Organisms and their natural history—learning what they do out there, imagining what it’s like to be them—often are at the core of why a scientific paper is interesting. As a teenager marooned in Missouri, I was introduced to Texas Alligator Lizards by reading a book about amphibians and reptiles. It was love at first sight, and later field encounters with that and several related species confirmed the attraction. These are slow-moving animals, prone to folding their smallish legs and slithering like snakes. Alligator lizards often flick their slightly forked tongues, evidently more dependent on chemical senses than many other lizards; as other naturalists also have remarked, they seem unusually intelligent as reptiles go, especially deliberate and aware. They also are shy and secretive, so we know little about most species—no published studies, for example, address the natural diet of Madrean Alligator Lizards, despite their widespread occurrence in Arizona. Until the report featured here, a claim that someone accumulated 6,700 observations of Southern Alligator Lizards, of which 1,688 would qualify as “research grade,” would have struck me, a life-long alligator lizard aficionado, as preposterous.
Enter Greg Pauly, curator of herpetology at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (NHMLAC), who for the last decade has pioneered using community science to gather credible data on western North American amphibians and reptiles. Greg is insatiably curious, gregarious, and committed to both science and education—so perhaps it’s not surprising he jumped at the chance to engage fellow Californians in learning more about their biological surroundings, by taking advantage of the iNaturalist platform. A resulting paper, led by former NHMLAC postdoctoral fellow Breanna Putman and featured here, beautifully illustrates the potential of this approach for studying a poorly known species and its responses to urbanization.
The problems addressed by Putman, Pauly, and coauthors are of a sort about which it’s easy to speculate, but for which it is much harder to gain definitive data. They also entail a topic on which conservationists and animal lovers (many of us are both) argue among themselves, sometimes bitterly—the effects of domestic cats on native species in human-dominated landscapes. That potential for controversy makes it all the more crucial that the authors of this study have detailed a clever methodology and stringent criteria for using geo-referenced photographs to assess predation and parasitism. With a resulting 723 and 157 cases for analysis, respectively, they show that Southern Alligator Lizards in urban areas incur increases in the former and decreases in the latter. These results, in some ways unexpected, will inspire those of us concerned with how urbanization threatens biodiversity to think harder about solutions. We can do that better now, armed with the new evidence from this paper.