The Case of the Hot-Blooded Lizard

[Photo of a black and white tegu lizard (Salvator merianae) by Wagon16 via Flickr & Creative Commons]

“Pitch Imperfect” is a series of blog posts where I highlight stories that I pitched but didn’t quite sell and discuss why it was tough to sell them. The goal is to share both interesting research stories and some of the obstacles in getting them into the news cycle.

Proposed Headlines:

–Hot-blooded lizards may hold clues to mammals’ evolution
–(shorter alternative) How mammals evolved their heat

Proposed Dek:

–Cold-blooded Tegu lizards can turn up their own body heat during their breeding season, says Brazilian-Canadian study

The Pitch:

Nine months out of the year, Argentine giant tegu lizards split their time between basking in the sun to recharge their cold-blooded bodies, digging the underground burrows where they sleep at night, and hunting insects. However, when their mating season begins, these cold-blooded creatures warm up. And stay warm, even while sequestered in their sunless burrows.

Researchers only discovered this temperature increase when they used surgical implants to monitor the lizards’ heart and breathing rates, said Brock University biologist Glenn Tattersall. When they dug deeper into previous research on warm-bloodedness, they realized their evidence lined up with an evolutionary hypothesis about how mammals and birds got their heat.

Keeping a body at a stable 98 degrees Farenheit requires a ton of energy, so natural selection wouldn’t have favored the warmth unless it came with a huge advantage. One theory suggests that being warm may have helped mammals’ reptilian ancestors reproduce faster or take better care of their young.

There’s still debate about how and why warm body temperatures evolved, but this study is one of the first to evidence for how warm-bloodedness might have evolved in living animals.

Science Advances, Friday [January] the 22nd, pdf attached

Screenshot 2016-06-03 at 3.11.13 PM
[Note: Most editors loathe email attachments. Do not send a pdf, unless they tell you that they want to see a pdf of the study with the pitch.

However, I find “Pdf-Nicknaming” to be super-useful as both a writing exercise and as news judgement target practice. When I go through  make a point of renaming every study pdf I download by adding a 3-or-4-word “_nicknameforstory” that includes a couple of action-implying key words.

(Try for a verb. Or at least adjectives and nouns that strongly imply actions. To bio nerds, “endothermy” strongly implies blood heating up  and “sexy” signals that it’s a story with err…mating. ) 

If you’re trying this at home, remember that the 3-word thing and the time limit are more like guidelines than actual rules…If you’re coming out of grad school for scientists, you’ve been trained to do the opposite of 3-word-nicknames, and learning to switch writing styles will probably take some practice.] 

already spoke to Glenn Tattersall of Brock University, the lead investigator who led development of the lizard-monitoring implants
Cleo Leite, co-first author and leader of the Brazil team
Colleen Farmer of University of Utah, one of the researchers who developed the “parental care theory” for evolution of warm-bloodedness as indepedent source

[Normally, this would be included in sentence form near the end. Since these are just potential outside sources, it’s okay to mention a couple of possible scientists that you haven’t contacted yet.

 …Actually, I honestly don’t email potential outside sources until I have an assignment because I don’t want to pester them to read a whole paper before I know a story is actually happening….But now that I think about it, the absence of specific outside sources might be hurting some of my pitches: I’m going to make a point of including a couple of potential outside sources at the end of each news pitch. Finding 2-3 potentials doesn’t take long. You can ask researchers for their suggestions, look through the papers they cite to find other labs, or just Google. I’ll let you know if it ups my batting average.]

There are a few photos on EurekAlert. Also the tegus are pretty adorable, by giant lizard standards.


[Cute, right??  Image not included in the pitch. Photo by Dustin Smith for Miami-Dade Parks via Flickr & Commons]

[Also, bonus image of a blue tegu lizard from Wikimedia Commons


In Case You’re Wondering Why “The Pitch” Section Is Formatted Oddly;

This is the NatGeo version of my Tegu Lizard pitch, so I patterned it on the pitch guidelines Erika Engelhaupt posted before the NASW 2015 Pitchslam. It wasn’t clear whether she wanted us to literally chunkify our pitches that way, but I like writing on scaffolds, so I literally copied & pasted the sample pitch into a Google doc and turned it into a template for my future NatGeo pitches.

No one at NatGeo has told me to lay off the CAPS-LOCK chunk titles yet.

When I’m not pitching to NatGeo, I format the pitches more like a typical email.  None of them seem to mind that either.

Why the Pitch Didn’t Quite Land:

The fact that this one didn’t get picked up broke my heart a little bit, but I can see why: The pitch starts with vivid lizard action but runs out of steam toward the end. 

Look at the 1st paragraph of my story summary and then look at the last one. The lead paragraph is loaded with verbs–“split”, “bask”, “recharge”, “digging”, “sleep”, “hunting”, “mating”, “begins”, “warm”. That list of verbs all by itself would probably clue you in that this is an animal behavior story.  The ending phrase “sequestered in their sunless burrows” is visual, alliterative, and has a mixed syntax. 

Bragging on your own work is unseemly, but re-reading it 6 months later, that first paragraph I genuinely like.

I try to limit myself to 1 three-syllable-plus word per sentence (Not counting names, places, and words like “mitochondria”, “ribosome”, or “cytokine”, where there is no non-science word for that thing. You have to explain what the words mean the first time you use them in a story, but once you’ve established mitochondria as the powerhouse of the cell, it’s faster to say “mitochondria” than “powerhouse of the cell” each time the mitochondria does something), and in that sentence, I deliberately splurged it on the verb “sequester”, because I knew it would slow the readers down. I wanted them to pause, consider what the verb means, and then realize “Oh…It must mean they don’t come out of their burrows the whole winter.”

Long words are great for when you want to make a detail stand out without announcing “Reader, you must pay attention to this next sentence”. They are, however, terrible to use when “is” or “might” would convey just as much action.

Speaking of “is” and “might”, those are the only two verbs other than “evolved” in the last paragraph.  I didn’t like that graf when I wrote it, but since Science Advances is a pretty visible journal and that particular story immediately seemed very “NatGeo-esque”, I wanted to get my pitch to the editor before they saw the paper themselves and assigned it to a staffer. 

So I wrote the last two paragraphs quickly. I turned off the “Verb-and-Adjective Nitpicker” part of my inner editor and just wrote something that said idea I wanted to say there. That’s not a terrible idea. In journalism, speediness matters. A lot. 

You don’t want to turn in sloppy pitches, but if you know you won’t have time to intricately craft each paragraph, pick one graf to finesse and make it count. Write everything else quickly and just make sure that your points come across clearly, if not artfully.

Pitches are meant to be imperfect.

This one seemingly made a pretty respectable impression with the editors. I sent it to the general science editor, who after a next-day prod, said she would run it by the natural history editor.

And then it didn’t get commissioned. Not sure exactly why. It happens. This is why we just keep practicing our pitches.

Cool Things That Didn’t Quite Make the Pitch:
  • Argentine giant tegu lizards–like the black-and-white tegus used in the study–live throughout South America; the individuals in this study live in a large, leafy enclosure in Brazil.  They’re not endangered at all, and are pretty chill behavior-wise.  People, being people, take tegus as pets, and apparently, sometimes it actually works out. Tegus are very smart, and if they grow up around people, they’re pretty okay with being pets. Here’s a video of a guy talking about his pet red Tegu MacGyver. Apparently, MacGyver responds to his own name (or at least knows to turn toward his person when they call in a the “Hey, buddy! C’mere” voice.)



  • Warm-bloodedness evolved, not once, but twice. Once in mammals and once in birds. It’s hard for me to stress how weird that is. Behaviors and traits that burn lots of calories–like flying and keeping your body warm all the time–require animals to eat a lot more food.  Especially in warm environments, cold-blooded reptiles should have a huge advantage on us calorie-guzzling warmbloods. The fact that something as “metabolically costly”–that’s zoologist-speak for “expensive (in food units)”–evolved twice means its advantage has to be humongous.  Humongous advantages are usually easy to spot; this one isn’t.
  • The researchers used surgical implants to track the lizards’ heart rate and body temperature. A non-surgical monitor would have tethered the lizards to one spot, the Canadian team lead Glenn Tattersall explained. They wanted the lizards to run around as they normally would. When I asked how the surgery affected the lizards, Tattersall told me that the lizards handled their anesthetics quite well. They were a bit sluggish for a couple of days after their surgeries (as most of us would be), but pretty soon they were back to running around, doing their usual “lizard-y things”. 
  • There’s a growing body of evidence that dinosaurs’ body temperatures rose and fell, putting them in limbo between being full-time toasty endotherms like their bird descendants and cold-bloods like most lizards. The tegus amping up their body temperature during one crucial season meshes with that idea nicely, the researchers argue.
  • Tegu lizards’ sultry bodies in wintry burrows doesn’t prove that our warm bodies are a mating adaptation, but it is the first time researchers have ID’d a partially warm-blooded lizard.  Maybe ancient reptiles with tegu-like warm-and-cold cycles found that longer mating seasons bred more babies. Maybe the seasonal trend became a year-round staple. It’s hard to know for sure; body temperature does not fossilize.  But it’s interesting to think about, isn’t it?

The next time some drunk guy at a bar asks you why you’re so hot,  tell him (temporarily) warm bodies seem to succeed at sex.

We know because some scientists put heart monitors in giant Brazilian lizards.

Then walk away, knowing science is on your side.



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  2. Glenn Tattersall

    This is great, Diane! I’ve never thought of it from this angle (the notion of pitching a story by a science writer!). In science, we have a hard enough time convincing editors to put our papers out for review! More and more, however, I see scientists “pitching” their studies based on flavour of the month science, which is a bit sad to see, but maybe they feel the need to do so just to get their papers reviewed.

    Thanks for the post. Would you mind if I shared on my blog?

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