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Senior Stephanie Ruck studies behavioral flexibility in lizards

Dec. 6, 2017

hashtag We Are Mizzou Biology. "What I love most about doing research is that asking a question about the world around us often leads to more questions. There is so much to discover." Stephanie Ruck, Senior, Biological Sciences. MU Division of Biological Sciences University of Missouri

Most decisions come easy for senior Stephanie Ruck.

Like the decision to major in biological sciences, Ruck says, was a no-brainer for her.

“I’ve always loved biology. I love being outdoors, and I love looking at the world from a scientific perspective and asking questions about the world around us,” she says.

The decision to come the University of Missouri was equally straightforward for the St. Louis native.

“I want a career in research, and Mizzou is a Research 1 university, so I knew there would be a lot of opportunities for me to do research here and that would give me an edge in the long run,” she says.

Ruck also didn’t waver when when offered the chance to carry out an experiment to test lizards’ decision-making abilities in the lab of biologist Manuel Leal last summer.

Leal, who is an associate professor in the Division of Biological Sciences, garnered national headlines in 2011 when he showed that tropical lizards can solve novel problems and remember solutions, an ability biologists call ‘behavioral flexibility.’ Leal wanted to test this ability in fence lizards and recruited Ruck and Han Hoekzema, another biological sciences major, to help him.

Fence lizard

Ruck wanted to know if fence lizards (Sceloporus consobrinus) can solve novel problems.

For the experiment, Ruck and Hoekzema captured fence lizards from sites around Columbia and placed them in large outdoor cattle tanks outfitted to provide a natural habitat for the lizards. To test the lizard’s cognitive abilities, they placed a cricket inside a transparent, hollow cylinder that was accessible from only one end at a time. Black and white striped and checkered patterns were used to distinguish the two ends of the cylinder. The apparatus was placed in the tank with a lizard. To solve the problem, a lizard had to identify which end of the cylinder was open and get the cricket.

“This represents a novel problem for a lizard because it has to inhibit the impulse to reach for the cricket that is directly in front of it in favor of a detour response that initially leads it away from the cricket,” explains Leal.

Ruck and Hoekzema tested several lizards over multiple days and on several trials to assess their overall ability to learn and remember the correct solution. They set up GoPro cameras in the enclosures to capture the lizards’ behaviors. As the lizards advanced through these trials, we could tell if they were learning based upon the number of successes they had throughout the experiment,” Ruck explains. “We found that the fence lizard can learn and remember to solve a problem it’s never faced before.”

Ruck and Hoekzema presented findings from their research at the 30th annual meeting of the in September at the Reis Biological Station near Steelville Missouri.

The images shows Ruck and Hoekzema on either side of a projection screen. On the screen is a slide with the words behavioral flexibility written on it.

Ruck and Hoekzema at the 30th annual meeting of the Missouri Herpetological Association (Photo courtesy: Missouri Herpetological Association).

Ruck will graduate with a bachelor of arts degree in biological sciences and French this December. As for what comes next, she admits that, for once, she’s a little less sure.

“Eventually, I will go to graduate school to pursue a Ph.D. in biology or ecology, but first I’d like to get more field work experience, possibly in a francophone country where I can combine my biology and French degrees,” Ruck says.

In looking back on her four years as a biological sciences major Mizzou, Ruck says the best part has been the support she has received from other students and faculty.

“I’ve had a lot of support and help from the faculty and other students, whether it had to do with finding opportunities for me in research or discussing graduate school programs,” she recalls. “Everyone really wants to see you succeed in your career after your time at Mizzou. I’ve really appreciated that.”

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Related research strengths:
Behavior, Ecology
Related categories:
Undergraduate Studies