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Episode 5 - Whiptail Lizard Transcript

Elizabeth, alongside Ilana and Hannah, explores the discovery, appearance, ecology and queerness of the small and quick scaled lizard found in the southeastern US and northern Mexico. Hint: she's one of many!

Thank you Lauren for creating this transcript.

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Ilana (I): Hi everyone, and welcome to today's episode of Queerly Natural, where we talk about queerness in the natural world. We discuss different traits and qualities of animals, plants, fungi, and more, and how they relate to queer identities in humans. Some may argue our identities are not natural and we are here to say, they queerly are! We are your hosts. I'm Ilana,

Sage (S): I'm Hannah,

Elizabeth (E): And I'm Elizabeth.

S: And I would like to start us off by thanking our new legacy tree patron, Nathan. Thank you very much for your support, Nathan, and if you would like to support the show along with Nathan, you can visit us at Patreon. We also have a Ko-fi, or you can spread the word on social media. Today we are very excited to talk to you about the desert grassland whiptail lizard. This is a lizard that is very queer, and you're about to see why. Buckle on up!

E: Welcome to this week's episode of Queerly Natural! We're going to talk about desert grassland whiptail lizards!

S: Ooh!

I: That's a mouthful of a name, but I love it.

E: I know it's really long.

S: So many nouns.

E: So many nouns, but it makes sense.

I: Can you repeat it one more time for me?

E: Yes: desert grassland whiptail lizard. They are all appropriate descriptors, but it's a lot of steps and that's the common name of multiple species.

I: [sarcasm] Oh, I love that.

S: So what's the scientific name?

E: So scientific name is Aspidoscelis uniparens, except the genus name was changed very recently, so all of the research calls it Cnemidophorus. But it's Aspidoscelis.

I: Aspidoscelis. Cnemidophorus is a fun name. So is Aspidoscelis. They're both fun names.

E: Isn't it? It's really fun to say. So Cnemidophorus still a genus — they just decided to leave those to the tropical lizards. So all the South American lizards in this family are Cnemidophorus and now these North American buddies are Aspidoscelis.

I: Aspidoscelis.

S: Nice! And it was Uniparens?

E: Yes, Uniparens is the species’ Latin name and that's probably what I'm going to refer to them as throughout the episode because it's the easiest thing to do.

S: Nice. I feel like that may be indicative of some aspects of its life.

E: Just a little bit. Sometimes the Latin name helps you out, and Uniparens tells you some things.

S: Sometimes.

E: It gives you some hints.

I: When the Latin foreshadows.

E: Good point Ilana, it's foreshadowing.

S: Other times it's just Beyonce's name or something.

E: Right.

I: Also, if you don't know Latin, don't worry. Most of us don't. It's fine.

E: You just kind of, it sounds a little bit like English and you're like: “that might mean a thing that's a synonym”.

I: Apparently when it gets to like, botanical Latin, half the time, my brother — who is a teacher of ancient Latin — he's like, “it doesn't make sense in Latin either. Just go with it”. I was like, “okay, good to know”.

S: I love it. We've made our own thing. It's fun.

E: [resigned] Yeah. Yeah I don't know who decided we have to name all these things in a dead language, but it's a thing. So this Uniparens species, right, these whiptail lizards, I couldn't really find anything on when they were like, first officially discovered by science, but this, like, genus was kind of fleshed out and understood most in the 1960s. They started realizing that this genus has polyploid chromosomes, which we'll talk about later when we go over our whole biology review of what chromosomes mean and how they work.

I: I love some good polyploidy.

E: Yeah! Polyploidy. So that helped them figure out which species were which and that's how these guys got their names so that was technically in the 60s. The scientists who studied the genus — again, because I couldn't find like, one particular “I found a lizard!” description — but the people who have done a lot of work with these lizards and their genus include David Crews, Orlando Cuellar, and Charles J. Cole. So those are the big three who are in charge of the lizards.

S: Nice.

E: Anyway, all right, so I sent you some photos. You guys want to take a look at those?

I: Yes. Hannah, should you or I go first with this description?

S: Oh my gosh, they are so adorable!

I: I'm just gonna start off and say they're stripey.

S: Yeah.

I: Very stripey.

S: Very stripy, yes. Very, parallel.

I: Five or six stripes and yellow, but then also like, dark. They're kind of your classic lizardy shape.

S: Yeah.

I: Just for reference for everyone, you know. The head and the neck are kind of the same size starting from the snout, which goes outwards and then evens out at the, like, neck/body area to the same width, until you get to the tail. Gotta have a good lizard's tail.

S: Yeah, right, very cylindrical body. It doesn't really have any type of, like, flaring or, like, physical decoration on the face. It's very just, “generic lizard shape” but, oh, those stripes. They're just so cute.

I: They have long back toes. Their back toes are very long.

S: Oh, very long. Wow! The front ones are not as long.

I: Yes. It's like a yellowy and then, like, a dark brown-y kind of striping pattern on the top, and then light on the bottom. They got cute ear holes.

S: They do.

I: I forget what the name is for that but they're cute. It's been a while since I learned about lizards.

S: I know. I don't know anything about lizards, but the stripes are yellow, and the body's brown. And the stripes: they look like they kind of fade, like the colors are very contrasted on the body, but on the tail it kind of like, seems the stripes become less distinct.

I: Yeah. It looks like they can make, like, their gullets stick out a little bit. Is that the correct name for that area of the neck?

S: Maybe.

I: The, like, throat area can stick out a little bit.

S: They have cute little spots on their arms.

I: Oh they do!

S: Oh, I got to this, like, textured photo. It looks like it's, like, glisteny.

I: This one's pretty. He's got, like, the scaliness on the head, kind of looking, like, classic, like what you would draw scales to look like.

S: They're very like, big and flat and geometric, whereas then as you get past the head, down the neck and the body, the scales are like, small and nubbly.

I: Nubbly, another scientific word.

S: Nubbly, I don't know how else to describe it. [laughing]

E: That's a great word.

S: Yeah. I'm trying to think of like, a comparable texture, like maybe like a basketball? I don't know, you know how, like, they get kind of nubbly sometimes?

E: No, no, no, no. That's seriously such a good adjective.

I: Nubbly and sticky-outy now in these. I’m gonna make a little dictionary of totally-scientific terms.

E: You also said yellowy, Ilana.

I: I did say yellowy.

I: These guys are again on the very famous scale of cute-to-very-cute. They are definitely on the “very cute” end.

S: Oh, very cute, their eyes, ah! So cute. It's like they're looking at me.

I: Definitely kind of match, like, leaf litter.

S: Yeah.

I: Okay, I think we're just gonna keep talking about how cute they are unless, Elizabeth, you want to take it away.

E: [laughing] All right, all right, I'll jump in. You guys did a pretty good job. For the questions I heard about different body parts: the part of their throat that many lizards have — it's usually a male thing so I don't actually know if this species has it — but it's called a dewlap: the thing that they can like pop out and flare, which is supposed to attract mates. So that's what that's called. But I don't think they have like, the official dewlap which is kind of — for you guys who haven't seen it — it's like a fin on your neck, it's like a flat sail piece that just — boing! — and then you can pull it back in and pop it back out.

S: Do you have an example of a lizard that does have that?

I: I do like the word “dewlap”.

S: Me too.

E: Um, it's a really famous characteristic. Like, most anoles do, um, a lot of iguanas do… like, it's pretty common.

S: Ah! I can picture it on the iguana, like, hanging down from the neck, kind of.

E: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And then when they're using it, it like — boing! — pops out and it looks like, really circular.

I: Yeah this looks more like a pouch.

E: Yeah.

I: Like the way the frog does it, like [frog croaking sound].

S: It's not as flat vertically.

E: Okay, and then the other question: their ears, right — well not ears because they don't have external ears — but their ear holes are called cochlea, which made me think of cochlear implants.

I: Cochlea.

E: So there you go!

S: Cochlea.

E: Yes. Apart from really cool body part names, you guys did really well in the description. Desert grassland whiptail lizards are an all-female species. They have an olive-brown to black base color, right, so kind of those darker portions. They have six cream colored stripes that run longitudinal along their bodies from head to tail, separated from each other by about four to eight little bitty scales. When these lizards are hatchlings their tails are bright blue, which is really cute and I'm sorry I didn't find a good picture of that for you guys.

I: I’ll never forgive you for that.

E: I will find him after the episode. I'll make it up to you.

I: Thank you. It's important.

E: This color fades into olive brown or black as they become adults, right, so the tails become the same color as the body. The underbellies are white, like Ilana mentioned. Sometimes the adults can have light blue tenting on their throat and chin, which is super cool.

S: Ooh.

E: I also didn't find a picture of that, which is sad. Some lizards have the beginning of a seventh stripe near their head. Their granular dorsal scales — those nubly scales, Hannah—

S: Granular!

E: —granular dorsal scales number in the range of 59 to 78 rows around the mid-body.

S: What? How do we know that?

E: Somebody counted.

I: Someone counted.

E: Can you believe that? Somebody sat down with one of these lizards and was like, “let me count every row of these itty-bitty bitty scales.”

I: Definitely either a grad student or an undergrad.

E: No, that was not a professor or a full-time researcher.

S: I imagine they must have done it from a dead specimen right? They must have, like, flattened out the skin?

E: Probably, I'm pretty sure they move around too much otherwise.

S: Those are so small.

I: I mean people count, like, grains of pollen from flowers, so…

S: That's true. Scientists do very tedious things a lot.

E: Yeah, scientists count weird things. Sixty to 80 rows of those itty-bitty scales.

S: It's important though.

E: Right? It's good stuff. Okay so the granular scales number in the range of 59 to 78 rows. Um, their average snout-vent length — which I was like, “what the heck is that”—

S: Snout-vent length!

E: —and it turns out that basically means from the tip of their head to, like, the butt, the base of the tail — so that body length is usually like five and a half centimeters.

S: Ah. So is tail length a separate measurement?

I: Lizards are not measured with their tails.

E: Well yeah, tail is a separate measurement, partially because the ratio of body length to tail length can be very different by species and also, a lot of lizards — if you guys didn't know this — they have this evolutionized trait where they can have their tails, like, basically ripped off, and then they can like, not die from blood loss and like start to regrow a new one.

S: Wow.

E: Yeah so that's called autonomy, which is when you can lose a limb and sort of grow it back. I did find out it's not like, “lose a tail, no big deal, you’re good, you're fine, it's all good,” like, if you get your tail ripped off, the tail you regrow has cartilage instead of bone, so like, it has permanently impacted your system. Not a fun time.

S: Damn.

I: I mean like, that's expensive to grow a whole— like imagine just being like, “I'm just going to grow a new, like, leg today, but like, it's bigger than a leg, like three legs’ worth of leg.”

S: Imagine how much energy that takes that lizard. Yeah.

E: I know, but if you think about them getting caught by their tail to be eaten, it's still a good trade. But like, don't rip tails off of lizards, guys. That's not okay.

S: It's better than being dead, yes, very true, but it's still a risky process, you know.

E: But yeah, so, I think a lot of lizards, they don't measure the tail because they like, don't know what stage they're at in that whole process. And they weigh four grams, you guys. These guys are bitty.

S: Wow! That's so cool, though.

E: They're itty-bitty cuties and I love them. They're four grams. I looked up how much that is in ounces, because my brain does not think well in grams, and it's 0.15 ounces, okay? So you could fit — let me do some really quick math right now: seven times 15 is 105 — so you could fit 105 of these lizards into a pound. Like, 105 of these lizards would weigh a pound.

S: Ooh my gosh.

E: And they cuties. They itty-bitty cuties.

I: To give a randomized estimate: a medium-sized apple — whatever you might consider that to be — is like six ounces, and a small apple is 4.5 ounces.

S: Oh. Little teeny tiny babies.

E: Yeah. So these guys weigh 4 grams, you guys! One two-hundred-and-fiftieth of a kilogram. Imagine that. That's so tiny.

S: Like, standard size of like, a can of something is usually a pound.

I: I'm just thinking of how many lizards can be put inside of a tomato soup can.

E: Oh poor babies. I don't know.

I: Not like stuff them in there, but just like, “look I've got a can of lizards” and they're just like, “hi!”

E: On that lovely note, we are going to talk about what the whiptail lizards eat! Okay, so whiptail lizards are insectivores. I looked and I was like, “do they eat plants? Do they eat other meat?” because it's really common for a lot of species to just kind of eat what they can get their paws on, right? But these guys pretty much just stick to insects, it looks like. They are not known to eat plants or other meat. I'm sure that it happens occasionally, um, but almost 50% of their diet is termites, so I was like, “okay that's kind of cool, I guess, like, way to do your thing.” They are estimated to live only about six or seven years, which is kind of sad, but they are itty-bitty, and usually smaller things don't live super long. The entire species is female. There are zero males and that's not even why they're queer, so it gets better. But that's a really good part.

S: Amazing! It sounds like, kind of why they’re queer, right?

E: It's part of it, but it's not like, the main thing. It's so good. Okay, you guys, it just builds better. So, there are zero males of this species. They don't exist. They got wiped out of the process a while ago, so there are only females. It's pretty great.

S: This sounds amazing.

E: They range from Arizona and New Mexico to a teeny bit of Texas — like, just on the very western tip of it — down to Chihuahua, Mexico, so they're like, kind of rocking it out in the Southern U.S., Northern Mexico region. As their name suggests, right, the desert grassland whiptail lizard likes to live in deserts and grasslands.

I: They don't lie.

E: Right? I'm like, “this common name is actually useful! A lot of common names aren't useful.” It's a mouthful, but it tells you things.

S: Yeah.

E: So yeah, they spend a lot of their time sheltering from the sun under like, rocks, or bushes, or in their burrows because these guys burrow and it's really cute.

S: Oh!

E: Or sometimes they're like, “I don't have enough sun” and they go lay on a rock and sun, like lizards tend to do. So that's pretty cool.

S: Nice.

E: Like most lizard species, they grow indeterminately, which means they never stop growing, right? So like, there's a pretty standard size but like, they're just gonna get incrementally bigger forever and ever as long as they live.

S: What? Excuse me?

I: I wonder what the largest one was.

E: You didn't know that was a thing, Hannah? Most lizards just grow and grow until they die. Like—

S: No, I did not know that!

E: There's— I don't know how true this is, but yeah, it's a thing. It's pretty cool. Like, they don't grow a ton, like they do most of their growing when they're young, but they never just like, hit a height and stop. I wish I could do that. I would love to be able to just like, inch up a teeny bit every year, so I knew that I wouldn't be stuck at 5'3” forever.

I: They're like the trees of the animals.

S: Grandmas are like, 9 feet tall. That would be pretty cool.

E: That'd be amazing. Can you imagine a society with nine-foot-tall grandmas? They would be so incredible.

I: We would have to have much bigger doors.

S: [laughing] Right, retirement homes would have to be huge.

E: But I don't think it's that much of a height difference. I think it would be like—

I: Millimeters.

E: Right, I think it would be like going from, like, me at 5'3 to like—

S: Wow.

E: —six foot by the end of my lifespan kind of a thing, like it's not a huge amount of growing.

I: But imagine being six foot.

E: I don't know how that would work.

S: That’s still nuts. I did not know that at all. This is like a thing for all lizards?

E: Not all, but most. Most lizards do that, yeah.

S: Most? Wow. That's amazing.

E: So if you have a pet lizard and you think it's getting a little bit bigger, you're probably not crazy.

S: You're probably right!

E: They do reach sexual maturity in about seven months, so that's when they're full grown. Adult females — right, because there's only females so adults, period — produce two to three clutches of eggs every year. Their breeding season is, like, May to July, so it's just like, that early summer — they have hot girl summer every year. So, two to three clutches every year. They have a three or four week break between them, which is not enough time in my opinion, but you know what? They're doing it. They're getting out there.

S: Do they just lay the eggs and leave though?

E: Pretty much, like, they take— I think they, like, kind of check in on the eggs to make sure they're not, like, stampeded or anything, but yeah. They basically leave and then— they basically lay and leave. There's no parental care involved. So if there's two to four eggs per clutch and two to three clutches per year — I'm going to show off my math skills again — that's four to 12 offspring every year. I'm really glad I'm not a lizard. I do not need to keep track of that many kids. Although they don't keep track of them, which is also valid. They just kind of turn and leave, so, not so bad.

S: That's what I'm saying, so maybe like two or three weeks between isn't that bad, because they don't have to, like, put any work into it.

E: That's true, that's true. They're just recovering from, like, that stress.

S: They just gotta, like, lay them and go.

E: Eggs take two to three months to hatch, and then the babies take care of themselves from birth. I thought this was pretty interesting: they're not territorial, but they're not particularly social either, so they spend most of their time rocking out their solo lives, um, chilling by themselves except for mating season.

S: Nice.

E: Um, which I'll talk about more, and then last special body part that I wanted to mention that I didn't get to earlier in the official description: it's called Jacobson's organ, and I think this is a really cool thing to advertise for folks who don't know, um, herpetology. It's possessed by pretty much all — I want to say all but that's a scary word to use in biology — pretty much all lizards and snakes and it's a special organ, like, at the roof of their mouths that helps process smells. So lizards and snakes, they can kind of smell with their tongue, and that's why they flick out their tongue to do things. Smelling. They’re smelling stuff.

S: Wow.

I: Gotta sniff!

E: And that's Jacobson's organ that lets him do that. I'm very sure a scientist named Jacobson decided that it should be called that so, heyo.

I: Yeah that happens a lot.

E: It does. But yeah, it's pretty cool. Um, they also have pheromones. These guys use pheromones to, like, let the other ladies know, like, “hey I'm ready to do the nasty, let's go.” Before we get into the details of “the nasty”, I want to go over just some, like, basic biology things because I had to reteach myself a lot of this, so let me see if I can make it clear for listeners.

S: Is this our genetics review?

E: Yes, this is our genetics review, aka “sexual reproduction” versus “asexual reproduction” and how that works in, like, non-plants.

S: Nice.

E: Yeah.

S: I also need this.

E: Yeah! I'm hoping you guys can chime in, though, because I don't want to talk the whole time. That seems weird. Okay, so a lot of organisms that are the result of sexual reproduction, like most mammals, we usually have two sets of chromosomes, right? And you probably know this if you've taken basic biology and retained any of it — which, to be fair, I didn't retain most of this, so it's totally valid — two sets of chromosomes for humans. We have 23 per set, so we have 46 chromosomes as, like, a living being.

S: That means we're diploid right? When it's two copies, it's diploid. Yeah.

E: Yeah, yes, good, good. So each parent contributes one set of chromosomes to make the baby, right? That's usually how that works. So like, the whole sexual reproduction is they pass off their gametes, and they have, like, half of the genetic material from each parent. So basic meiosis — right, this is the process in which the parent cell divides — so basically what happens is there's the parent cell, right, which comes from the mommy or daddy or whoever, and they undergo two rounds of division, so it splits in half, like, twice, and so you end up with four daughters, right — because the first one splits into two and then two again so you get four — and those have half as many chromosomes as the original parent cell. And those are called haploid. Right? You guys with me?

S: Because they only have one copy of each chromosome, right?

E: Yep, yep, yep!

S: Parents have two copies. Gametes have one copy. Yeah.

E: Exactly. Yes. So those are called haploid, right, because they just have the one. So those haploid gametes combine with gametes from the other genetic contributing partner — the other mommy or daddy or whoever — and then they form the diploid cell like Hannah said. That's called a zygote. This is very basic genetics 101.

S: Yeah.

E: So the basic idea here is that we want to have different expressions of genes and different copies of alleles, because if a population is all the same genetically, like a bunch of clones, they all have the same weak spot genetically, right? So if the original person in that group is vulnerable to heart disease then the entire population of clones is also vulnerable to developing heart disease, and so, like, if they developed that, then it would kill everybody. So, like, having a big population of clones makes them very vulnerable to, like, one bad thing killing everybody instead of just a couple people.

I: RIP, the original bananas.

E: Yeah, bye, original bananas, we love you.

S: RIP, all conventional agriculture. Why do we do clones of everything? It's just basic— like, this is basic stuff. Yeah. But anyway, yeah, clones are bad because they're all susceptible to the same things.

E: Right. And so the thing here is a lot of the lizards in this genus are genetically clones of their parents, because these guys reproduce in a special way — which is part of what makes them queer, and I'll dip into that in a second — but the part about this species in particular, what makes them really interesting, is that these lizards are actually triploid. So we talked earlier about haploid cells, which only have one set of chromosomes, and diploid cells which have two sets. These guys are triploids, so they have three sets of chromosomes, and the scientists were able to pin that down. So what happened is: these guys are a hybrid species from, like, two other species of whiptail lizards running around in the same area, and basically, like, a male and a female of different species were like, “let's get it on!”

S: Nice.

E: And then they had offspring, and usually when that happens the offspring will be sterile. So, like, if you guys know, like, if you cross a horse and a donkey you end up with a mule, and then the mule can't have babies. It's like a genetic dead end.

S: Oh, like ligers.

E: Yeah, lions and tigers. People have crossed weird animals. I don't know why that's a thing we think we should do.

S: Yeah.

I: Some of them I think have happened in nature. It's just very uncommon.

S: Yeah. Well, I mean for certain groups it's uncommon. It's like— hybridization is super common in, like, plants.

E: Oh my gosh, plants do this all the time.

S: Yeah.

I: Oh, plants are weird.

E: Side note: plants are all hybrids.

I: So Elizabeth, as I assume you're going to say: like, this is polyploidy, when you have more than 2n — um, when you're more than diploid — which, for a lot of the plants we eat, very true, strawberries being one of the poster childs for that with eight sets of chromosomes.

S: Right.

E: it's so many.

S: I think wheat has, like, six too.

I: Yeah, in plants for some reason, the more sets of chromosomes you have, the bigger the fruit is.

S: Right.

E: Wow! Yeah, Hannah, I'm pretty sure I was reading about wheat in the process of figuring out polyploidy, and there's a variety that has two sets of chromosomes, and then there's a variety that has four, there's a variety that's six, and I think there was one that had, like, 24.

S: Oh my gosh.

E: It was a whole thing. I was like, “okay. Chromosomes.”

I: For reference: in the animal kingdom, polyploidy is normally very unsuccessful and results in just, death, if the organism itself ever even survives past, like, duplicating cells.

E: Yeah, so plants have a great time with polyploidy. Animals… not so much. Like, this usually does not work out, does not go good places. Things die or are sterile. So the cool thing about this genus of lizards is that that's not what happened with them. They were hybridized from these, like, two lizards and it was a natural hybridization, like, nobody started this. And they just were like, “all right, we're a new species, and you know what? We're gonna go have babies.” And so, they actually reproduce through parthenogenesis, which is kind of like asexual reproduction in that they have an unfertilized egg that results in living offspring. This is also called virgin births in, like, the common name version of science, basically. So parthenogenesis is asexual reproduction in lizards. They have an unfertilized egg, but it doesn't matter that it's unfertilized. It still is born and develops into a healthy adult.

S: Amazing!

I: Just a fun reminder: as we talked about in earlier episodes, asexual reproduction in science is not the same as asexuality in humans.

E: Totally different.

I: Different topics.

S: Very different.

I: Just adding that in.

E: We're going to be expressing that very clearly today.

S: Wait, can I throw in a fun fact?

E: Yes, please!

S: About parthenogenesis?

E: Oh, please.

S: A friend told me that the word “parthenogenesis” comes from, uh, Athena? Like, a myth about Athena.

E: Oh my god, that's amazing! That makes so much sense! So basically what happens is Athena was born from Zeus's, like, leg.

S: Oh!

E: She just popped out of his body fully formed and was like, “I'm here, I'm the goddess of war and intelligence, let's do this,” and he was like, “the heck?” and she was like, “I'm your daughter, let's go,” and he was like, “I guess that's a thing now!” So like, Athena was a virgin birth, more or less. She just showed up and was ready to rock.

S: I'm so glad you knew that, because I started talking about it, and I was like, “ah f***, maybe I should bail, I didn't do it— I didn't look it up before I brought this up,” but so yeah, thank you for swooping in with the save there, Elizabeth.

E: Yeah. No, no, it's really cool. Okay. And so usually that parthenogenesis — right, that virgin birth — because it isn't a fertilized egg, it doesn't have those two sets of chromosomes coming in from both parents and so they create clones most of the time, right? Genetic clones. But these lizards have genetically diverse offspring because their chromosomes double — like, pre-meiosis they have a doubling of chromosomes that occurs — and so the eggs each individually have all of the sets of chromosomes that they need and are more genetically diverse. Fun fact, again, that means they have three sets of chromosomes and they have the same number of chromosomes in a base set as humans do, so instead of having 46 chromosomes like people, they have 69 chromosomes. These lizards are running around with 69 chromosomes.

S: Nice.

E: Yep that's—

S: So to sum up what you said, they don't necessarily have sex or sexual reproduction, so you would think that they would all be clones, but they're not all clones, because before meiosis — which would normally halve the number of copies of chromosomes, so I assume that would take normally take them from 3n, or triploid, to 1.5n, hypothetically?

E: Right, that's how that would work.

S: Yeah, that— because they do meiosis even though they don't have sex. But instead of that happening, the number of chromosomes doubles before meiosis, so they go from 3n to 6n.

E: Yes.

S: And then when meiosis happens, it halves and goes back to three, which is the right number for them.

I: And then you get a baby lizard!

E: And then you get baby lizards! And they're not all clones, which is really exciting because that means this population isn't as vulnerable. But! A lot of lizards in this genus are clones, and we're going to talk about why that's important at the end. I want to— I want to debate a little bit with you guys if you have time. Okay! So drumroll, folks! [drumroll] Are you ready to find out why it's queer?

I: Yes.

S: Yes! Why are they queer?

E: Okay. Oh, I'm so ready. All right, let me shuffle my notes. Okay. So. We've hinted at this all episode, right? It's kind of obvious in just the structure of the species. But, they are all female, no male, so that's a very good start for queer. They have unfertilized eggs — virgin births — but the really interesting part of that is they copulate even though they don't need to. So basically, when it's mating season, the females seek each other out and they perform these same— they call— in the scientific literature, right, because it's science, they call it pseudo-copulation or copulatory behaviors—

S: Oh my gosh.

E: Um, but it's the same thing that a male and female will do in another species, if the species has two sexes.

S: It's copulation. Yeah. At that rate.

E: It is. So basically, the two female lizards will engage in copulation with each other before they lay their eggs. So, it lasts five to ten minutes, and it begins with one female who approaches another and she sees if she's receptive, which I love. Consent is important, everybody, but it's not always a thing in the animal kingdom.

I: Lizards believe in consent. These lizards, at least.

S: These lizards, yeah. Amazing. Doing good. Doing the most.

E: Yes. And so if the consent is granted — right, if the female is receptive — um, the female who approached will climb on top, wrap their tail under the other's tail, and then they kind of contort themselves into a circle, kind of wrapped around their partner's, um, pelvic region — I sent you guys a little picture of this — and that's called the donut position, which made me laugh pretty hard. So they hold the donut position for a while, and then they're all done, they're all set, ready to go, and then the female who's on the bottom will go lay her eggs! And so, some really interesting, cool facts that I found out about this: it's entirely based on where you are in your hormonal cycle at the time, because the same female will switch between being like, top and bottom position which, again in the literature, is referred to male-like and female-like behavior, and I'm like, “that's not a thing, go away”. But top and bottom.

I: Female-like and female-like, in this case.

E: Exactly.

S: So they don't have sex in the sense of like, one gamete fusing with another gamete, but they do have sex.

E: Yeah, there's copulation before they lay their unfertilized eggs.

I: I wonder if it releases hormones to lay the eggs.

E: That's the real exciting part! It's more successful. The fertility increases by a factor of three if they copulate before laying.

S: Wow!

E: Versus lizards kept in isolation who don't have the opportunity to copulate.

S: Oh my gosh, that is fascinating!

E: Three times more effective, you guys! Isn't that so cool?

S: Do they know why?

E: So, oh my god, there's been so many invasive studies, and I felt horrible reading them — they made me a little bit nauseous — but like, science in the 60s, they would just like cut open all the lizards and like, pull out the body parts and then stick new hormones in and try and see what happened.

S: Oh wow.

E: So I didn't read all those, because they were making me kind of queasy, but basically, it is based on their hormonal cycle and so, um, the pre-ovulatory females will be on the bottom and then the post-ovulatory females will go on the top.

S: Ah!

E: And so they found out that if they remove the hormones that's supposed to, like, cause that behavior and put in, like, a male-based hormone it works the same way for the females in the species. Like, they just respond to it the same way: they try to copulate.

S: Ah okay.

E: And they tried in a bunch of other species and, like, found out kind of the same thing, and I was like, “do we have to do this? This is really invasive” but like, standards at the time.

S: So they think their hormones post-ovulation are similar to males?

E: Yeah.

S: Please understand I regret— like, I did not want to say it like that.

I: The signals result the same.

E: Not necessarily. I think it's just that their bodies were able to process the typically-male hormone — which is like, testosterone for these guys I think — but also progesterone, which is usually considered, like, a female hormone and is usually considered like a sign of stopping any kind of sexual activity for males, like it usually decreases—

S: Okay.

E: —sexual activity. Um, when they gave the males of another species progesterone, they treated it like testosterone, and when they gave the females of the species testosterone they treated it like progesterone.

S: Oh wow.

I: They don't care.

E: So. They're flexible babies.

S: That's so interesting!

E: They're gonna do what they're gonna do. So that was really interesting.

S: Chemistry— body chemistry is weird.

E: Body chemistry is a whole thing that I also am not super strong at.

I: Hormones in general is weird. Hormones are so strange, and I only really understand it from a plant standpoint.

E: Hormones are weird. Totally valid. Okay, so: they're switches, um, the sex helps them give birth — they're more successful — all those good things. Um, one study that was trying to figure out, like, populations in the wild, um, because there's this huge argument for literally decades between the researchers, right? So I mentioned David Crews, um, Charles Cole, and Orlando Cuellar, and Cole and Cuellar were like the first ones into this species, and they were like, “you know, this is a pseudo-copulatory behavior, it doesn't serve any purpose, like, it's misplaced—”

S: Barf.

E: Right, and so David Crews was like, “look, I saw this when I was observing in the wild. I think it's relevant for something, like, I don't know what but I think it's relevant for something,” and so they kind of had like, a 15-year argument going back and forth about whether this meant a thing.

S: David Crews, man.

I: Did they just like, publish a series of like, papers where you could just see them yelling at each other?

S: I love when that happens.

E: A little bit, a little bit. I didn't go search them out but I found a really funny review of those piles of papers, and it was so sassy. It was very enjoyable.

I: I love it when scientists just argue by publishing papers refuting each other’s work. It's so funny.

S: “Well I have this data, and it says this, and you're wrong.”

E: I know, it's so funny! But these guys were a little more civilized. They didn't do a lot of direct rebuttals.

I: Okay. Because I have seen direct rebuttals and they're funny.

E: Cole and Cuellar— oh my god, they're so funny. This one was a little more civilized than that. I'm gonna give some credit to these guys who are doing the research: they were a little bit nicer to each other. Um, there was an extensive series of like, published papers where they did argue with each other but it became kind of evident that Crews was right after about, like, five years. He was like, “I've seen it in the wild. I did this laboratory experiment where we did isolation versus like, in groups, and we saw this difference in fertility rates,” and they just kind of like, quietly disappeared out of the conversation.

S: Good.

E: They didn't acknowledge he was right but they didn't try to argue anymore. They just like, kind of vanished into the background. Yeah, so that was a whole thing…

S: Just because it's not heterosexual doesn't mean it doesn't matter. Period.

E: I know, it's so great, you guys! These kind of like— they're asexual reproducing but they have lesbian love beforehand and it's quite an adventure.

S: Yeah, and it's important to the reproduction—

E: It is!

S: —like it's not even like they just, like, want to do it which, you know, would be valid in itself if they just wanted to do it—

E: But scientists could argue against it easier that way.

S: Right, but it also significantly increases the number of children they can have! So like, damn!

E: Yeah it's pretty cool. Oh yeah, and then the last study, like one of the studies that Crews did to like, observe this in the wild, right? They were like, “okay let's go catch a bunch of lizards of different species and compare,” right? So they caught lizards of a bisexual species— which again, is just a scientific term for a species that has two sexes: male and female. These guys are called unisexual species which is— Uniparens. It's kind of where that comes from: “single pair”.

I: Foreshadowing now understood.

S: Nice.

E: Foreshadowing, check. So yeah. So anyways, they went and caught lizards of the two species and they were like, “let's go flip them all upside down and check and see if they have the bite marks,” right? Because part of their copulatory process involves biting the other lizard to like, hang on to that donut shape because you're kind of twisted in a very awkward angle and you gotta have something to attach.

S: I noticed that!

E: So they bite each other—

S: She bites her on the ass.

E: A little bit, a little bit, that's what happens.

S: Just a little.

E: So they went and like, caught a whole bunch of lizards in the wild and were like, “let's go see who has these marks!” and they flip them all over and like, look at their belly, and it was pretty funny. They had like a whole page of pictures showing like, “this is the mark” versus “this isn't the mark”, it was a whole thing. But 45% of the Uniparens females were found with those bite marks, and the bite marks only last for two to four weeks at a time, so…

S: Ah!

E: They're pretty busy.

S: Oh wow.

E: The number— the percentage found in the bisexual species was higher. I think it was like 63 percent, I'm thinking? But not like, a ton higher.

S: Interesting. I have a question I forgot to ask earlier. So, um, like we talked about— you said like, whether they're like, bottoming or topping depends on whether they're pre-ovulation or post-ovulation. How long is that cycle?

E: So that's a really good question. I am guessing again from what I know about the length of their, like, reproductive season and what we said about the number of clutches — um, they have two to three clutches and it's a two-and-a-half-month-long reproductive season — so I'm guessing it's roughly 28 days, kind of like humans.

S: Kind of like a month, yeah!

E: Yeah.

S: Wow. That's pretty cool.

E: I think.

S: So they would do two weeks bottom and two weeks top, and the bite only lasts for two weeks.

E: Pretty much, yeah. Two to four weeks.

S: So by the time they're done topping and starting bottoming again they won't have the bite mark.

E: It depends. They said the marks last for two to four weeks, but yeah.

S: Oh, two to four weeks, oh okay. I'm just trying to think of like—

E: And that's the thing too, right, because if you look at it in terms of like, the species ratios— right, because they checked 100% of the Uniparens females for the marks, but they didn't check the males of the bisexual species for them because the males are never on the bottom.

S: Oh so they— or they assume—

E: They only checked the females. So they checked 50% of that population, right — the female side, approximately 50% — and 63% of those females had the mark, but if you're looking at it as a 100% to 45% ratio that's actually higher. Like, that's more females that had the mark in this species than comparatively had the mark in the other species.

S: Yeah.

E: Which I think is pretty interesting.

S: That is really interesting. I'm like, upset that they didn't even check the males, like, it just goes to show like, science paints— like, capital-S science, like institutionalized science — like, paints itself as unbiased, but there's always like, hidden biases in these things. Like, those scientists probably didn't even think twice about like, “oh, we obviously wouldn't check the males because they are always on top,” but like that's— that's a biased thing, like they should have checked. I think.

E: It is, it is! It's a bias. I agree with you. But, it was done in like, the 80s. But also, as a kudos to David Crews, who kept doing this research to see if the copulation was important for these female lizards— um, he also wrote a paper in 1982, which was pretty ahead of his time, and he was like, “gender is a weird thing, and we do so much in science and we're basing it on this concept of gender but like, gender is different than…” Like, he was basically— he didn't have the terminology to like, fully pin it down but he was going for the idea that gender is different than sex.

S: Amazing.

I: Good for him.

E: And science should be basing things only on sex and not these gender-based ideas. So. I thought that was pretty cool. Dr. Crews, if you're listening to this, I am very impressed.

S: Thanks for advocating for like, the same-sex behavior is like, valid, like all that— like, absolutely. He was doing the most.

E: We appreciate you.

S: Just a little critique I had.

I: Science! Just question everything.

S: Like obviously I want— if anyone ever reads my papers and you have a critique, I want to hear it. I want to improve on it.

I: Just maybe be nice about it.

S: So— yeah just please be nice about it. [laughing] Try not to be mean.

E: Constructive criticism!

S: Yes. Yeah, exactly. Yeah.

E: Yes. So I just wanted to talk about how the clonal populations are really vulnerable to any kind of external threat and like, that could be disease, or it could be something like extreme weather events, or anything like that.

S: Because they're clones?

E: Yeah, because they’re all genetically susceptible to like, the same thing.

I: So we talk about disease a lot because it's like, the quickest, most easy to see oftentimes, of a way to wipe out a whole population that's not diverse in the genes that would protect itself from that disease. But there's a lot of other factors. For example: temperature changes. So lizards especially, being cold-blooded, are very sensitive to both high temperatures and low temperatures outside of their range. I would not be surprised if genetically being similar results in a more narrow range in which the species as a whole can survive in, versus, you know, like maybe there's — in a genetically diverse one — some that can go a little colder or a little warmer than the rest.

E: Right, because individuals can have variation.

S: Because their bodies don't, like, warm themselves. Like, they can't regulate their own temperatures, so they're the temperature of their environment. So if the environment is hotter, for example, they get hotter, which can be bad.

E: And these guys live in — to remind you guys — they're like Southern U.S., Northern Mexico. So like, obviously, extreme heat is a concern with climate change but I'm also thinking about like, the polar vortex that came through.

I: Yeah, that's an area I know that's been getting a lot of extreme heat recently, but also just dramatic changes in temperatures for species like these — even if it's, you know, it's just going from “it was pretty low and now it's really quickly high” or vice versa — can be pretty bad. And that's an area of the world that is being affected— well, pretty much everywhere is being affected by climate change, but I believe alterations there is a really big deal versus areas in like, in temperate zone where it tends to fluctuate a lot in temperature. But even fluctuations at the wrong time of year can be bad. You know, when it gets warm weirdly in the middle of winter and all these plants are like, “time to flower,” and then it snows again and now they're like, “well time to die.”

S: “We just wasted a ton of energy on making these flowers and now they all died and are not gonna result in any reproduction.”

I: I know, it's so sad, because you are so happy it's warm and the plants are so happy, but then it's cold again.

E: I see that all the time.

S: It's warm for the wrong reasons, and then it gets cold, and then the plants get f***** over.

I: Insects too: it's really bad because they'll wake up from hibernating, and they'll come out and buzz around, and then it gets cold and they can't hibernate again.

S: But Elizabeth, how exactly is the species impacted by climate change?

E: So I think the main areas of concern for these guys, um, would be those temperature fluctuations like Ilana was mentioning, but also extreme weather events, not just with temperature but like, with El Niño storms, or anything like that. I mean, these guys are little. Flooding would be a big issue — they live in pretty dry spaces overall, and they're also dependent on the things they eat, right? So, any events or climate change impacts that affect their diet of insects would have massive impacts on them. So just like— especially for the genetically similar ones like Ilana mentioned, I think it's really accurate to say that they would have a narrow range, because there's not any lizards in the population that might have a slightly different temperature tolerance range. So if they get crammed into a small space and then that small space gets hit with the wrong temperature, even for just a little bit, they can't regulate their own body temperatures and that could really cause the end of the species. Could cause extinction, so that would be really so sad. But we'll do what we can.

S: It's so common now though that I feel like people don't understand how sad it is.

E: Yeah.

S: Extinction means it's gone forever!

E: I know! Extinction is such a commonplace thing right now.

S: Right? Like every species that's alive now has, like— okay, the earth is, what, 4.6 billion years old as far as we know? Or something, based on like, rock dating and stuff. So every species that's alive now has survived since — we think life started at 3.8 million years ago? — has survived since the beginning of that. And to go extinct now—

I: Well, they've evolved to what they are today from there.

S: Yeah, but life started then, so like, everything that's alive now, you know, has — like Ilana said — like, evolved since then into different things, but ultimately all of these species have, like, had a continuous, like, ancestor-descendant chain until now. And then to die because we can't stop burning carbon—

I: I will say, quickly: for those who are not aware there are natural extinctions, just not nearly at the rate that we're seeing. Extinction occurs, but not like this.

S: There have been five mass extinctions before: one was caused by like, the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs, one was caused by like, things becoming able to photosynthesize and—

I: —changing the earth's atmosphere entirely.

S: —changing the earth's atmosphere by pumping it full of oxygen. Like, to give listeners an idea of how many things die during mass extinctions, I think the biggest mass extinction, 95% of ocean species died in that extinction event. Ninety-five percent.

E: I can't imagine that. If we lost 95% of terrestrial species, like, there goes your plants, right? Your grasses, your crops. There goes all of the animals we love: everything you see at the zoo, the squirrels, the birds.

S: Right? Think of the diversity if five percent of the diversity you saw now still existed. That is devastating, and we are seeing those extinction rates now. We are going through an event like that right now.

I: And those, like— what survive? Like, it's tiny, so don't even think of your plants. Think of your microbes.

S: Mass extinction event? Devastating. Climate change? Devastating.

E: This is really hard to listen to, but like, there are things that we can do about it, and like, I don't want to add to anybody's like, environmental depression, because we've all been there.

S: Absolutely, there are things we can do. We can advocate for policy changes.

E: Policy changes are a huge one. Use your consumer power.

S: Work on improving your own ecologies locally.

I: Educate yourself and others.

S: Spreading reliable information, that's important.

E: Don't give up, guys. We have hope.

S: So there's hope—

E: Yeah.

S: —but we need to acknowledge how bad the situation is first, to fix it.

I: There's amazing stuff in this world that we want to keep around, like all-female lizards.

S: Right? Like all-female lizards.

E: Everything that we talk about here. This whole podcast is because we love nature. We don't want to lose it.

S: Because we love all these species, yes. It's an honor to share the earth with them.

E: Yeah, and a little bit of their story with people who don't know about them.

I: Keep the natural world safe, and keep it queer.

S: Yes!

I: Bye!

S: Queerly Natural was created by Ilana Zeitzer, Elizabeth Fuhrman, and Hannah Roden with music by Migfus20. Thank you, Migfus, for putting your music in the Creative Commons. You are very talented. Visual design for the show is done by Ilana Zeitzer. To get updates about the podcast, follow us @queerlynatural on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. We also upload all of our sources and episode transcripts to our website Above all else, if you liked what you heard today, tell your friends! Thank you so much for listening and keep an eye out for our next episode coming November 26th. Until next time, stay queer, and remember: queerly, it's natural.

  1. Crews, D. (1987). Courtship in Unisexual Lizards: A Model for Brain Evolution. Scientific American, 257(6), 116–121.

  2. Crews, D. (1988). The problem with gender. Psychobiology, 16(4), 321–334.

  3. Crews, D., Grassman, M., & Lindzey, J. (1986). Behavioral facilitation of reproduction in sexual and unisexual whiptail lizards. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 83(24), 9547–9550.

  4. Crews, D., & Young, L. J. (1991). Pseudocopulation in nature in a unisexual whiptail lizard. Animal Behaviour, 42(3), 512–514.

  5. Engelstädter, J. (2017). Asexual but Not Clonal: Evolutionary Processes in Automictic Populations. Genetics, 206(2), 993–1009.

  6. Leuck, B. E. (1985). Comparative Social Behavior of Bisexual and Unisexual Whiptail Lizards (Cnemidophorus). Journal of Herpetology, 19(4), 492–506.

  7. Lowe, C. H., & Wright, J. W. (1966). Evolution of Parthenogenetic Species of Cnemidophorus (Whiptail Lizards) in Western North America. Journal of the Arizona Academy of Science, 4(2), 81–87.

  8. Money, J. (1982). Lesbian lizards. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 7(4), 257–258.

  9. Schall, J. J. (1978). Reproductive Strategies in Sympatric Whiptail Lizards (Cnemidophorus): Two Parthenogenetic and Three Bisexual Species. Copeia, 1978(1), 108–116.

  10. Solomon, M. (2003). The Whiptail Lizard Reconsidered. Perspectives on Science, 11(3), 318–325.

  11. Walker, J. M., Cordes, J. E., Scudday, J. F., Kilambi, R. V., & Cohn, C. C. (1991). Activity, Temperature, Age, Size and Reproduction in the Parthenogenetic Whiptail Lizard Cnemidophorus dixoni in the Chinati Mountains in Trans-Pecos Texas. The American Midland Naturalist, 126(2), 256–268.

  12. Woolley, S. C., Sakata, J. T., & Crews, D. (2004). Tracing the Evolution of Brain and Behavior Using Two Related Species of Whiptail Lizards: Cnemidophorus uniparens and Cnemidophorus inornatus. ILAR Journal, 45(1), 46–53.

Side view of a whiptail lizard head with the stripes in clear view. Lizard blends well into the background.
Image from Inaturalist.

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