Friday, May 28, 2010

The Value of Natural History

This is a must-read for undergraduate and graduate students interested in working with Anolis lizards. More generally, this paper is recommended for anyone with a desire to collect behavioral data. Although this study was published in a somewhat obscure journal (Proceedings of the United States National Museum), it is full of insights into the behavioral ecology of anoles. We have read it many times, and each re-reading offers up a previously overlooked nugget of information or perceptive comment made by Rand. The long hours that Rand spent following individual lizards and recording nearly every aspect of their behavior provides clear evidence of the power of conducting focal observations. It is amazing and instructive to read how Rand, armed with a detailed knowledge of A. lineatopus natural history, was ahead of his time in predicting the possible factors that influence anole social interactions.

We all know that experiments are extraordinarily useful and often necessary to generate robust claims about ecology and evolution, but knowledge of an organism's natural history allows us to place our results into context and to understand
why various factors are important in shaping an animal's behavior, physiology, etc. Natural history must be the foundation upon which we build our arguments -- which can then be tested in controlled settings. Rand's paper highlights the value of natural history beautifully.

Check it out: Rand, A.S. 1967. Ecology and social organization in the iguanid lizard Anolis lineatopus. Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum 122: 1-79.