Anole Harlequin Romance

From Shufeldt, 1883.

From Danielle Steel’s latest romance novel:

“We have not far to go, indeed, to find our bi-colored masquerader; see the emerald-clad scamp as he eyes you from the brawny limb of the pecan, under which you stand. But what is he up to! You quietly watch him, and his employment seems to be of such a nature that he soon completely ignores you, and proceeds with it at all risks, and at all costs. The mystery is soon solved, and we can readily appreciate this agitation, this bowing and strutting, and all manner of quaint motions, as if the very last drop of his quaint lacertilian blood was on fire—for coyishly, and with all due deference, reclines before his lordship, his chosen mate, exerting all her chameleonic powers to hide her blushes by vain endeavors to match the colored pattern at her command. He can withstand her charms no longer, and for the moment, laying aside all dignity, and the object of his affections not unwillingly submitting, in the next instant finds herself in the passionate embraces of her lord, who, to make sure that he has actually won his coveted prize, winds about her lithe form, perhaps in some mystic love-knot, his entire caudal extremity, and blinds her eyes, first on one side and then on the other, by extension of the flaming ornament at his throat.”

Ok, you can’t actually find this on the bookstand at the local grocery store. Rather, it’s from a paper by a captain in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, R.W. Shufeldt, published in the American Naturalist in 1883. Romantic interludes notwithstanding, the paper presents a remarkably accurate and detailed report of the natural history of A. carolinensis (in which he referred to the green anole as the American chameleon, Anolis principalis).

One of the things I enjoyed the most about writing my anole monograph was following the literature citation trail back through the years, and on a number of occasions I landed back in the 19th century. Some papers were more insightful than others, but if nothing else, one has to appreciate the literary style so absent from modern-day science. Consider, for example, Reverend Lockwood’s discussion of color change in the green anole (Am. Nat., 1876, p.13):

“The belief that the color of the contiguous object is mimicked for the sake of protection is, I think, not confirmed by the observed facts. The truth is that in this matter of animals enjoying life there is a higher law than that of mere intention. I shall call it the law of spontaneous expression, which has its base in another law, to wit, that a joy unuttered is a sense repressed. Why should green be the favorite night-gown of our sleeping Anolis? I timidly venture the suggestion that it is because the animal is disposing itself for the luxury of sleep, its color changes being the utterances of its emotions . . . Whether it be the expression of enjoyment of repose, comfort, or emotional joy, the highest manifestation is its display of green.”

And, indeed, more than a century and a quarter later, the evidence still seems to suggest that green anoles do not change their color to match their background. Who knows–maybe they are expressing their feelings, or just trying to look pretty?

I concluded Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree with another quote from the same paper: “Reverend Lockwood (1876, p.16) had it right more than a century and a quarter ago when he said that Anolis ‘is everything that is commendable: clean, inoffensive, pretty and wonderfully entertaining; provoking harmless mirth, and stirring up in the thinker the profoundest depths of his philosophy.’ ”

p.s. Thanks to Trish Morse for reminding me of the Shufeldt paper

About Jonathan Losos

Author and Professor at Harvard University
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1 Response to Anole Harlequin Romance

  1. Rich Glor says:

    You should have put some sort of parental advisory on this!

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