CLU students spend summer researching mating habits in lizards

THOUSAND OAKS, CALIFORNIA - If a male lizard loses his tail, will he be less attractive to female lizards?

Katherine Dubsky, a biology major at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, is spending her summer trying to answer that question.

Specifically, she’s researching whether a male has fewer females in his territory if he loses his tail.

“It’s good field work experience,” Dubsky said. “You can see if this is what you want to go into.”

Dubsky, 20, is one of five undergraduates working this summer with Kris Karsten, a biology professor at CLU.

They are part of a growing number of undergraduates nationwide doing research in the lab and in the field. Many know it will give them an edge in getting into graduate or medical school, Karsten said.

“Doing research is one of the things that can get you in the door,” he said. “I have colleagues who’ve gotten so many applications they don’t even look at ones that haven’t done research.”

Students also find out whether they even like research before they commit to graduate school, he said.

“You’re finding out what you really enjoy,” Karsten said. “You don’t know unless you try it.”

Taelor Young, another student in Karsten’s group, is figuring out whether there are differences in how hard male and female lizards bite and in how fast they run. She’s also wondering whether there’s a correlation between a male lizard’s throat color — it can be blue, orange or yellow — and how hard he bites, usually to defend his territory.

“Not a lot of research has been done on that, like, not at all,” said Young, 21, a senior majoring in biology. “It’s hard to get them to bite.”

Karsten’s research students, who work about 40 hours a week, spend their mornings gathering and tagging lizards on Mount Clef Ridge near campus — if the weather cooperates. Lizards like sun, and gloom doesn’t help their efforts, said Luis Burgos, 19, who’s interested in animal behavior and ecology and plans to become a researcher.

“If there’s cloud cover, they don’t like coming out,” Burgos said.

In the afternoon students work in the lab. At the end of the week they generally release any lizards they have caught back to where they found them.

Karsten, 39, knows the difference getting out into the field can make. He didn’t do research as an undergraduate himself. But he did go into the Southeastern Arizona mountains with his ecology professor, who was studying how birds use their habitat.

“I didn’t know you could have a job doing field biology,” Karsten said. “On that trip I decided that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to be a field biologist. I wanted to work with reptiles.”

Before coming to CLU, Karsten did research on chameleons in Madagascar. Now, with the help of undergraduates, he’s researching mating behavior in Western fence lizards.

“I’m really interested in how certain traits have evolved to acquire mates,” said Karsten, who will incorporate the students’ data into his research.

“I have my bigger puzzle, and each student has a puzzle piece,” Karsten said. “But they all fit into the bigger puzzle I’m doing.”

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