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Researching coffee-defending lizards in Mexico

August 12, 2015
Written by
Ivan Monagan, a master's student in ecology and evolutionary biology

Ivan Monagan

TAPACHULA, Mexico—As an undergraduate, Ivan Monagan started out as a pre-med student. But during his first year in college, he was offered a scholarship to study desert lizard ecology in Arizona.

“I fell in love with it,” said the master’s student in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Michigan. “My adviser was the ideal role model for me at the time.”

He’s spending this summer at the Finca Irlanda coffee plantation in southern Mexico, studying small lizards called anoles, or Anole sericeus. He’s one of six graduate students based at a research station on the farm in the mountains of Chiapas state, near the Guatemalan border.

The students are working with John Vandermeer, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, and Ivette Perfecto, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. They’ve been researching biodiversity in this coffee-growing region of Mexico for nearly 20 years.

Monagan is interested in figuring out what kind of a role the lizards play in controlling the coffee berry borer — the biggest insect threat to the coffee crop.

Native to Africa, the beetles are pretty much found wherever coffee is being grown around the world. The insects — a bit larger than the period at the end of this sentence — bore their way into coffee cherries and destroy the crop.

Monagan is trying to better understand where the lizards live.

“I’m finding that one species is always in the coffee plants,” he said. “Another lives on the base of shade trees.”

He’s also analyzing fecal and gut samples to see what the reptiles are eating and how many beetles they can consume before getting full. At a laboratory in the research station at Finca Irlanda, he replicates pest outbreaks and observes how the lizards respond to them.

An anole lizard caught by Ivan Monagan

Walking with Monagan through the coffee fields is like attending a master class in catching lizards. His tools of the trade are an insect net, a “shorty” — a stick with a tiny noose at the end — and a blue plastic specimen bucket.

In his mind, he maps out a small patch of land and slowly scans the ground and trees as he walks along.

Monagan spots an anole perched on a small coffee tree and freezes. He takes out his insect net and carefully positions it under the lizard. With a quick flick of the wrist and upward motion, he traps the anole in the net.    

The region of Mexico he’s working in is an interesting research setting because it includes two coffee plantations: an organic one and another that uses chemicals. Monagan hunts for lizards in both places. So far, he’s catching more on the organic farm.

“I want to understand how I can apply my knowledge of lizard ecology to agriculture,” he said.

The graduate student has no regrets about not pursuing a career in medicine.

“This is the thing I’m supposed to be doing,” he said. “The bonus is that I’ll have results that contribute to a greater cause.”

More stories are featured on the Mexico trip blog.

 

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