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Exploring the Caribbean Anoles: Masters of Adaptation

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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.

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The 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.

Sometimes 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.

Females 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 than 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.

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Although 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.

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Anoles 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.

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

Wahoo: don’t they have tails?

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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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