CSUSB Professor Uses Community Science to Study the Challenges of City-Living Lizards

Feb 17, 2021

A Southern Alligator Lizard.
Credit Submitted/CSUSB

Scientists have found a new way to study hard to access animals in urban areas. KVCR’s Megan Jamerson spoke with a Cal State San Bernardino biology professor about using crowd sourced data to learn more about a common but secretive backyard lizard.

Bree Putman likes to study how animals are handling the challenges of humans invading their space due to increasing urbanization. Since most urban land is private, "As a scientist I can’t just go out and do a survey because I would be trespassing on someone’s land,” said Putman.

So the Cal State San Bernardino biology professor and her team turned to crowd sourced community science. She was the lead author on a paper published in February that demonstrated the power of using this method for data collection to study the Southern Alligator Lizard.

Her team used images uploaded by residents to the iNaturalist app, which is designed to get the community to upload pictures of interesting plants and animals in their neighborhood. There were over 1,000 images of the Southern Alligator Lizard in the database and this is a big deal explained Putman. While it is one of Southern California’s most common lizards it is notorious for being hard to spot. They like to hide under things like rocks, flower pots and trash cans and it is so sneaky scientists know very little about it.

One thing they do know is that they are very impressive looking. Their size ranges from three to seven inches and they vary in color from brown, green, and yellow and often have red blotches on their backs.

“This is why people take a picture of them because they look cool and someone wants to know what is this lizard in my yard or maybe it found its way into your home," said Putman. "That’s what we are really capitalizing on is people’s curiosity about the natural world. It allows people to not only learn about the nature in their area but also contribute to real world scientific research."

The team learned two things from the images. Urban lizards showed more evidence of tail break damage which means they face more predator attacks or hazardous encounters with humans and household pets. But urban lizards see a benefit to urban living too. They had fewer ticks which can tell scientists things about their health overall.

Getting to study lizards in this way is important explained Putman because they are vital to our ecosystems.

“Not only are they good at controlling some of our garden pests they are important for human health as well,” said Putman.

Some local lizards help reduce the prevalence of Lyme disease in the region. When ticks that carry Lyme disease latch onto lizards, some species have this property in their blood that can reduce the disease in the parasite. In comparison, Putman said, lizards in the Northeast U.S. don’t have this ability and Lyme disease is really prevalent there.

Putman encourages everyone to download the iNaturalist app on their phones and the next time they are out on a walk or hike and see something interesting, snap a photo and upload it. She said you never know, that photo could be important and used in scientific research.