TheThings just had the pleasure of speaking with Nate Dappen and Neil Losin, a pair of wildlife filmmakers and biologist best friends who recently embarked on an exciting year-long journey capturing the answers to some of the most mysterious questions about life, evolution and our precious ecosystems posed by scientists. Neil and Nate's adventures to exotic locations meeting tiny reptiles resulted in the Smithsonian Channel's Grand Helix award-winning film called Laws of the Lizard.
Laws of the Lizard is set to air on today (December 26th) at 8 p.m. ET/PT. Don't miss it! In the meantime, please enjoy our exclusive interview with Neil and Nate.
TheThings (TH): Nate and Neil, you are both biologists and wildlife filmmakers. Working so closely together and having much in common, we imagine you are friends too. How did you meet each other?
Neil Losin (NL): Actually it’s funny because Nate and I grew up not more than a few miles away from each other in Northern Virginia but we never knew each other until much later in graduate school when we were going to different universities, we attended the same field biology course in Costa Rica. We met on that course and neither of us really made films at that stage but we were already both really serious biology photographers and we had a similar interest in the sciences so we just naturally started working on all kinds of projects together.
TH: Can you tell our readers why the lizard, anoles, in particular, are such an important species to learn about?
Nathan "Nate" Dappen (ND): You know, there’s a lot of biodiversity out there and it’s hard to understand how all of it came to be and exist in the way that it does and in order to study that, you kind of need an organism that has a set of specific characteristics that will allow you to study a lot of different questions and anoles provide that opportunity. There are 400 or so different species that all live in lots of different kinds of environments. There’s a lot of diversity in color, sizes, and behaviors. They give researchers a really great opportunity to ask lots of different questions. So that’s one part of it. Also, these lizards are scattered across islands in the Caribbean, all over the tropics but in the Caribbean, there are lots of places where you’ve got many small islands that almost act like little Petri dishes. Unlike other kinds of species that might be studied in a complicated ecosystem like a forest, in these cases, the lizards live in simplified ecosystems that allow researchers to study them as close as you could be in a laboratory-type study in the wild. [Anoles] have allowed scientists to ask good questions about nature and in doing so, the researchers have found out a lot about a variety of different topics from ecology to evolution to genetics to conservation and many other
NL: I would add one thing to that which is that if you study a really big animal like an elephant of a great ape, there are lots of really interesting questions to be asked but the pitfalls of studying an organism like that is that their generation time is so long that you really can’t watch them evolve and change over time. At the same time, some of these really tiny organisms that reproduce rapidly in the laboratory like roundworms, that people study and made fascinating discoveries about genetics, they’re almost so small that the problems that face those organisms in their environment are completely foreign to humans. It’s hard to relate to them. Anoles are kind of right in the middle.
TH: What is the typical lifespan for anoles?
ND: That’s actually a surprisingly tricky question to answer in nature because it requires following individuals over long periods of time but the few that have been studied suggest that most anoles probably live from 2 to 5 years. An anole is small enough that you can create a habitat for anoles and they can be quite comfortable in it so you can bring them into the laboratory and you can do all kinds of things over multiple generations but they’re also big enough so that the kinds of challenges that they face in the environment are a lot like the challenges that we face and that animals much larger than anoles face. They have to avoid predators, they have to find food, they have to find mates. You can kind of see those challenges playing out in a timescale that’s more familiar for us to understand. As one of the biologists in the film says, they’re sort of right in the Goldilocks zone. Not too hot, not too cold, not too big, they’re not too small. They’re sort of right in the perfect place to answer a lot of different questions.
TH: Your film, Laws of the Lizard, was featured in this year’s Environmental Film Festival in the nation’s capital. Can you tell us what that experience was like?
ND: That was a really cool screening because that festival features screenings all over Washington D.C. and in that particular event, our film screened at National Zoo so it was a neat experience to be able to showcase these lizards and all the cool science that’s been done with them at an institution that has done so much for science and for consternation. We had a great audience come out with some really great questions. It was just a fantastic experience.
TH: Do you have any other films or upcoming projects that you can tell us about?
ND: We always have lots of films sort of in production at any one time. Right now, we’re working on a project about the science behind the wildebeest migration at Serengeti National park in Tansia. That will be a classroom film that will go into high school AP biology classes and college biology classes. It’s a little bit different that Laws of the Lizard and it will be available later this year. It basically tracks the science behind discovering the wildebeest migration and how that migrations impact the rest of the Serengeti.
NL: And by this year, Nate means 2019.
ND: Yeah, I’m thinking ahead. We’ll finish production by the spring and we’ll have it ready by the summer.
TH: Can you tell us who the target audience is for Laws of the Lizard?
NL: It took a little convincing to convince any broadcaster that there was a target audience for an hour-long film all about this one group of lizards but I think that we managed to convince them that anyone who’s interested in science and biodiversity and particularly, anyone who lives alongside these lizards which is a huge part of North America, the entire Southeast, you can find anoles in many cases, in your backyard. Anybody who lives alongside these lizards or has any curiosity about nature will find something to love about anoles. They’re surprisingly cute and charismatic and it turns out that they hold answers to some of the deepest questions that scientists ask about evolution and life on earth.
TH: I find the trailer pretty fascinating so I’m sure it will do very well.
ND: Thanks. The only thing I’ll add to that is that from the few screenings that we’ve been able to do and from anecdotal reports from friends who have seen pre-screening versions of it, we’ve gotten very strong responses from young boys. These little kids that like to run around and catch lizards, they also like to see adults too who run around and catch lizards.
TH: Right! As children, did you have a particular interest in lizards, too?
ND: I would say that I was always interested in anything that was running around but I think the thing that attracted me about lizards was that I could catch them. Birds are great because you can see them and larger animals are really amazing to watch but dangerous to catch but lizards and snakes and insects that you can kind of always get your hands on and get a closer look. The actual act of catching things doesn’t really get old, it’s still fun.
NL: For me, it was pretty similar. Up until I was about 8 to 10, lizards and things like that were sort of at the top of my list. Then I got my first pair of binoculars, I discovered birds and then I was a bird guy. But clearly, I always held a special place in my heart for lizards since I spent 6 years of my professional career getting a Ph.D. studying lizards.
TH: So did you always know that you wanted to be biologists and study animals?
ND: For me, no, I didn’t have that dream as a kid. I didn’t know what I wanted to do for most of my life. I was always mostly interested in having fun so whatever seemed interesting, I was doing it to the fullest degree. So when I did get into science, it was fun and that sort of took over for a while. The same was true for wildlife filmmaking. So for me, no, I thought I wanted to go to medical school when I was an undergrad. I did premed and then changed my mind afterward. So for me, it wasn’t really a straight path.
NL: I always wanted to do something involving animals and as soon as I really understood what science was, I wanted to do something involving animals and science and the only thing that changed year by year was what group of organisms I was most excited about. I went through a stage where I wanted to study dinosaurs. Then I went through a long stage where I wanted to study birds. But then I was confronted with the reality of how tough it was to study birds and when I became a graduate student, I switched to studying lizards. For me, I definitely knew that I would do something involving science and animals from a very early age.
ND: I convinced Neil to study lizards.
TH: Oh, is that right?
NL: That’s a true story.
TH: In the film, what areas did you travel to study anoles?
ND: Neil and I weren’t doing any studying in the film. We’re basically the tour guides taking audiences on a tour of all the cool research that other scientists are doing in the tropics. We visited researchers doing cutting-edge research in the Bahamas, in the Dominican Republic, in Puerto Rico and in Costa Rica and in Miami. And of course, we visited them in the laboratories in Harvard and other places as well.
TH: I’m sure you have several interesting stories from your travels in making the film. Can you each share your most favorite memory or funniest story?
NL: I’ll be curious to hear what Nate says. I suspect it may be the same thing but for me, we had this rare opportunity in the Dominican Republic to travel with scientists who had recently described for the very first time an anole that was completely new to science and it was an amazing lizard, very large for an anole, very interesting colorations, very different from anything else in the Dominican Republic and it remained completely unknown to science for presumably millions of years until he and his colleagues had described it just in 2016. So we went there with high hopes of finding one and we spent a few very long nights in the dark in a remote part of the Dominican Republic and ultimately, we did end up finding one and becoming the first film crew to ever capture one on film so that to me was really rewarding and then to be able to actually capture the lizard on film also capture it on our hands and hold in our hands something that so few people had ever seen, so few people had ever known it existed was a really special experience for me.
ND: So for me, that was a really amazing experience for me although I will say it was one of those experiences that was amazing sort of in retrospect. It was very tiring, looking for that little lizard in the dark. One of the very first science projects that I ever did was in an undergrad course in Costa Rica where I was studying these acquatic anoles. They’re actually not aquatic but they live on the river edges. Their escape behavior is to jump off of these branches into the river into these rushing streams. So Neil and I went to film this behavior and nobody really knows what they do underwater. So we brought our underwater equipment and we filmed some lizards who had already jumped in the water which is really cool, this behavior is really fun to watch. It was exciting to film it. When we took our cameras back home to watch the footage, we noticed that the lizards are actually rebreathing their air. You can see this air bubble wrap around the lizard’s body. It wraps around their head and part of their side. Underwater, you can see that air bubble contracting and expanding so kind of like a scuba diver with a rebreather, they’re actually rebreathing air which allows them to stay underwater for a really long time like 10 to 15 minutes. Nobody had ever seen this before. Nobody had ever filmed it. No one even knew that this behavior existed. It just goes to show that there is a ton that we don’t know. It was very cool to get to see it and be some of the first people to document it.
TH: That is amazing. And we’ll get to see this in the film?
ND: Yeah, that’s sort of the first opening act of the film.
TH: In the trailer for Laws of the Lizard, you talk about how anoles are able to face the challenges they come across with clever problem-solving skills. Can you give our readers some examples?
NL: So I think for me at least, I imagine that the cleverness is more of a metaphor for the cleverness of evolution. From a cognitive perspective, these anoles are not particularly complex. There are actually some cool experiments, showing that lizards including anoles, can be kind of surprisingly more intelligent than you might imagine them to be but to me, that line in the trailer really refers to the ingenuity to the process of evolution, finding these creative, unique solutions to all kinds of challenges that these animals face in their environment. A great example would be the underwater anole that Nate just mentioned that can actually bring air down with it and re-breathe it multiple times to prolong its ability to stay underwater. That’s just fascinating and completely unexpected to us. What you see with anoles is that there are 400 species and they have conquered all kinds of environments that are wildly different from one another and in each case, they’ve come up with these ingenious solutions to all the problems they’re facing.
TH: That is truly incredible. We can't wait to watch the film. Well, we have reached the end of our interview. Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
ND: Just that we hope lots of people will watch the program and enjoy it.
TH: Nate and Neil, thank you both so much for your time! From all of us at TheThings, we wish your film much success!
Both: Thank you so much.
Again, don't miss your chance to catch these remarkable creatures alongside Neil and Nate with Laws of the Lizard. The film will premiere on Wednesday December 26th at 8 p.m. ET/PT on the Smithsonian Channel. Don't forget to grab your nearest lizard-loving pal and tune in TONIGHT!