If you want to see an animal that has proven able to adapt again and again, look no further than the unassuming lizards known as anoles. There are 414 species of lizard classified in the genus Anolis, making it among the most species-rich known to science. Dozens of these species are found only in Cuba.
“The island of Cuba is so large, it acts as a miniature continent,” says Chris Raxworthy, co-curator of ¡Cuba! and curator-in-charge of the Department of Herpetology. “Evolution there has produced a lot of species that can’t be found anywhere else in the world.”
Many of these lizards, however, do have doppelgångers on neighboring islands like Jamaica and Puerto Rico. But despite appearances, these doubles are often not closely related to one another. That’s because anoles have ecomorphs—groups of species that share physical features and behaviors because they have adapted, often independently, to similar ecological niches.
Behind these legions of lookalikes is an evolutionary process called adaptive radiation, which has played out each time anoles landed on a new island. When the first anoles arrived in a new place, they headed for the trees, which hosted smaller microhabitats at the ground, at the top, and in between, on trunks and twigs. The original species evolved over time into several, each adapting to their own distinct niche.
In Cuba, large knight anoles live in the crowns of trees, where they dine on fruits as well as on animals like tarantulas, geckos, and even small mammals and birds. Smaller brown anoles meanwhile, live, where the tree trunk meets the ground, preying on small insects.
The different habitats anoles occupy also affect their behavior. When a knight anole feels threatened, it will skitter away; brown anoles, accustomed to blending in with their surroundings, are more likely to freeze.
Despite their diversity, there is one trait common to every anole species—each has a dewlap, a fold of skin beneath their neck that they can extend and retract. Dewlaps are usually a different color than the rest of the lizard’s body, and their display may be used to attract mates, scare off intruders barging into their territory, and possibly for other purposes.
Learn more about amazing Cuban wildlife in the special exhibition ¡Cuba!, now open to the public and free for Members.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.
AMNH, American Museum of Natural History
December 9, 2016