Sunday, February 08, 2009

Natural history

The biologist Adrian Forsyth writes of frogs:
[They] have a way of facing you with a goggle-eyed gaze that is disconcertingly humanoid. Their huge wrap-around mouths, while perhaps not actually resembling a smile, are certainly not frowning. Sitting hunched up as though in anticipation, they assume the posture and calm demeanor of patient listeners ready to participate in conversation.
We have only one species of frog here on the island of Exuma, the free-toed frog, so called because it lacks the usual webs between the toes. They are elusive creatures, never seeming to invite conversation. They like dark nooks and crannies, and we usually encounter them lurking between the screens and wooden louvres of the windows. No, for us, Forsyth's description might be more appropriately applied to the lizards.

We tend to call these ubiquitous little creatures geckos, but they are properly anoles, most commonly the brown (or Bahamian) anole, less commonly, but more conspicuously, the green anole. Unlike the frog, they are not at all shy. They love to bask on porch railing or terrace wall, virtually fearless. One can move one's hand to within inches before they bolt. Head cocked to the side, they will engage you for minutes on end with unblinking eyes -- a goggley gaze that is indeed disconcertingly humanoid. Their long splayed toes look engagingly like human hands. One almost expects them to stand up on their hind legs and put out their paw for a shake, like the Geico gecko we see on TV. These are delightful creatures, welcome companions and useful devourers -- one supposes -- of mosquitos, sand flies and termites.

Like the free-toed frogs, the anoles are becoming less numerous. I suspect the reason is the pesticides sprayed on the new condo properties next door. Everything over there is neat and tidy, rather more like something you'd find in West Palm Beach than on a scruffy little island in the central Bahamas. They scraped away every shred of native vegetation, down to bare earth, then trucked in sod and palms. I'm sure they have fewer pests than we do; fewer anoles, too.

We love to watch the way the anoles change color to match their background, and the way the males pulse their dewlap to establish territories and attract mates. Love too the way the millions of microscopic suction cups on their toes let them climb any surface, sometimes hanging upside down like circus acrobats. Adrian Forsyth goes on to say about frogs what I would say about our bug-eyed, always-curious green and brown anoles: "Our emotional responses to these appealing features...are not irrelevant. The art of natural history lies in allowing such personal reactions to organisms to lead us into their biology."