Professor studies lizards’ use of color to interact with environment and each other

Biology professor Randy Morrison in Madagascar with a leaf-tail gecko.
November 06, 2012

Two new greenhouse residents attest to the fact that even after months of field studies in the Bahamas and Madagascar, where he was stung by a scorpion, Biology professor Randy Morrison remains an avid researcher of color change in lizards.

Now, anytime the internationally respected herpetologist wants to watch a Henkel’s Leaf-tail Gecko, known to scientists as Uroplatus henkeli, camouflage itself in mottled shades of tan, brown, black and white, he just has to walk down the hall from his Lewis Hall of Science office to the college’s greenhouse.

There, basking in the warmth of heat lamps are a male and a female leaf-tail gecko, in separate habitats for now. The male could easily be mistaken for a twig while the female resembles lichen-covered bark. Both are part of Morrison’s studies and Biology major Julie Broussard’s senior capstone project.

Watch Leaf-tail geckos at McDaniel College on YouTube

The student-faculty research collaboration involves studying the geckos’ color-range abilities, which is part of Morrison’s research in how lizards use color to interact with each other and their environment.

“It’s crazy how good they are at this,” he says, explaining that different species of lizards use color change to match their environment or camouflage themselves, to signal to each other and/or to regulate their body temperature since darker colors absorb rather than reflect more heat.

Morrison will be giving talks at Elmira College and the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about pigment-cell biology, a field which has application in research in melanoma. He’s just back from a sabbatical spent in the Bahamas and a six-week stint this summer as a staff herpetologist with Operation Wallacea in Madagascar supervising students doing thesis projects.

“This year we found some really interesting things – species we already know about that had extended their range and potentially several brand new, unnamed species of lizards and snakes,” says Morrison, who lived in tents in two different remote camps, ate more beans and rice than he cares to remember and took along the biggest container he could find of Old Bay – a seasoning his colleagues and students there call “Randy Magic Powder.”

Randy Morrison in Madagascar Album

On a two-hour hike in Madagascar, Morrison typically would spot 20 chameleons, five leaf-tail geckos, a half dozen lizards and seven snakes, including a tree boa or a ground boa. Here, that same walk on a lucky day might yield a snake, a lizard and a couple of frogs. It’s this richness of herpetofauna and the opportunity to be on staff that lured Morrison back this summer and extended his visit by four weeks.

“There’s a world of difference between two weeks (during the summer of 2011) and six weeks in Madagascar. It’s amazing how feral you become,” he says of his time in this island nation off the east coast of Africa widely considered one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots.

There are few places left on earth that offer such abundant biodiversity, especially among reptiles and amphibians, he says. And yet this teeming ecosystem is endangered as more and more habitat is lost to deforestation from the main native industry of making and selling charcoal.

Operation Wallacea (OpWall), which is financed by the students who pay to study there with a researcher/expert such as Morrison, is monitoring and cataloging the biodiversity hoping to make a case to agencies and the world bank to fund other ways for the people of Madagascar to earn a living. OpWall has about 20 sites worldwide functioning under the same philosophy.

Close to home in the Lewis greenhouse, the leaf-tail geckos remain true to their species, changing color to match their background in spite of the fact that they have never even visited their wild relatives. Island folklore considers the leaf-tail geckos to be forest spirits, perhaps due in part to their habit of letting loose with a bone-chilling shriek to scare off anyone or thing that disturbs them.

And what about these captive-bred geckos? Will they scream? Well, that remains to be seen…or heard.

Screaming leaf-tail gecko in Randy Morrison Madagascar