By Joanne Fox, Sioux City Journal staff writer
Sioux City native Jason Kolbe recently returned from Cuba where he did research on the behavioral and evolutionary ecology of lizards.
Cuba, the Pearl of the Antilles, has had a travel ban for United States citizens for more than four decades.
Except for Sioux City native Jason Kolbe, who spent the summer of 2002, studying the evolution, ecology and population of the lizard in the West Indies island country, located about 90 miles south of Florida.
Kolbe, a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, Mo., spoke about his research and trip to Cuba during a visit to his parents’ home in Sioux City for the holidays. He explained that the university has an arrangement with the State Department which allows individuals access to Cuba for educational purposes. Humanitarian groups, journalists and diplomats are also allowed visits.
“It really wasn’t tricky to make the arrangements because we were working in collaboration with the Institute of Ecology and Systematics in Havana,” he said.
Specifically, Kolbe’s research revolves around the Anolis sagrei, a lizard which is native to Cuba but is becoming more prolific in Florida, as well as Taiwan and Hawaii. How this cold-blooded animal, with dry, scaly skin and clawed toes is migrating around is the focus of Kolbe’s investigation.
“It’s easy to figure out how they arrived in Florida, because it’s so close in proximity,” Kolbe said. “The big picture is trying to determine how they arrived in locations so far away.”
From July 16 to Aug. 13, 2002, Kolbe and fellow graduate student Rich Glor traveled about 760 miles across the island and back collecting lizards at some 50 places with two biologists from the Institute of Ecology and Systematics. For the first two weeks of the trip they were joined by two researchers from the University of California-Berkeley and two other Cuban colleagues.
Lizards thrive in the tropics and warm parts of the temperate zones. Most people confuse the species with salamanders, but lizards are far less spectacular than the moist-skinned, no-scales and no-toes salamanders. The particular lizard of study for Kolbe is brown, with underbellies which may be colored, about 5 inches long, 6 inches if you include the tail, and about 2 inches wide.
Kolbe speculated that the lizard’s mobility has a lot to do with the importation of tropical plants to the U.S.
“They like to live in the plants which can be found in nurseries,” he said. “Those plants may be shipped to this country, but then transported to other countries.”
The lizards’ arrival in their new homes doesn’t appear to be a problem at the moment, but Kolbe did characterize the species as “invasive.”
“It’s interesting because the brown lizard is forcing out the green lizard, which is native to Florida,” the 1991 Sioux City North High School graduate said. “They seem to be pushing it out of its native habitat.”
Despite the invasive nature of the small creature, at this point it doesn’t appear to be threatening to crops, other species or humans.
“It’s not creating problems for the orange crop or anything like that,” Kolbe said of the brown lizard. “However, because it is considered an ‘invasive’ species, it is being very closely studied.”
How Kolbe determines where the lizards are traveling is based on DNA sequencing. He takes samples of skin from the captured lizard or cuts off the tail (which grows back).
“That tells me where the lizard came from in Cuba and their native area,” he said. “That gives me a better understanding of its genetic structure and I can compare that to the lizards found elsewhere.”
Having that knowledge is “like each one has an ID card,” Kolbe added.
“That way if you wanted to stop the importing of that species or if the lizard was causing economic problems or ecological havoc, then knowing where they came from gives you the ability to stop them,” he said.
Kolbe, the son of Bruce and Beverly Kolbe, was awarded a bachelor of science degree in biology and political science from Morningside College in 1995.
“I studied zebra muscles, another invasive species, which had been introduced into the Great Lakes,” he said. “The economic impact of the muscles is far greater than that of the lizard.”
His ecological interest continued and he was awarded a master of science degree in ecology and evolutionary biology from Iowa State in 2000.
“My master’s research looked at patterns of snapping turtle nests in environments at a site along the Mississippi River,” he said. “During my master’s work, I started a side project looking at the nests of the painted turtle. The potential exists there for indirect effects on sex ratio because painted turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination and ecological edges can influence temperature changes.”
Kolbe estimated he was less than two years away from earning his Ph.D. at Washington University. He serves as a teaching assistant there and for the 2002-03 academic year was awarded a three-year Environmental Protection Agency STAR (Science To Achieve Results) Fellowship. He was also awarded a National Science Foundation Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant to support his thesis work.
When not consumed with investigating the lizard, Kolbe was able to appreciate the temperate climate, lush beaches and political climate of Cuba, which has a long history of struggle for independence and social reform. Since 1959, Cuba has been governed by dictator Fidel Castro and has a government allowing only one political party, the Cuban Communist Party.
“You’re always reminded of the revolution,” Kolbe observed. “Castro’s government has done a good job indoctrinating the people about the positive aspects of the revolution.”
The United States influence there, at Guantanamo Bay since 1903, was evidenced by its military presence.
“We drove past that area and there is a huge buffer zone with many soldiers,” Kolbe said. “It was the only place where I witnessed soldiers or armed military.”
Although Spanish is the official language of the country, many people speak English—a boon to Kolbe who speaks minimal Spanish.
“The people were more than happy to talk to us while we were out doing our field studies,” he said. “I didn’t see a lot of poverty among the people, but I didn’t notice a high standard of living either.”
Gone was the Americanization found in most countries of the world. There were no McDonalds, no Wal-Marts and no Super 8 Motels.
“There seemed to be lots of tourists and resort areas, but they weren’t ‘American’ in any sense of the word,” Kolbe said. “The restaurants were like family restaurants and the places we stayed more like hotels than motels.”
He speculated, “I’m sure if that travel ban is ever lifted, the country would see a big change in embracing more of the American culture.”