Thursday, April 15, 2021

The Games Lizards Play

I did mean evolutionary games played out over long periods of time, where for example, three colored varieties of one lizard species keep cyclically oscillating in their numbers. Why should this happen? The answer lies in the children's game 'rock- paper- scissors', an analogue for understanding evolutionary strategies for reproductive success.

This is a really fine essay in The Wire Science by evolutionary biologist Raghavendra Gadagkar on the ecology and evolutionary biology of rock lizards. Dr. Gadagkar started out as a molecular biologist but changed course and got interested in the biology of large animals, choosing lizards as one of his research subjects. 

He describes the various life strategies lizards evolve, dependent on ecology and population dynamics. His colleagues Maria Thaker and her student Anuradha Batabyal too are engaged in work on Indian rock lizards. He points out some aspects of their work-

"Ecologists generally take great pride in studying forests and exotic places, the more pristine the better; few study the ecology of their backyard, the trees lining their streets and the lizards that run around them. It is somehow considered too silly for a serious scientist to be doing so.

Much of Anuradha and Maria’s research on rock lizards defies this stereotype. They extract rigorous scientific questions that can only be answered by studying urban animals and comparing them with their rural or forest counterparts. When animals move into urban habitats, they face new challenges, just as we do when moving from villages into cities – new enemies, new resources, and rapid spatial and temporal changes in the environment, requiring a new survival toolkit. How do lizards deal with these problems?

It gladdens my heart to see such science coverage in a major Indian news portal. And what about the last sentence? .." I think it’s time we changed the canonical image of the scientist from that of an elderly, bearded man in a white coat to one of an intrepid young woman in the wilderness!"

That this is an admission made by an elderly bearded man makes me even happier.

More Fun Than Fun: My Favourite Lizard Stories- Raghavendra Gadagkar.