Storage power sheds light on the mysterious world of lizards

Storage power sheds light on the mysterious world of lizards
December 18, 2014 Sarah Nisbet

Professor Mike Bull with a Sleepy lizard

Professor Michael Bull

For 30 years, Professor Michael Bull has been working to unlock the secrets of the sleepy lizard in order to understand more about disease transmission and prevention.

It’s a task that has been made all the more difficult by the lizards’ extreme lack of activity.

“If you sit and watch sleepy lizards for any length of time, nothing much happens and that means it takes an extremely long time to extract very little data using conventional observation techniques,” Professor Bull said.

“We became extremely frustrated by this so we set-up some automatic recorders on the back of 60 lizards, which record the number of steps they take every two minutes as well as recording GPS locations.

“That provided us with two-year’s worth of data on how much the lizards moved each two minutes of each day for their entire activity period, about 100 days, as well how the lizards interacted with each other.”

With such enormous amounts of data, Professor Bull sought out eResearch to provide a storage solution for the information.

“We had generated a huge amount of data that was sitting in large excel files and we were looking for facilities to store these data because we thought they may be a valuable resource for other researchers,” he said.

“Subsequently, we have been in contact with other researchers at the University of Melbourne who are interested in how local variations in climate impact on activity patterns. We’ve been able to give them access to the database and are now collaborating with them on a large research paper.

“We’ve also had researchers from the University of California, Davis accessing the data. They are interested in movement patterns and how animals move around in the environment and the paths they take.

“What we’ve been able to do is provide a rich data source beyond anything they had seen before, so they’re also exploring the data and developing generalisations on lizard behavior patterns.”

Professor Bull, a behavioural ecologist, said the main objective of his research is to understand the social interaction and movement patterns of sleepy lizards in order to provide valuable insights into parasite and disease transmission.

“The focus of the research was on social networks, social interactions, movement patterns and specifically, the transmission of parasites around the population,” he said.

“The more individuals the lizards are in contact with, the more likely they are to pass on parasites or diseases.

“This is really relevant because wildlife diseases are an underestimated threat to wildlife. Our aim was to really work out how this is working in a balanced system of the lizards and their natural parasite fauna.”

Professor Bull said the support from eResearch SA had been invaluable in the storage and sharing of data with other researchers.

“Being able to hand over these huge data sets and knowing that they’re in the very capable hands of eResearch SA’s staff is extremely comforting,” he said.

“It has been a very straightforward process and for a researcher who is more focused on extracting findings from the data, that’s exactly what you want.

“It has also been invaluable in providing me with the opportunity to send the database to other groups of people who can extract novel insights that we don’t have the analytical power or understanding to get.”

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