Ali versus Frazier. Athens versus Sparta. Harry Potter versus Voldemort. History has had it share of epic battles, many of which we have documented on the Anole Annals, such as here and here. In my humble opinion, however, none of those minor scuffles can measure up to a thrilling encounter I photographed between two males of Anolis marmoratus on the island of Basse-Terre in Guadeloupe.
In July 2009 I traveled to Guadeloupe, an island in the Lesser Antilles, with several colleagues to gather behavioral and genetic data from A. marmoratus, a colorful lizard that shows geographic variation in color and spotting patterns. We spent most of our time on the eastern coast of Basse-Terre, where A. m. marmoratus and A. m. speciosus can be found. Anolis m. marmoratus, found in the southeast, has a green body and a head with red marbling while A. m. speciosus, found in the northeast and on the adjacent island of Grande-Terre, has a blue wash across its head. Interestingly, these two subspecies intergrade into one another as you head travel between Petit Bourg and Capesterre, on the northeast and southeast coasts, respectively.
My colleagues and I were observing lizards near Goyave, a small town about midway between Petit Bourg and Capesterre, along a road-cut where the exposed rock and adjacent trees were absolutely teeming with anoles. As I was in my first year of graduate school at the time, I think this set an unfair precedent for Anolis abundances elsewhere, even in the Caribbean. The habitat was lush and green. On nearly every branch, vine, post, trunk, and rock perched an anole. Here the heads of the males had a light blue wash with yellow or orange spots. We came upon two males fighting on the base of a tree right along the road.
By the time we saw these males they were already deep in combat, and so we were unfortunately unable to determine how the fight began. At first the two males seemed to be on equal footing. They were well matched for size, had their nuchal crests erected, and each a piece of the other’s jaw in its mouth. Somewhere buried in old video tapes of field data is a recording of this battle, but for most of the file, nothing happens besides our colorful commentary. Incredibly these two males remained almost motionless, save for their heavy breathing, for several minutes.
I took these images with a digital camera and, in retrospect, am surprised that the pictures captured as much color detail on these lizards as they did, especially considering that I had not yet discovered the magic of macro for a dilettante photographer. The lizard on the right has many more orange spots on his head than does his opponent. A back crest is raised in both lizards, in addition to the nuchal crest. Interestingly, neither male ever showed darkening behind the eye, which I have seen in many other species.
After what seemed like a very long time, the lizard on the left began gaining the upper hand. He got a better hold of his opponent’s lower jaw and practically lifted him off the ground. This fight was not marked by jabs and bites; rather, it was a battle of force of will. They would slightly shift position and remain interlocked until one would cede or slacken. Then they would grab each from a slightly different angle, and hold on with all their strength once more. One of our colleagues brought his young son on this trip, and he was the narrator for our video. We thought the lizards might collapse from exhaustion, or else that the fight would end quite badly for one or both of the lizards. For the sake of not tarnishing this boy’s first thrilling encounter with nature “red in tooth and claw,” we chose to split this battle up. We wouldn’t normally do that, as it’s infinitely better to let nature run its course, but we think it was for the best in this particular case. I have been left with the lingering question, however, of how this would have ended.
Towards the end of this encounter, I was beginning to think that the lizard on the left would eventually be victorious. But what was certain was that any victory would be bittersweet. It was almost agonizing to watch these lizards grab onto each other for such a long time. The strain and effort was evident. Battle in Anolis marmoratus is serious business indeed. It’s likely these two finished their fight after we left. And to victor, whoever he was, also went the spoils – a territory full of insects and female anoles.