Adapting to Change: a lizard’s perspective

There are no lizards native to Rhode Island but that fact is not going to deter Jason J. Kolbe from continuing his research in evolutionary ecology of lizards.

The native of Iowa came to the East Coast last year when his wife, Dawn Cardace, was hired as an assistant professor in the CELS Department of Geosciences. He took a post doc position at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard for a year.

Prior to coming to URI as assistant professor in the Department of Biosciences, he earned his B.S in Biology and Political sciences at Morningside College, his masters at Iowa state University, his Ph.D. in evolution, ecology and population biology from Washington University in St. Louis a NSF postdoctoral fellow at Indiana University, University of Sydney Informatics and the University of California at Berkeley.

Describing his research, Kolbe says “I’m mostly interested in how global change is driving evolutionary change—things like climate change, urbanization and invasive species.”

But why lizards? “Because they are a great model system for asking these questions about how our human-mediated changes are affecting their population.” Lizards have been the subject of research for half a century, he notes, “and we know a lot about the baseline, about what’s happening in this particular group of lizards (Anolis sagrei) so we can use that information to make predictions about what might be happening with the recent quick changes”– i.e. global change.

The research covers all aspects of the lizards’ biology—what they eat, how they compete with each other, their behavior, tolerances and where they live –Caribbean and Central and South America and the southern part of the U.S. Part of his research also involves understanding the lizards that have been introduced into the U.S. –about 20 in all and 8 of them are in South Florida.

Lizards, he said, are a great model for measuring population changes in response to environmental changes. “I’m interested whether the rapid changes in the environment cause quick adaptations of genetically-based changes in the population or whether they have the innate plasticity, which is the ability to change your phenotypes—height, weight—but not change genetically. So they may have a flexible lifestyle and that is one way to be a successful invader. The questions I ask are adaptable to all invasives.

“All along my research path, I have always been directed to projects that have some element of how humans are changing things and what are the consequences,” he explains. He recalled a master’s degree project in which he looked at how snapping turtles chose their nest sites. He was interested because some people were creating a habitat for turtles that looked like a regular nesting site but apparently were lacking in thermal characteristics—turtle eggs need warmth for incubation.

Kolbe has no teaching load this semester but will teach global change biology in the spring. He and his wife have two girls, ages 2 and 3 and live in Richmond.

Kolbe, 38, truly fits the description of younger faculty coming into CELS—he looks much younger. He was one of several CELS faculty members who helped freshmen move into Browning Hall this semester and the mother of one freshman student thought he was an undergrad student helper. “I said ‘Thank you—you are so nice.’”