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Internal News - 15 October 2007

Mute iguanas grab limelight for PhD student

James St Clair, a second year PhD student in the Department of Biology & Biochemistry, has had a research paper he co-authored highlighted in some of the world’s most respected science journals.

Science, Nature and New Scientist have all reported the findings of a project he was involved with whilst volunteering on the remote islands of the Galapagos three years ago.

Working with Maren Vitousek, a postgraduate student at Princeton University, James noticed that the iguanas he was observing all reacted to the presence of predatory hawks before they could possibly see them.

James and Maren discussed an experiment to test their idea that the iguanas were eavesdropping on mockingbirds that were alarmed by the presence of the predators, which Maren carried out a couple of years later.

“We wrote the paper for Biology Letters in the last few months, while I was also planning my fieldwork in the Falklands,” said James.

“It has relevance to my PhD in that I am working on ecological naiveté and anti-predator adaptation in island species.

“What is particularly interesting to me is the adaptive aspect of this.

“Marine iguanas, which will allow humans to pick them up and are incredibly vulnerable to predation by introduced predators such as dogs, have this marvellously well-attuned behavioural adaptation to their native predators.”

James is currently in the Falkland Islands working on a field project on the effects of introduced mammalian predators, such as rats and cats, on the behaviour of plovers on different islands.

“On some islands you can physically touch birds as they sit on their eggs, but on others they are noticeably more wary,” said Professor Tamas Szekely, James' supervisor.

“He is trying to explain the variation in this behaviour using the 'natural experiment' of mammal introductions.”