Falconer Graduate Will Study Lizards Down Under

Daren Card

In October, Falconer graduate Daren Card will be traveling to Australia where he will be traversing unfamiliar terrain. There, he will attempt to better understand the genome of limbless lizards and the many variations of the reptile through a National Science Foundation Post-Doctoral Fellowship in Biology.

“I’m very honored to receive this award, as it is pretty competative and most are turned away,” Card said. “It not only validates work I’ve already done and my ability to conceive and develop interesting and important research projects, but it also gives me confidence that I can progress successfully with my career goal of becoming a university professor.”

The primary goal of Card’s research is to determine how specific parts of this particular group of lizards are responsible for controlling limb development. The genus of the lizards Card is studying is called Lerista.

“This group varies from complete limblessness to full, normal limbs, with many combinations of digit/limb state in between, so it provides a nice system for understanding how small tweaks in the genome can lead to certain changes in limb morphology,” he said. “It also provides an opportunity to understand how the process of evolution can lead to these changes.”

He explained that over the past 20 million years, certain lizards in this genus have lost their limbs. Comparatively, Card noted that snakes lost their limbs over the period of 100 million years.

Card graduated from Falconer Central School in 2006 when he enrolled at Jamestown Community College. At that time, Card said he had no idea what his future career would look like. Having now been awarded the $207,000 NSF grant, Card recalled what drove him to biology in the first place. Card told The Post Journal that he always harbored a fascination for the “natural world” having had numerous “biology-based experiences” when he was younger.

Those experiences include attending summer camps at the Audubon Community Nature Center, attending JCC Kids College, visiting the Buffalo Museum of Science and participating in frequent nature walks with his family.

Card earned his associate’s degree in 2008 from JCC and a bachelor’s degree in conservation biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse in 2011.

“When I first entered college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but by the time I finished up at JCC I had found my way back to biology,” Card said. “I became more interested in biological research and pursuing a career as a scientist when I was completing my B.S. at SUNY ESF, and have just gone where the opportunities and my hard work have taken me.”

The doctoral graduate will spend roughly four months in Adelaide, Australia. The remaining months of the three-year fellowship will be spent at Harvard University under the advisement of zoology professor Scott Edwards. Edwards is the university’s Museum of Comparative Zoology curator and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.

In Australia, Card will be primarily collecting resources to be used for the remainder of his project while at Harvard. In the land down under, he will be out in the field catching lizards in order to make measurements, collect tissue samples and gather other necessary resources for later use.

“Back at Harvard I’ll use the materials I collect in Australia to address the questions I’m interested in,” he said.

So why lizards?

“My decision to study lizards came from my desire to better understand limblessness, which is well known in snakes but also occurs many other times across the rest of lizards,” he said.

The genus Lerista has many variations of lizards with limbs and some without, making the group unique as opposed to other genuses that are exclusively limbed or limbless.

“Fortunately, squamate reptiles – lizards and snakes – have many interesting biological characteristics that make them interesting to study, so I have no shortage of fun stuff I could look at,” Card said.