The Lizard Lab
Behaviour, Ecology and Evolution of Lizards
We investigate the behaviour, ecology and evolution of lizards. In addition to lizards, we sometimes work on frogs, including cane toads, and have previously worked on snakes, mole-rats, a turtle and Malawi cichlids. We also have a new project on Australian magpies! Our research falls into three major themes: 1.) animal communication/sexual selection (visual and chemical signals); 2.) cognition (social learning, culture, behavioural flexibility); and 3.) social behaviour/sociality (evolution of kin-based family living, co-operation, complex sociality, social complexity, parental care, mechanisms of sociality).
In addition to field work, we work with captive animals in large semi-natural conditions where things are more controlled and where we can conduct behavioural experiments and observations. We also work with animals indoors, for more fine-scaled study, such as cognition.
We are part of the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. To learn more about what we do, here is a more detailed account of our research and also have a look at what we have published.
The lab has traditionally been very diverse. In addition to Aussies, we have had students and postdocs from Colombia, Canada, Portugal, Spain, Argentina, Taiwan, China, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, and Costa Rica. We have also had lots of interns from a wide range of countries. The lab is a very supportive and social environment. We have weekly lab meetings with the Shine Lab, with whom we socialise as a single group. Click on the People tab to see who is currently in the lab; there is also a Hall of Fame for past lab members. This photo was taken in our old lab ‘house’ which had lots of character – now we are in a shiny new building.
We still managed to socialise during covid-lockdown. Steph Deering organised a trivia night. On another occasion we had a cross-continental catch-up with ex-lab members.
Click on the arrow keys or bullets for an overview of our research. For more details click on the Research tab.
Sociality - plasticity, mechanisms
A key focus in the lab is the evolution of kin-based sociality or family living. The Australian Egernia group of lizards are an excellent model for this because they exhibit a wide range of sociality and mechanisms. The lab collaborates with Geoff While (Behavioural and Evolutionary Ecology Research [BEER] Group) at the University of Tasmania. We are currently investigating social plasticity and the mechanisms underlying sociality. This work is funded by the Australian Research Council.
We have a long history of working on colour signals in lizards. We also work on dynamic visual signals, specifically, in toad-headed agamas in Asia. We have worked on chameleons, flat lizards, a Sri Lankan agamid, and Chinese toad-headed agamas. We have also worked on chemical signals and anti-predator displays. Finally, we have examined signals from a comparative perspective in the case of dynamic colour change in frogs or chemical signals in lizards.
Brains, global warming
Bearded dragon cognition
Over the years, the lab has conducted extensive work on cognition, mostly in lizards. We have studied social learning, how the developmental environment both during incubation and the early social environment, impacts learning. We are also interested in behavioural flexibility and whether this links to social system.
Research in action
Research in action
Augrabies flat lizards, Platysaurus broadleyi from Augrabies Falls National Park, South Africa and featured on numerous BBC documentaries.
We have a long-standing project on the taxonomy and systematics of the African flat lizards (Platysaurus) with the Keogh Lab. Here is a selection of taxa, including Attenborough’s flat lizard, that we described in honour of David Attenborough.
The black rock skink (Egernia saxatilis) (top left) and the tree skink (Egernia striolata) feature heavily in our work. In particular, the tree skink was the focus of a multi-year social study driven by Julia Riley as part of her PhD. The tree skink has also been studied in the context of sociality (social development, family living) and cognition.
We have studied multiple species of blue-tongue skink. On the top left is the centralian blue-tongued skink (Tiliqua multifasciata). On the top right is the great desert skink (Liopholis kintorei), a protected species that was studied by Siobhan Dennison for her PhD. From left to right on bottom: white’s skink (Liopholis whiteii), sleepy lizard (aka shingleback) (Tiliqua rugosa) (both images).
We have been working on signalling in Chinese toad-headed agamas (Phrynocephalus) with our colleague Dr. Yin Qi at the Chengdu Institute of Biology (CIB). On the left and middle right is the infamous secret toad-headed agama (Phrynocephalus mystaceus). On the bottom right is Phrynocephalus vlangalli.
More Phrynocephalus (toad-headed agamas) from China.
The Jackson’s chameleon (Trioceros jacksonii) is introduced into Hawai’i from Kenya. We studied the evolution of colour signals in the absence of major predators on Hawaii in comparison to Kenya. Males that are dominant, and when they are courting females, turn yellow. Subordinate males are brown. Females are also capable of dramatic colour change, typically in relation to stress.
Here is an assortment of Australian species we have worked on (and continue to work on some of them): water dragons, eastern water skink, Jacky dragon and the small-eyed snake.
We also study frogs! We have worked on cane toads (Rhinella marina), the whirring tree frog (Litoria revelata) (top right), the African foam nest frog (Chiromantis xerampelina) (middle right, bottom left) and the spotted grass frog (Limnodynastes tasmaniensis) (bottom centre).
Here is an assortment of our study animals on a white background. These are all Australian species. In the centre is a black rock skink (Egernia saxatilis) mother with her babies. Top left and then in a clockwise direction: three-toed skink (Saiphos equalis), gidgee skink (Egernia stokesii), Cunningham’s skink (Egernia cunninghami) mother with babies, White’s skink (Liop[holis whiteii) mother with babies and a sleepy lizard/shingleback skink (Tiliqua rugosa).
This is the magnificent tree frog (Litoria splendida), Australia’s largest tree frog and the subject of study in the field by Simon Clulow in the Kimberley and in the lab by MRes student, Steph Deering.
The perentie, Varanus giganteus, picked up on a camera trap at Curtin Springs in the arid zone, Northern Territory, Australia. This research was by Kari Soennichsen on a project led by Simon Clulow and Sean Doody.
Images from the field
Check out images of lab members (past and present) in action in the field. We work mostly in Australia, but lab members have also worked on Mediterranean lizards in various countries and Martin has worked in many different countries across the globe.
Field work in New South Wales
Lanecove National Park
More arid zone
Left: Dan Noble catching lizards and conducting field experiments in the Tukai Desert, Xinjiang Province, China. Kari Soennichsen radio tracking perenties (Varanus giganteus) in the arid zone of the Northern Territory, Australia, and definitely takes the award for the largest study animal in the lab!
Augrabies Falls National Park
Augrabies Falls National Park is located in north-west South Africa and is home to the world famous Augrabies flat lizard, Platysaurus broadleyi.
Augrabies Falls National Park
Some quite spectacular views to be had.
Augrabies Falls National Park
The Orange River is the life blood for the flat lizards.
Tukai Desert, China
Field work abroad
Deserts, Xinjiang Province, China
Working on toad-headed agamas in the arid zone of northwest China, Xinjiang Province, with Dr. Yin Qi.
Check out the following videos get an introduction to our animal rooms and outdoor enclosures. Click on the Facilities menu at the top of the page to see images of the offices, labs, animal rooms and outdoor enclosures.
This is a drone’s view of the Fauna Park, where we have our lizard tubs (see separate video) and two different sets of enclosures. One set is in the centre-top and has a very cool observation tower. The other is in the top right.
These are our lizard tubs, set up in 2010. They are 3.2 m in diameter and used for holding lizards and doing behaviour experiments and observations.
Here is drone footage of our 6 large (16×10 m) enclosures. They were not in iuse at the time of this video, but they can either be used as stand-alone enclosures, or all travel between enclosures.
Lizard research room
This is one of the rooms where we do our research. It has CCTV cameras and a good setup for behaviour and cognition work. The racks are on wheels, which allows us to change the setup of the room as needed.
New lizard enclosures & tubs
This shows our four new enclosures, used for the first time in 2021 and filled with bearded dragons. This was filmed from our observation tower. You can also see our new lizard tubs just nearby.
Check out this video tour of our new enclosures by Cooper Van Der Wal. Cooper is a long-time lab member that has helped on all sorts of projects, including with the bearded dragons. Cooper has his own channel on YouTube (where you can find this video and lots more!). Subscribe to Coop’s Reptiles.