavescens.

Martha said...

WOW! How exciting! I can't wait to see the pictures.

Jeremy Brown said...

Great stuff! Well done.

Susan Perkins said...

Rich, this is awesome! I know you took smears, right?- a perfect way to get some lizard DNA as well. Please be safe for the rest of the trip.

Dan Warren said...

Wow, what an awesome thing to see!

Dean said...

exciting post!

Glor said...

@myrmecos
Have you heard about the ant problem in Plaisance, Haiti? The town and surrounding regions are completely overrun by these small red ants. They are literally everywhere, sometimes completely covering the ground. The local here are having tons of problems and people kept asking us if we were entomologists sent to help with the ant problem.

Julián A. Velasco said...

cool! in Colombia there is a species only known from type locality, is a dactyloid anole with a huge dewlap, with similar habitat, living in boulders cover with moss, although no one have collected specimens recently; was described by Williams in 1984 (Breviora 478:1-22)

karen said...

Congrats to you and the group. Glad you had an exciting day in the field.

mfb said...

Well done!

I imagine it was a tough decision to release those first animals. Looking forward to hearing more about the underwater behavior.

Liam Revell said...

It gives me hope for Anolis roosevelti, the Culebra giant anole, that has not had a confirmed sighting in about 70 years. What other anole extinctions/possible extinctions are known from modern times?

Jonathan said...

Anolis naufragus, known from only one site in Mexico, which was mostly deforested subsequent to its discovery.

myrmecos said...

@Glor-

Did you collect any of the ants? They could by any one of a dozen or so trampy things.

Martha said...

@Jonathan
Let's hope it's not living up to its name! (naufrago = wreck)