Field Stories from the Warner Lab: Is That Our Canoe?

by Kaitlyn M. Murphy

The first ten years of childhood are critical for a future biologist. Those years are often suffused with fascination of the natural world, particularly for students interested in ecology and evolution. Young scientists who spent way too much money on field boots and snake hooks can attest to this, but the first “field” experience is what often sets the stage for a career in biology. Trekking through sloughs in chest-high waders or sticking a dirty, fleshy hand into a patch of cactus to nab your study species is what field biologists live for. This desire for adventure resonates for students in field biology labs, but we often leave our field sites with stories shared around the dinner table on later trips. This is one of those stories.

Central-East Florida is pocketed with dense canopy-cover and buzzing insects that swarm around your nose and eyes, especially during the summer months. Each year from early March until October, our lab travels down to this area of Florida to collect and/or conduct experiments on our study species, the brown anole (Anolis sagrei).

This lizard is a little bit smaller in length than a ballpoint pen at adulthood and is native to Cuba; however, the brown anole is invasive in the Southeastern United States, particularly in Florida. We study these lizards on a chain of spoil islands along the intracoastal waterway, a large channel of brackish water that allows for isolated populations of anoles on individual islands. Our lab, headed by Dr. Dan Warner in the Department of Biological Sciences, canoes out to these islands with all our field gear, including lassos made of the ends of fishing poles with a slipknot to easily catch lizards.

In the summer of 2019, myself, Dan, and 3 other lab members (Jenna, Amelie, and a guest member from Australia, Jess) boated out in the early morning to an island and dragged the canoe onto the shore. After unloading, we quickly set up our lassos and began catching lizards basking in the sunny spots on branches and scurrying up tree trunks. Depending on who you ask, catching lizards can sometimes be tricky because they move quickly and easily camouflage among the foliage. We caught lizards in the Florida heat for a few hours, then settled in under the palm trees for lunch. Without giving it much thought, we knelt around the coolers and made our sandwiches, but upon standing up, Jess looks out into the channel and casually asks, “Is that our canoe?” Indeed, our canoe had floated 100 yards out into the water, and only then did we realize we forgot to tie it on shore.

Dan immediately starts throwing equipment out of his pockets: sharpie markers, pencils, bags, etc. By the time the rest of us are on the beach, he’s knee-deep in the water and is yelling for someone to come help him retrieve the boat. I should mention that this was my first time in the field with the lab, so I felt I had expectations to live up to, and I offered to swim out into the channel.

The water was warm and murky, the salt made my eyes tingle, and oyster beds crunched under our feet where we could touch. When we were about chest-deep, Dan says slightly under his breath, “I hope we don’t run into any sharks.” Until this point, the adrenaline of running into moving water in full field clothes (which includes long zip-off pants, a dirty t-shirt, and a ball cap), hadn’t allowed me to think about what we were doing. Only after this statement did I think about what else might be swimming around the channel, and the phone call that would be made to my mother after I was eaten by a shark. After what felt like an eternity to the ever-drifting canoe, Dan made it to the boat and helped pull me out of the water. We paddled back to shore where the others were standing in the sand and Jess adds, “Yeah, definitely shark territory!” in her Australian accent. It’s safe to say, we never forgot to tie up the canoe again.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions in this work are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Auburn University.