Faculty Highlight: Manuel Leal

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Professor Manuel Leal is a member of Duke’s Department of Biology. His research attempts to “bridge the gap between theoretical concepts in behavioral and physiological ecology and basic principles of evolutionary biology, with the ultimate goal of elucidating how behavior can impact evolutionary processes.”

About Prof. Leal

Manuel was born and raised in Puerto Rico, where he received a bachelor's and a master's degree at the Universidad de Puerto Rico, Recinto de Río Piedras. As a kid, Prof. Leal was fascinated by any animal that moved, so he frequently collected a diversity of critters when he visited the forest or the coast. He kept them in his house—without his mother’s blessings—to observe their behavior. He vividly remembers having buckets and tanks stashed throughout his home, and desperately trying to convince his mother that all the “ugly-looking” critters would not escape into the house. Those childhood experiences had a major impact on his desire to become a naturalist. However, he had no idea that you could actually make a living "chasing lizards.” Prof. Leal describes that his “naive view of academia was that college professors were ‘smart’ and spent the bulk of their time writing books, which he enjoyed reading.” However, instead of writing books, he wanted to be in the field learning about why animals behave the way they do and trying to understand the complexity of the natural world. This perception changed during his junior year of college when he met Richard Thomas who later became his master’s advisor. To this day, Prof. Leal finds himself grateful for the opportunity Richard Thomas gave him to show him that academia was a feasible career path. Prof. Leal ultimately earned a Ph.D. from Washington University - St. Louis, and joined the faculty of Duke’s Department of Biology in 2006.

Researching the behavior of lizards

Manuel describes himself as a natural historian by trade and a behavioral/evolutionary ecologist by training. His research attempts to bridge the gap between theoretical concepts in behavioral and physiological ecology and basic principles of evolutionary biology, with the ultimate goal of elucidating how behavior can impact evolutionary processes. To address these questions, research in his lab takes advantage of the great diversity of Anolis lizards on various islands in the Caribbean. Prof. Leal’s findings and current research can be found on his lab’s blog (http://chipojolab.blogspot.com/), which discusses various aspects, particularly field components, of the lab’s work.

Two of their most recent findings have challenged common views in the fields of cognition and evolutionary ecology. First, research conducted in his lab has recently demonstrated that cognitive abilities of lizards are more flexible than commonly assumed (http://today.duke.edu/2011/07/brainy-lizards). Second, an experiment conducted under natural conditions has shown that evolution can occur relatively rapidly on an ecological time-scale (http://today.duke.edu/2012/02/not-so-lanky-lizards#video).

Prof. Leal is a strong believer that an important part of academia is being accessible to undergraduates and the general public. He describes himself as “very lucky” to have had some of his research presented in interviews for Spanish and English news outlets across the US, the Caribbean, and Hispanic countries. Manuel considers that one of the most rewarding activities of his academic career is having the opportunity to share his passion for understanding the complexity of the natural world with grade school and high school students, particularly while he visits some of the islands where he conduct his field work, such as the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica, and Puerto Rico.

Taking a course with Prof. Leal

Prof. Leal’s teaching reflects his diverse academic training and, whenever possible, it illustrates how an intimate knowledge of organisms is central to understanding the complexity of the natural world and the emergent properties of biological systems. Next semester he will be teaching Herpetology, which is an introduction to the biology of extant amphibians and non-avian reptiles. The course includes a lecture and both laboratory and field components. Something that amazes Prof. Leal is the high percentage of students who tell him that Herpetology provided their first experience with field-based research. Additionally, for many students, the Herpetology course is the first time they have studied organisms in their natural environment, thereby learning the value of natural history.   

Prof. Leal's most recent research work has been published in The Chronicle: http://today.duke.edu/2012/11/miamilizards

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