The view from the top of Stellenbosch Mountain, South Africa
This July, myself and my family (James Baxter-Gilbert and our dog, Dundee) made the big leap from Sydney, Australia to Stellenbosch, South Africa. I was awarded a Claude Leon Foundation Fellowship to study sociality across African Cordyliformes lizards. I will be based at Stellenbosch University, and hosted in Dr Micheal Cherry’s lab.
After studying the Egernia-group of social lizards in Australia for my PhD, I was keen to expand our global understanding of reptile sociality. Our understanding of social evolution is biased towards organisms where sociality is ubiquitous and complex with obligate parental care, like mammals (including humans) and birds. This taxonomic bias limits our understanding of the evolution of sociality. These systems have allowed us to understand what maintains social life once it evolves, but they tell us little about how social life's origins. What drove organisms to live together in the first place?
The ancestral state of lizards is solitary, so this provides a unique system with which to study the evolutionary transition to sociality. Despite this promise, lizard sociality is extremely under-studied. While I am in South Africa, I will quantify sociality across African Cordyliformes lizards, of which some species are already reported to live in large, stable aggregations. I will focus on investigating the kin basis of these social groups. There is likely to be a wide range of social and mating systems across the phylogeny of Cordyliformes; spanning solitary species, to those that live in small families potentially with parental care, to those that live in large communal family groups. These findings will provide novel information about the natural history of these lizards that will be fundamental to informing our understanding about the diversity of social life across reptiles and vertebrates more broadly.
I hope this research will expand our understanding of reptile sociality, as well as the evolution of family living. Regardless, I am sure it will be a wonderful adventure in South Africa!
Some of the species I may study - Namazonurus peersi (top left), Cordylus macropholis (top right), Ouroborus cataphractus (bottom left), and Cordylus niger (bottom right).