The Perils of Urban Anolology

One of the perks of working on anoles is doing fieldwork in exotic and interesting places. For me, being located as I am in steamy New Orleans, an additional perk is that I can (and do!) do fieldwork in my metaphorical back yard. As of last year, I have begun what I hope will become a long-term study of a local population of Anolis carolinensis in Washington Square Park in the Faubourg Marigny, right on the edge of the French Quarter. (As an aside to fellow anole biologists, if anyone is planning future anole collecting trips to NOLA my lab and I would be more than happy to help out, with the caveat that the anoles in Washington Square Park remain uncollected and unmolested, given that selection is one of the many things we are currently measuring). But doing fieldwork in populated urban areas also presents its own unique set of challenges, not the least of which is the colorful local populace. This generally breaks down into several categories. In most cases, people are simply curious as to why someone would spend a warm, spring day diving into bushes for no apparent reason, and immediately assume that you are a lunatic once you explain to them that it is with the aim of documenting the Lizard Invasion (“They’re all around us!”). Others are genuinely fascinated with the anoles, and will listen with interest to what we are doing and why before leaving us to go about our business. Then there is another small segment of the population who hold strong and invariably uninformed opinions on science, lizards, nature and animal rights which they eagerly thrust upon hapless anole investigators with no warning or provocation. Dealing with these people can be difficult, as it requires certain baseline levels of patience and diplomacy that I sometimes do not possess. Finally, New Orleans being New Orleans  also plays host to a surprisingly large amount of people who are not burdened with an abundance of sobriety at 9am on a Tuesday (or, perhaps, ever). Interactions with these special people run the gamut from mildly amusing (the Grateful Dead fan last week who casually mentioned that he was on day 3 of “tripping [his] balls off” and helpfully warned me to “watch out for roofies”) to tiresome (the heroically inebriated gentleman who followed me around the park recently for 10 minutes whilst repeatedly slurring the same unintelligible question in my general direction) and even vaguely unnerving (the cracked-out, half-naked couple chasing a rubbish truck down Frenchmen street and yelling at it).

Pictured: Outreach

It was this inconvenient presence of the public in public places that in 2004 led Duncan Irschick, weary of interacting with other human beings, to make perhaps his most important contribution to anole biology – the “I’m catching lizards” t-shirt. Originally made for Irschick lab members during sampling of the Tulane University A. carolinensis population, these three simple words, printed in stark white on the back of a dark green shirt, were intended to inform the casual passersby as to the nature of our unusual outdoor activities, thereby dissuading them from engaging any of us in conversation. It works extremely well, except on those occasions when it backfires, instead acting as crazy bait and attracting exactly the type of person you don’t want to speak to whilst conducting fieldwork. Still, the benefits outweigh the occasional costs, and my shirt has seen regular use over the years. I don’t particularly recommend wearing it in non-lizard catching contexts, however, as herpetologists are generally considered to be weird enough as it is.

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