And now the sports news. The word from the Olympic long jump trials in Berkeley, Calif., is that records are falling daily, perhaps because of the slimy tactics employed by the athletes. This is also true of the sprint trials being held in Irvine, Calif., and Seattle. And at the diving trials in Salt Lake City, previously unknown competitors have jumped to the top of the leader board.
You thought the Olympics were over? Well, it's true that most athletes will have to wait three more years for the Summer Games in Barcelona, but around the world the Lizard, Frog and Other Scaly, Slimy Critters' Olympics have already begun. And while none of the top finishers will receive medals (a few flies or crickets is all they can hope for), their participation in events created for them by scientists may bring a far greater reward: By understanding these reptiles better, researchers may one day be able to save some species from extinction.
The Juan Antonio Samaranch of the reptile Olympics is Raymond Huey, a soft-spoken zoology professor at the University of Washington. Huey first became intrigued by the notion of animals as athletes during his days as a graduate student at Harvard in the mid-1970s. Scientists were looking into whether frogs with unusually large leg muscles could jump farther than frogs with slimmer gams. Huey wasn't as concerned with why one animal might perform better than another as he was interested in the ecological consequences of an animal's athletic ability: Would the frog with larger leg muscles have a better chance of survival in the wild?
"We're interested in how animals evolve, what natural pressures have led to their physical differences, because understanding these differences might help us protect both the animals and their environment," Huey says. "For example, the widely foraging lizards of the Kalahari Desert in southern Africa spend much of their time tracking widely scattered termites. They have more stamina—are better marathoners—than their close relatives the ambush lizards, great sprinters who rely on bursts of speed to capture passing flies."
Huey began conducting a series of experiments testing the effect of body temperature on the ability of frogs to long-jump. He measured his frogs' leaps on the floor of a laboratory at a variety of body temperatures and found that, over a fairly broad range, the frog's temperature didn't make a difference in the length of the leap. But not all reptiles are oblivious to body temperature. "In warm weather some Israeli lizards will notice you and run away at high speed, but if it's cold, they don't run." he says. "Instead they become aggressive, standing upright, peeling back their jaws—and viciously biting your hand if they get the chance."
Through the years, Huey and a number of other biologists and zoologists have traveled the world, recruiting new athletes and developing increasingly sophisticated training facilities. They have designed lizard and snake racetracks and treadmills as well as computerized timing devices whose accuracy rivals that of the ones used in Seoul.
Huey has been surprised and impressed by the diversity of reptilian athleticism. "It's been most astounding for us to see how much variation there is," he says. "Some lizards run for hours on a treadmill, others are exhausted after a minute or two." Among other findings is that "on a level racecourse, big lizards always win. But if the race takes place up a steep incline, then the speed of the big lizard is greatly reduced. Big still wins, but not by as much." Some reptiles don't have to train; they seem to maintain a static level of fitness whether they are active or have been passive for long stretches. Such discoveries are the result of painstaking work, not least because lizards, snakes and frogs don't exactly volunteer their services to training centers. Instead scientists must track them down—which is often a sport in itself.
Jonathan Losos, a graduate student in zoology at Berkeley, is studying the running, jumping and clinging abilities of the lizards most commonly found in the West Indies. When Losos leaves on a research trip to the tropics, he packs a seven-foot lizard racetrack, a collapsible fishing rod and plenty of dental floss. Upon arrival in a place like Kingston, Jamaica, Losos's first order of business is to round up some scaly competitors. "Trying to catch lizards has helped me to admire them as athletes," he says. "They are very fast and can jump a long way, and they are also quite agile."
Losos has developed his own system for capturing his prey. Unfolding his fishing rod, he attaches a dental floss noose to the end, sneaks up on the lizards and lassos them. For particularly elusive lizards, however, stealthier measures are needed. "For the tough little guys I've developed a technique where I'll touch them with the end of the fishing rod—nudge them ever so slightly off their branch. This makes them leap into the air, and then I catch them in my bare hand," he says. "Those natives who think the lizards are poisonous see me doing this and are extremely impressed."
Once Losos has enough lizards, he sets up his track and puts them through their paces. The track incorporates light beams placed at intervals of nearly 10 inches. As the lizards dash down the runway, they break the light beams, which feeds the times into a small computer. Says Losos, "It does take some time to get the patterns, but after a while you can tell when they're really going all out," says Losos.