On the Spanish islands of Ibiza and Formenterra live a small, unassuming lizard. Yet this lizard is embedded into local culture and folklore so much as to appear on homes, books, art, clothing, and businesses throughout these Mediterranean islands. Despite their ubiquitous nature, little is known about the “Ibiza wall lizard”, which may have one of the largest ranges of coloration of any known lizard species and, even more rarer, are the islands primary seed dispersers.
My colleague Neil Losin, a PhD candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at UCLA, and his partner Dr. Nate Dappen, a photographer and filmaker as well as an evolutionary ecologist himself (both are partners in the brilliant science media production company Day’s Edge Productions), have partnered with Spanish biologist Valentin Perez-Mellado of the University of Salamanca to produce an homage to these lizards combining the folklore and natural history with their spectacular photography. The Symbol: Wall Lizards of the Pityusic Archipelago is a kickstarter effort to bring such a work to light, aiming to educate and inspire the people who share the islands with these evolutionary wonders.
While the Kickstarter project for The Symbol was funded a few days ago. With less than a week left, Neil and Nate are seeking an additional push of funding to make The Symbol into an interactive iPad app complete with their unique, gorgeous short films and to reach a much broader audience. They were kind enough to answer a few questions of mine in an interview:
Kevin Zelnio: If you had just walked into an elevator with the head of a foundation that funds evolution and ecology projects, what is your 30 second pitch for The Symbol?
Nate Dappen: Ibiza is the party capital of the world, and along with its spectacular sister island Formentera, welcomes over 2 million tourists a year. The official symbol of the islands is the Ibiza Wall Lizard – an endemic species with [the] highest color diversity of any reptile, and one of the only plant-pollinating, seed-dispersing reptiles in the world. Lizards appear in paintings, sculptures, and magazines all over the islands. It’s almost impossible to visit the islands and not buy something with a lizard painted or printed on it! But despite their iconic status, there’s no where to learn more about these incredible lizards. Our book, The Symbol, will be a beautiful, multilingual coffee table book about this species, and it’ll bring the biology, folklore and conservation of this species to everyone.
Neil Losin: I think that took longer than 30 seconds. Just pretend I pressed the “emergency stop” button so Nate could finish our elevator pitch!
KZ: What does crowd funding this project mean to you? Does it have significance in a special away apart from traditional ways of funding science or conservation projects?
Neil: We considered our options carefully before deciding to crowd fund this project. We had never tried crowd funding for a project before – we were waiting for just the right project. In the early stages of developing our ideas for The Symbol, we decided that this was an idea that we could get people excited about! And that’s the key – unlike more traditional approaches to funding, where you only have to convince a handful of “peers” that your project has merit, crowd funding means that you’ve got to get a lot of people on your side. Sure, your best friends and family are probably going to chip in no matter how cockamamie your idea is. But for an ambitious project, you’re going to need more support than your unconditional fans can give you!
Nate: In other words, non-specialists need to understand why what you’re doing is important if you want to get your project funded. You don’t have the luxury of a 15-page grant proposal to explain why your project is necessary – you have a 3- or 4-minute video pitch! I think the key is distilling the message into something your potential backers don’t just understand – they also believe it themselves.
KZ: What has been the response from any people in Spain about your project? (good or bad)
Nate: So far, not many people in Spain know about our book. Based on their past responses to my research, though, I think they’ll love it. When I was conducting my Ph.D. research on the islands, people were fascinated by what they heard. Everyone who lives in Ibiza and Formentera – and everyone who visits the islands – runs across these lizards. They’re hard to miss; they are beautiful and surprisingly curious. It’s common to fall asleep on the beach and wake up to lizards ambushing your bags in search of food! But despite how ubiquitous the lizards are, people don’t know much about them and don’t have an easy way to learn more. Over the last few years, I’ve given a televised talk about my research, I’ve been profiled in a few local papers, and I was interviewed on the radio twice. I think this enthusiasm will grow when people realize that they will have access to all of this cool information in the form of a beautifully photographed book.
KZ: You are trying to raise extra funds to do more awesome things and really give back to the Spanish community on Ibiza and Formentera. Have you visited schools there? What does The Symbol mean to the people who live there and how do you plan to craft the book to an effective conservation tool to the local community?
Neil: Well, we’re thrilled that our campaign has gotten such an enthusiastic response so far, and this success has inspired us to try taking the project beyond the book. In the final week of our campaign, we’re trying to reach a new funding goal so we can expand the project in some cool ways. For one, we want to get the book translated into Catalan, the language of the islands, and provide copies of the book to all the primary schools on the islands. I would love to see our book inspiring kids to care about their local natural heritage!
Nate and I are coming into this island community as outsiders (me even more so than Nate, since he’s worked on the islands for three summers), so it’s important that we don’t come across like “Hey, you should care about these lizards in your midst because we’re telling you they’re important.” That’s not our intent, and it won’t work. Instead, we want to make these lizards so darn cool that you can’t help but care about them. I mean, the diversity of color from island to island is spectacular. They pollinate plants and disperse their seeds – also unique for a reptile. Locals are already proud of their lizards; Nate tells me they even have a special name for them – Sargantanas. They know that the lizards are special, but don’t have all the details. Nate and Valentín’s research paints a clear picture: these lizards are AWESOME. And these islands are the only place in the world where they live. If we can communicate that, I think we’ve done well!
This is a very cool project with generous rewards for the backers. I, for one, already placed my donation and am looking forward to seeing the book with my own eyes. For more information about The Symbol, go to their Kickstarter page and help them in their final push to make the project a smashing success!