Melissa Kaplan's
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Last updated January 1, 2014

Researchers "Talk" to Lizards

Larry O'Hanlon, Discovery News, July 2002


Lizards, it seems, have a fancy for television, when the programming suits their tastes.

Australian biologists have found that male Jacky dragons, Amphibolurus muricatus, can get just as riled by videos of aggressive territorial males as by the real thing.

In a test to demonstrate that reptiles can perceive video images similar to the way humans can, male Jacky dragons responded to video lizards as if they were the real things. It opens up doors to more research on how reptiles and other animals communicate with one another, as well as how communication evolved among animals. "It's studying lizards, but it's a model system for how behavior evolved," said animal behavior biologist Terry Ord, who recently moved from Macquarie University, in Australia to Indiana University.

Ord and his Macquarie University colleagues published their work in the current issue of the journal Animal Behavior.

To test that the Jacky dragons could see and understand the video images of other Jacky dragons, the researchers used a life-sized virtual image of a male lizard doing "push-ups" - a way of saying "I'm big; I'm strong; don't mess with my territory."

The videos got the real lizards to answer the challenge by doing their own push-ups, as if to say, "Oh yeah? Well I'm bigger and stronger and this is my neighborhood."

Because the video lizards can be edited to do more push-ups than is lizardly possible, however, the real lizards eventually gave up, Ord said. Instead of wearing themselves out they abandoned the push-up routine and made a slow tail wave - a signal of submission.

"It gets to the point where they can't match it, so they switch tactics," said Ord.

The idea of using films or videos of lizards to test the behaviors of animals is not new, but modern technology is making it possible to interact with animals using an artificial, animated version of their own species, said Tom Jenssen of Virginia Tech.

Jenssen started trying to get in touch with lizards more than 30 years ago using loops of film. But there was no way to really interact with the lizards then, he said.

Today's interactive computer technology allows for researchers to change the video lizard's behaviors on demand, and actually take part in the conversation, rather than just watch and speculate what it all means, he said.

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