News

October 21, 2008

Conducting Research Outside the Laboratory

Sarah Schwartz ’09 writes about her evolutionary ecology study in Oregon

Biology major Sarah Schwartz ’09 (Scotch Plains, N.J.) spent a portion of her summer in Oregon researching the side-splotched lizard. Peter Zani, visiting assistant professor of biology, supervised her EXCEL research.

For five weeks in June and July, I spent my time in a little town in southeastern Oregon called Burns, working at a site called Wright’s Point. There, I did field research with Professor Zani and a student from Hamilton College, Will Caffry. The main subject of Dr. Zani’s research is the evolutionary ecology of the side-splotched lizard which lives in the desert on rocky plateaus.

Every day, we captured lizards and conducted a systematic census of a 400 by 100 meter grid with flags every five meters in order to determine the position of each lizard in the marked area. We walked up and down the flags looking for lizards and recording their identification numbers, which were painted on their backs, as well as their positions.

After this, Will and I conducted focal-animal observations on three to four lizards each day. Focals consist of watching one lizard for 30 minutes and recording everything it does (e.g. moving, scratching, courting, or eating). After completing a focal on a lizard, we performed a behavioral trial in which a rubber model of a large predatory lizard which does not normally exist in this location approached the Uta. We approached a lizard with the predator and recorded how close it allowed the predator get, how far away it ran, and what direction it ran.

We performed the same behavioral trials with Uta from a different area about 100 miles south of Wright’s Point, where the predator does exist. The purpose was to see whether or not the lizards in either area behave differently depending on the predator’s presence. I am now analyzing this data and comparing the behavioral reactions at both sites, as well as comparing the summer’s data to the data gathered in 2006, which used a snake as a predator rather than a lizard. This may determine whether or not the Uta can differentiate between predators.

The data collected from the systematic censuses and focals will be used to map out the territory used by the lizards, which was also done by several students in 2007. In comparing this territory data to last year’s, we may be able to determine whether or not Uta utilize the same territory year after year, or whether they move around looking for a better area in order to attract mates.

These were a few of the projects that I helped work on while in Oregon, and the analysis of the data from these experiments should answer some of these questions above. Through EXCEL, I was able to gain experience in doing ecology field research with a professor that has spent years observing and experimenting with this population of lizards.

  • Biology
  • EXCEL/Undergraduate Research

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