Dispatches from the field: in search of the mystical Secret Toad-headed Agama and other tail waving lizards in China

This dispatch comes to you from the Tukai Desert in north-west China, a short drive (about 15 km) from the Kazakhstan border. We are three weeks into a six-week field trip. The lab is currently working on the evolution of complex tail waves and colour signals in Asian toad-headed agamas (Phrynocephalus) in collaboration with Dr. Qi Yin of the Chengdu Institute of Biology (CIB) and Prof. Jinzhong Fu (University of Guelph, CIB). This project is funded by a grant from the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

This trip has two primary aims: first, to begin assembling a database of courtship and male aggressive signals from a wide range of species of Phrynocephalus. We will take a comparative approach to uncover the evolution of both static colour signals and dynamic visual (tail) signals in the Asian toad-headed agamas using spectral reflectance measurements and video analysis. Second, we hope to explain the function of one of the most impressive structures on a lizard: the large red cheek flaps that the Secret Toad-headed Agama (Phrynocephalus mystaceus) are able to flash at an intended receiver. We are busy testing a series of hypotheses to establish whether they are under sexual or natural selection, or even both.

Martin and Dan arrived in Chengdu laden with equipment: our new optic spectrometer for measuring colour and irradiance, video cameras, tripods, a bite force meter, calipers, scales, lizard poles and a pile of lizard bags. We werent going to be caught short!

We spent two days in Chengdu making revisions to a paper we have been working on with Qi Yin and Jinzhong Fu, experiencing K-TV (karaoke!) with CIBs graduate students, and organising the remaining equipment, including an excellent model snake, before flying to the northern city of Urumqi (about 2800 km north-west of Chengdu). We spent one night in Urumqi and had the most amazing kebabs, which is something of a speciality in the north. Here we were joined by Dr. Xu Feng, one of Qi Yins colleagues. After hiring a car and driver, we drove 640 km to Huocheng, in Xinjiang Province. The driver was organised at short notice and we later discovered that he hadnt slept in two days! The drive took us through some amazing scenery, including the spectacular snow-capped Tianshan Mountains and Lake Sailimuhu.

We arrived in Huocheng in the late afternoon and discovered that our arrival coincided with a flower festival and accommodation was limited. Our luck changed when we discovered a very interesting hotel with less than secure rooms. To put it another way, there is one key and the rule is that every time you go out you leave it with the manager. Lets just say we locked our equipment in our bags (arguably not a good idea if they decide to take the whole bag!) and carried laptops and expensive equipment with us. However, we did have secure parking at the rear of the hotel..okay, maybe not so secure.. The plumbing needed regular attention from the poor cleaner and the lighting was so bad that when we processed lizards at night we had to use our headlamps to supplement the single dim overhead light! The search for alternative accommodation commenced almost immediately. After a few days Qi Yin reported a break-through and we packed all our gear and drove over to our new, quite plush hotel. Shortly after dropping our bags in the room and admiring the view, the manager arrived attired in her pajamas to inform us that we could not stay there because the hotel does not have the necessary police authorisation. We returned to our original room under the pretext that the weather had changed and we needed to stay longer. Another few days passed and we were able to move to a reasonable hotel with good rooms, albeit no a/c. We made ourselves at home and all was well until we received an unannounced late-night visit from three policemen that needed to see our documentation. Qi Yin complied but they were unhappy, maybe very unhappy, that we hadnt checked in on day 1. And they wanted to know where Dan was! We explained he was now in Canada, having left several days earlier. After grilling Qi Yin and scrutinising our documents they left with my passport and Qi Yins ID. We had to visit the police station the next day to check-inand retrieve our identity documents! This we duly did, and at the same time we were instructed to move to the foreigner-approved hotel. We thought we could ignore this advice until our very friendly and helpful hotel manager informed us that he would be fined. Our accommodation costs immediately doubled but we are now in an air-conditioned room with a desk! On the down-side, paranoia is rife and we have our bags checked every time we return from the field. This is certainly a new experience for mewhere a nice clean and fancy hotel, probably with the appropriate guidance from the local police, see it necessary to ensure the safety of their guests by checking their bags every time they enter the hotel. Apparently 5 July coincides with an unacceptable event in recent history where this region decided it should seek autonomy. Anyway, to facilitate the hotels security process, we dump all our sand-filled gear on the nice clean desk at the same time and sometimes leave all our desert sand-covered empty water bottles as a parting gift. Today they removed a pair of scissors from my bag and wanted to keep them until Qi Yin explained that they are needed for research. I feel much safer staying here [note added after posting: I am being sarcastic!].

This is all for now. The next update will be about the reptiles of the Tukai Desert and more about science! The trip is going wellthe lizards are spectacular, the desert is unforgettable, the food delicious, the area is culturally interesting and the ordinary people that dont wear a uniform are amazingly friendly and welcoming!

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