ALEPHROCCO

About the Author

Feel free to contact me via email -> alephrocco9@gmail.com

Palo Verde National Park, Costa Rica, February 2016. Photo by Erin Gaschott

Hello everyone and welcome to my natural history blog! My name is Christian Alessandro Perez-Martinez, and I am a biologist interested in the behavioral ecology and evolutionary morphology of reptiles and insects. Growing up in central Texas, I have always been driven by a love for observing animals in nature— the armies of differential grasshoppers engulfing the bushes, the independent movements of an anole lizard’s eyes, and the power of an eyed click beetle launching itself into the air. Over the past five years, I have merged this interest with photography. Through my blog, I strive to convey the beauty and complexity of organismal biology and behavior, illustrating that we share this planet with life of all forms and functions. I hope that the personal narratives of my encounters and the ramblings of what I find fascinating instill curiosity and love for the natural world. We currently live in an era where the health of natural ecosystems is taking a backseat to human development. With this thought in mind, I hope that by becoming more intrigued and enamored with these critters (whose future hangs in the balance!!), we can all take steps to involve ourselves in conservation practices. Some actionable items include:

(1) changing habits in our daily lives (e.g., eat less meat! and be aware of what consumer products contain / where they come from),

(2) contributing to the process of legislative decision-making (vote and let your voice be heard by contacting your government representatives), and

(3) donating or involving ourselves with conservation efforts directly.

My first formal foray into evolutionary biology was during my freshman year at Harvard College. I took a seminar on biological mimicry, taught by Mike Canfield, which introduced me to the astounding breadth of biological specimens and materials in the Museum of Comparative Zoology. Moreover, his course (together with Naomi Pierce’s entomology class), provided me with foundational concepts and theories, allowing me to take that knowledge and delve even deeper as I continued my studies in the wild. I felt at home learning from and collaborating with experts in a subject that I had always been enthralled by, and I never dreamed that several years down the road I would be able to explore rich ecosystems in regions across the world— Costa Rica, Brazil, Panama, Peru, Australia, Indonesia, and Kenya.

I soon became involved with Jim Mallet’s lab where I worked as a field assistant on a project studying the mechanisms of speciation in Heliconius butterflies in the Peruvian Amazon. Afterwards, I followed my love for lizards to join Jonathan Losos’ lab where I completed my undergraduate thesis on the ecological morphology of an Anolis community in a tropical lowland rainforest in Costa Rica, at La Selva Biological Station (article link). Ever since, I’ve found myself returning to Costa Rica yearly (except for a hiatus due to coronavirus), where I embark on adventures with my good friend and extraordinary naturalist, Andrés Vega, and his son, Roberto— a brilliant young scientist in his own right!

Photographing a hognose pit viper (Porthidium nasutum, left) and catching a bird snake (Pseustes poecilonotus, right) with Roberto Vega on the Atlantic versant of Costa Rica. Photos by Andrés Vega

Upon graduating with my bachelor’s degree in Integrative Biology, I traveled to Australia to study one of the most atypical and charismatic lizards: the frillneck lizard (Chlamydosaurus kingii), also called “frillies”. Under the guidance of Martin Whiting at Macquarie University, I examined the frill’s potential function as a deimatic signal in the Northern Territory at Fogg Dam Conservation Reserve (article link). The fieldwork was challenging. My study ran during the wet season with a monsoonal tropical climate, so sporadic localized lightning storms swept through the savannah woodlands almost every day. On foot, the lizards were nowhere to be found… frillnecks are cryptic agamids with acute visual and auditory senses, well-suited to circumventing avian predation. They would scurry around tree trunks and run up to the canopy well before I noticed them. After a week of HOT days but no frillies, I went out at night, and as luck would have it, I found them sleeping high up the trunks of eucalyptus trees. It turns out the nocturnal habits of frillneck lizards were not yet documented, so this was a novel method of field sampling for this species. I was elated that I could finally bring my study to fruition. Near the end of my time ‘down under’, I had an unforgettable trip to Komodo Island, in celebration of my friend, James Baxter-Gilbert’s successful Ph.D. defense. Finding blue pit vipers, swimming with manta rays, and of course, being in the presence of dragons— you’ll have to do some digging in my archives (scroll down the main page!) to read about all the encounters 🙂

Northern Territory, Australia, April 2018. Photo by Greg Clarke. Frillies handled with appropriate permits for study!

The following year I found my way over to central Kenya, where I worked through Naomi Pierce’s lab as a field assistant at Mpala Research Centre on projects that involved the whistling thorn acacia (Vachellia drepanolobium) and three of its ant mutualists. Stay tuned to hear more about our work! It was eye-opening to traverse a landscape where megafauna dominate and species interactions were rather obvious. Elephants alter the landscape by knocking fever trees down to the ground, baboons scramble high up cliffs at sundown to take refuge from hyenas and lions, and multispecies assemblages of songbirds mob the occasional puff adder that lies dormant within the grasses. Below, I’ll leave you with a photo of me, Ivy, & Godfrey when we found a zebra mandible and giraffe skull, the latter with a dwarf gecko inside!

Laikipia, Kenya, April 2019. Photo by Clayton Ziemke

Currently, I am a graduate student at the University of Missouri, Columbia, part of the Chipojo Lab advised by Manuel Leal. My research centers around the evolution of body size miniaturization in lizards and its implications for behavioral ecology and neuroanatomy. So far, I have published a review on miniaturization (article link), which discusses the phenomenon from a phylogenetic perspective and invokes physiological and anatomical constraints as drivers of ecological and morphological traits. In the coming years, I will work with the Puerto Rican radiation of dwarf geckos in the genus Sphaerodactylus to more rigorously examine the ideas and predictions I have proposed.

Volume reconstructions of the brains of two geckos: one miniaturized (left) and one moderate-sized (right), rendered from X-ray microtomography data

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