Lizard Lab Shows Evolutionary Biology In Action
By Blake Silberberg ’13
The Glor Lab at the University of Rochester is an evolutionary biology lab that specializes in studying the evolutionary patterns of lizards. Rochester junior Dan MacGuigan has been working with the Glor Lab to study speciation, or how new species come into existence.
MacGuigan first became interested in biology in high school, and chose to attend the University of Rochester to pursue a degree in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolutionary biology. “I’ve always had an inherent curiosity about our natural world,” says MacGuigan, “so it only made sense for me to pursue a career in biology.”
MacGuigan was interested in hands-on research as a freshman, and after emailing Rich Glor, principal investigator of the Glor Lab, became an undergraduate research assistant in spring 2012.The Glor Lab asks on two main research questions: What factors underlie major diversity patterns and what processes contribute to the formation of new species? It houses a large number of lizards, which researchers use to perform hybridization (or cross-breeding) experiments. “It’s a perfect fit for me, since it combines lab work with field work,” says MacGuigan.
MacGuigan’s current project focuses on examining the influences of social dominance hierarchies on phenotypic plasticity of a secondary sexual characteristic. “In plain English, we want to see if the size of male dewlap, the colorful little flap of skin that hangs below the lower jaw in many species of lizard, changes in response to interaction with other males,” explains MacGuigan. “Dewlaps are used for a variety of displaying purposes, including male-to-male agonistic behaviors. We hypothesize that male dewlap size can change in response to different social contexts, and that males with larger dewlaps are more dominant. Thus, dewlap size might serve as an indicator of overall male fitness.”
MacGuigan has worked largely on his own on this particular project, with the guidance of fellow lab members Julienne Ng, a doctoral candidate, and Glor, who also is an associate professor of biology. MacGuigan developed most of the experimental design, created the cage set-ups, and assigned male lizards to particular cages to create different social groups. MacGuigan also was responsible for collecting a large amount of data from the experiment, recording perch-location data twice daily along with various morphological measurements (such as dewlap and body size) taken monthly. MacGuigan analyzed this data and is currently completing a write-up he hopes to submit for publication.
Although the research is scientifically complex and serious, scientists in the Glor Lab are not without a sense of humor. During his first experience working with the lizards, MacGuigan was helping a doctoral student photograph the lizards’ extended dewlaps. “My job was to hold the animals so they didn’t scamper off during the proceedings. However, I was told that my bare fingernails would cause too much reflectance in the photos,” he recalls. “Me, being the innocent lab newbie that I was, took this all on faith and, for the good of science, was forced to paint my nails a rather obnoxious shade of green. It was only hours later that I was rudely informed I had just been pranked. I believe pictures of my lovely painted nails still exist somewhere on our lab’s blog.”
Despite the humorous nature of the lab, MacGuigan describes working on the project as a serious time commitment, especially for an undergraduate student also managing a full course load. “Even though what I’m doing is fairly simple science, I’ve learned just how many frustrating complexities and complications there are to running an experiment,” says MacGuigan, who is quick to acknowledge that his efforts have been enormously beneficial. “Having such a degree of control over what has essentially been my own project was definitely worth the effort I’ve put in, and I love the idea that I’m in some small way an actively contributing member of the scientific community,” he explains. “I can’t overstate this: being involved with undergraduate research of any kind is the best thing you can do to further your development as a student and as a scientist.”
For MacGuigan, simply being around research professionals was enormously rewarding. “Even after a year of working in the Glor Lab, I’m still pretty frequently dumbfounded by the combined encyclopedic knowledge that my PI and graduate students have concerning so many aspects of biology, ranging from nomenclature of reptiles to the most recent phylogenetic methods. Combine that with reading current scientific literature on a weekly basis for lab meetings and research projects, and you’ve got one hell of a crash course in the basics of being a scientist.”