STILLWATER — Lately, Stanley Fox and his team have been putting in long days catching lizards.
Fox, an Oklahoma State University zoology professor, is part of a team of researchers looking at collared lizards, Oklahoma's state reptile. Although the team is focusing on the lizard, Fox said the study could shed light on why young male animals — including humans — act the way they do.
A team of researchers from OSU's Department of Zoology is looking at aggressive behavior among male collared lizards who haven't reached puberty. The team received a four-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to study the lizard, which is also known as the mountain boomer.
During the study, the team will be working with a population of lizards living on Sooner Lake Dam, about 30 miles north of Stillwater in Pawnee County. Lately, researchers have been at the dam every day from sunup to sundown, collecting lizards, marking them, measuring them and releasing them. When mature, these lizards can be more than a foot long.
The team is looking at behavior among male hatchling lizards. The young male lizards seem to be aggressive toward other male hatchlings, but aren't as hostile toward female hatchlings, Fox said.
In particular, the researchers are looking at a set of orange stripes that young male lizards develop on their sides.
“It's the same in humans,” Fox said. “Except for the blue and pink bows that we put in babies' hair, you can hardly tell them apart by just looking at how they act and how they look.”
Scientists aren't sure exactly what the bars of color are for, Fox said, but he thinks they could be a way for young male lizards to tell other male hatchlings apart from females.
The young male lizards also form pair bonds with young females in the same way that mating lizards might, Fox said. That's interesting, because the lizards aren't yet old enough to mate, Fox said. It's as if the male lizards are trying to get a head start on driving away other males who could be mating rivals in the future, he said.
That kind of behavior probably isn't unique to the lizards — scientists have also seen similar behavior in two African bird species. Fox suspects other species, including humans, might behave the same way, but scientists don't know much about it.
“It may be present in a lot of other species, but nobody has really looked for it because it might be somewhat subtle,” he said.
The project also allows researchers to bring OSU students, both graduate and undergraduate, into the field with them to participate in research. Allowing undergrads to work on research projects gives them an idea of what a career in science might look like, Fox said. Some of the students in OSU's undergrad research program go on to pursue careers in science, he said, while others decide they don't like it.
Gus Reeley, a recent OSU graduate, is one of those people. Reeley graduated from OSU last spring with a bachelor's degree in forest research conservation. Now, he's working with the OSU team of researchers, gathering, measuring and marking lizards.
Reeley, 23, said working on the project has shown him what a job in academia might look like. He'd like to go back to graduate school eventually, he said, and working on a project like this one has been good preparation.
Reeley isn't alone, Fox said — because the project is fairly large in scope, it's provided a way for several students and recent graduates to participate in research.
“There's a huge educational aspect of the grant because we have so many people working on different aspects of it,” Fox said.