Earyn McGee holds a Yarrow’s Spiny Lizard (Sceloporus jarovii).

It was a balmy summer’s day in June 2018, and time was running out for Earyn McGee and the lizard.

McGee, a University of Arizona researcher and Ph.D. candidate, was chasing a lizard she needed to recapture.

“By chasing, I mean that I was running after this lizard because I needed to get it,” McGee said. “I thought I’d lost it after a while, but I took one last look around over my shoulder and there it was, on a tree.”

Thankfully, the bright orange “5” on the lizard’s back that McGee has painted on a previous excursion gave away its hiding place. She took a picture of the lizard and Tweeted about her experience.

“The feedback I got was a lot of people being like, ‘Huh, I don’t see a lizard anywhere. Where’s the lizard?’” McGee said.

That was when it suddenly clicked for McGee; posting images of stealthy lizards concealed in their habitats was a perfect way that she could teach people about some of the Southwest’s most important animals.

“I started doing it consistently and it grew on its own from there,” McGee said.

Using her impressive skill-set and intimate knowledge of “herps” (a nickname derived from herpetology, the study of amphibians and reptiles,) McGee teaches her devoted Twitter and Instagram followers about a different species each week via her world-famous social media game, #FindThatLizard.

Each Wednesday at 5 p.m., McGee posts a photo of a lizard concealed in nature under the handle @Afro_Herper. Avid followers then have a few hours to distinguish the critter from its surroundings in a Where’s Waldo?-style search before she reveals its hiding place and shares a few interesting factoids about the lizard featured.

While most of the photos posted are her own, she also takes submissions via her website, giving budding wildlife photographers and other lizard-fans the chance to have their work featured in front of her 40,000 Twitter followers and 20,000 Instagram followers.

McGee said she only hopes to be “sharing something that I think is really cool with other people. Hopefully they think it’s cool too and if not, that’s OK."

McGee is hoping to graduate from the University of Arizona this year and said she’s sure that #FindThatLizard will evolve in some way when she has more time on her hands and isn’t busy writing her dissertation.

In the meantime, she noted, “I have a great thing going as it is and I am going to continue to let it be great.”

In the two and a half years since McGee started #FindThatLizard, she has found that sharing images of lizards and their environments is a useful avenue for communicating some of her research.

“I’ll post facts about the lizards themselves, but then also about their habitat, talking about habitat loss and human encroachment,” McGee said. “I like to incorporate my own research sometimes and talk about stream drying and things like that. Just using it as an opportunity to get people to think more deeply about lizards and what has changed over time.”

A bigger message

A loyal, engaged audience who are committed to McGee’s endeavors have allowed her to move away from only posting basic facts and instead spark broader conversations about the environment and representation in science.

“Because I already have an audience who are engaged, I can be like, OK, now we know what we’re looking at, let’s talk about this other concept,” McGee said.

The biggest threat that lizards are facing in the Southwest is global warming and habitat loss, McGee said

“Even for lizards it can get too hot,” McGee said. “They have to keep moving to higher and higher elevations and eventually the ones that started at the top are going to get lost because there’s nowhere they can go that isn’t too hot for them.”

She said the best way of communicating about climate change with those who have a different opinion is, “meeting people where they are, as opposed to shoving information down their throats.”

On her ventures out and about in Arizona, McGee enjoys seeing tree lizards, which are fairly abundant, as well as her favorite, Yarrow’s Spiny Lizard, which can be found in southeast Arizona.

“That’s the first lizard I ever got to work with,” McGee said.

As an American Association for the Advancement of Science IF/THEN ambassador, McGee is a role model for young women wanting to pursue science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. Her work also earned her a place on Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for 2021.

McGee’s long-term goals, in addition to continuing with #FindThatLizard, include hosting a natural history TV show, continuing doing research and providing experiences to black, indigenous and other students of color.

Pandemic challenge

Connecting with others out in the field has been a challenge over the course of the pandemic and even more so now as McGee focuses on the final months of her Ph.D., but social media has offered her an opportunity to connect with those from all walks of life and all over the globe to talk about science and wildlife issues that need attention.

McGee said that it’s important for aspiring conservationists wanting to promote their own causes to stick with it.

“You can’t just post stuff and leave,” McGee said. “You have to ask, are you interacting with the people commenting on your stuff? Make sure that you’re engaging your audience and not just throwing things out there.”