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Little Devils of the Caribbean

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We see them everyday here in the Caribbean and most of us
pay no attention except for the occasional scream from a ‘sissy’
who objects when an anole meanders across a dining table or turns up inside a
drawer where it has deposited little presents. One lowly little anole was
recently the star of a segment on America’s Funniest Home Videos;
clinging tightly to a windshield as the car sped down a road while one of the
occupants filmed the anole holding on for dear life.

As stated
in a previous article, “Islands of the Three-Eyed”, the
Caribbean is considered a hot bed for scientists studying
currently known lizard species as well as those searching for new species often
found here. The fairly rapid pace at which known species evolve into new
species is also a drawing card for the world’s evolutionary scientists.

One of
the most studied lizards in the Caribbean is
the little anole. There are currently around 138 identified species of anoles
throughout the Caribbean with another 200 species of anoles found in the
southern U.S., Central, and
South America. Cuba
tops the list with 55 species while Hispaniola
registers 40 species.

scientific name for the genus anole is Anolis, a derivative of an old African word meaning
“little devil”; however, humans have nothing to fear from the
“little devils” of the Caribbean.
In fact, the diurnal (active during the day) anoles feed mainly upon insects
and are a ravenous natural pest controller, particularly fond of ants and
roaches. A Cuban anole, the Anolis vermiculatus is an aquatic anole. It has been observed
“walking” on water and feeding upon small fish.

called “chameleons” and even passed off by the pet trade as
chameleons, the anole is not a chameleon, although many anole species have the
ability to change colors from green to brown to yellow. Anoles range in size as
adults from 5 inches to around 18 inches. Most males are solitary and sport a
dewlap, a half-moon shaped, expandable flap of skin attached to the lower jaw
by means of a rib that can be extended and retracted at will. The extended
dewlaps are a means of communication, i.e., signaling threats when establishing
or maintaining territory, demonstrating stress, and advertising for mates by flashing
brilliant reds, yellows, purples, browns, or combinations of these colors.

rarely have dewlaps since they often reside in close proximity to one another
and have no need to establish territory; however, the females of the Crown
Super Giant species do have dewlaps as colorful as their male counterparts. The
Crown Super Giants are larger then many other anole species and they have
evolved into omnivores, sometimes eating small mammals and birds. Experts
believe that the female Crown Super Giant anoles developed dewlaps like males
of the species in order to protect their feeding ranges from interlopers.

some species of anoles are aquatic while others live in leaf litter on the
ground, most anoles are tree and bush dwellers and all have extended
‘fingers’ covered in small tough, hook-like scales called lamellae.
Their long, thin fingers are capped by slender, curved nails. The curved nails
give them the ability to climb tree trunks and cling to branches. The lamellae
scales on their toes provide them with the gripping surfaces necessary to climb
glass and other slick surfaces.

And, yes,
anoles have that third eye so common among and important to lizards’
survival. Other than being able to change colors in order to blend into their
surroundings and climb very quickly, the little anoles are relatively
defenseless so their third eye is essential. It not only protects them from
predators above; it also functions as their circadian clock and signals them
when it’s time to move into or out of sunlight thus assisting in their
thermoregulation since anoles are reptiles and ‘cold blooded’.

The tails
of anoles often act almost as a 5th limb, similar to the prehensile
(gripping) tails found in New World monkeys.
In some anole species the tails are another defense mechanism. These species
are often those found to inhabit ground or near ground environments where they
might become prey to other ground dwelling animals such as domestic or feral
cats. While anole tails are extensions of their spines and contain nerves,
blood vessels and muscles, the anoles living on or near ground level have
evolved a kind of release mechanism where the tail meets the body. When
threatened or attacked by a cat, for instance, the tail disconnects and wriggles
on the ground giving the cat a harmless target as the anole itself escapes. The
tails then regenerate although in a somewhat less attractive state than the
original tail.

range in color from tan to yellow to brown to green and even black. Some have
patterned skins decorated with darker or lighter stripes or spots. Although, as
stated previously, there are 138 identified species of anoles in the
Caribbean and many of those species appear to be very
similar if not almost identical, they are distinct and separate species. DNA
studies of species on one island that seem to have identical twins on another
island prove that, although they look very similar, they are actually quite
different with different ancestors. The only anole species that does not seem
to have a “twin” on another island is the strikingly beautiful
Anolis marmoratus on
the island of Guadeloupe. This anole is a virtual
rainbow with a purple head striped in yellowish orange, a white to pale yellow
chest, an emerald green body and legs with a tiny saw-toothed blue spinal
ridge, and a blue striped tail that tapers to purple at the tip.

month we will introduce the “little devil’s” night stalking

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Becky Bauer is a scuba instructor and award-winning journalist covering the marine environment in the Caribbean. She is a contributing photographer to NOAA.


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