Lessons from a lizard, making connections in the world of biology
Guest post by Adam Emerick
Nature is truly the best teacher. You can learn about biology from worms or learn physics from raindrops. These concepts are taught in school, but come from pretty pictures in books and packed classroom lectures. There is definitely a disconnect between concepts on paper and the reality of the natural world, but for those who know where to look, there are connections all around us. Seeing something in nature can either push someone to try to understand it, or it can just continue to reinforce a known concept. Because of this, some of the best teachers I have ever had are animals, and I recently saw the whole concept of evolution represented in a tiny lizard.
My masters project involves a little known and even more rarely seen organism called the Florida Sand Skink, a unique lizard that lives a subterranean existence in the sands of the central Florida ridges. Capturing these elusive reptiles requires a great deal of work, but when I first encountered them it brought with it with it an enlightenment that any amount of physical effort would have been worth. They are a textbook example of how adaptation can shape an organism into a form suited for its particular environmental niche. Isolation in the high sand hills and scrub of Florida by glacial melting hundreds of thousands of years ago transformed a population of surface dwelling lizards into sleek, shovel nosed burrowers with an elongated bodies and comically reduced limbs. I quickly became obsessed with finding out more about other sand-dwelling lizards. Research led me to at least a dozen other species of sand swimming skinks distributed all over the planet, from the dry forests of Madagascar to the sand dunes of the Australian outback. Most intriguing was their similarity; despite thousands of miles and millions of years of separation, they all looked like my sand skinks, some nearly identical except for external coloration or markings. Natural selection in an environment with similar demands for survival pushed these animals to take nearly identical forms.
These are not exceptional occurrences by any stretch of the imagination, and this is only one example of what the natural world can teach us, or the concepts it can reinforce. I knew that evolution and natural selection were real, but actually seeing and holding an animal that was the result of the process in my hand was extremely satisfying. There are wonderful lessons of biology everywhere: in the shapes of leaves, the distance birds sit on a telephone line, even the number of times a frog croaks on a rainy night. Understand the concepts, but open your eyes and consider the world around you. You would be amazed what you can learn from a frog.