For four years I have divided my time between the historic halls of Magdalene College and the beautiful Aegean islands to study why the lizards there vary so strikingly in colour.
And no, before you think it, this wasn’t just an excuse to go to Greece for a few summers. It was actually in the name of some pretty cool science – though I do say so myself – because this island system or “natural laboratory” allowed me to address an intriguing evolutionary question.
Have the differences in lizard coloration arisen through local adaptation to different island environments to heighten camouflage and/or sexual signalling?
With the help of some brilliant field assistants and some ouzo-inspired locals, I discovered that the different island environments drive striking differences in the lizards’ camouflage and social signals – including how their behaviour complements camouflage – crucially through the eyes of their natural predators (birds) and lizard mates.
At one stage I found myself making realistic plasticine models of lizards and put them out in two Greek islands (Syros and Skopelos) to see if they’d get attacked by wild birds. They did. Not only that, but the more conspicuous males got attacked more than the relatively camouflaged females. This was interesting because it directly shows us that lizards pay a price for being conspicuous, and so supports the notion that selection should favour more camouflaging coloration.