Even longtime Floridians might be surprised to learn the common brown lizard is actually an immigrant. But it’s true: The lizards, formally known as Cuban brown anoles, came to the United States from Cuba on a cargo ship in 1887.
“They have a talent for stowing away,” says Miami biologist and filmmaker Neil Losin, “and ending up in places they shouldn’t be,”
For the past decade, Losin has studied lizards in Florida, Puerto Rico, the Bahamas, Costa Rica, and beyond. On Wednesday, December 26 at 8 p.m., the Smithsonian Channel will air his latest documentary, Laws of the Lizard, which highlights the rugged adaptability of the reptiles.
“If you just spend the time and really dig into the biology of these animals, there’s so much to be learned,” Losin says. “It might make you look at anoles a little differently.”
The film follows Losin and his co-producer, biologist Nate Dappen, as they search for different anole species on remote islands and in dense Caribbean and Latin American forests. The storyline focuses on the anoles’ adaptability. In Costa Rica, for example, Losin and Dappen became the first filmmakers to get footage of an Anolis oxylophus lizard as it breathed underwater.
“We watched one very small female, about 3 inches long, stay underwater for a full 10 minutes,” Losin says. “I think that’s probably not the limit. It’s a pretty remarkable adaptation for a little lizard.”
Biologists like Losin and Dappen have been fascinated with anoles because of their natural ability to quickly adapt to different environments. Losin points to a 1995 study in which researchers released the brown anole lizards on three remote Florida islands with native green anoles. In just 15 years — a blink in evolutionary time — the green anoles evolved to have larger and stickier toe pads, allowing them to climb higher to escape their competitors.
“When scientists have had big questions about the world around us, time and time again over the last century, they’ve turned to anoles to answer those questions,” Harvard biologist Jonathan Losos, known as the “godfather” of anole research, says in the new film.
Laws of the Lizard has already won several awards since it began screening at festivals earlier this year. Losin says his goal as a filmmaker is to encourage viewers to get curious about everyday plants and animals they may take for granted.
“I would love for people to look at creatures like anoles or other uncharismatic backyard wildlife and look at them with fresh eyes,” he tells New Times. “I think it’s sort of a privilege to live alongside such cool little creatures, especially when you realize they have such profound insight on how life on this planet works.”