These antics fuelled his famous idea that animals become tame when they live on remote, predator-free islands. Now, William Cooper Jr of Indiana University–Purdue University in Fort Wayne has tested Darwin's hypothesis on 66 species of lizards from around the world and found that island dwellers tended to be more docile than their continental relatives — the strongest evidence yet for this classic idea. The results are published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

Several studies and unpublished reports have shown that particular species are more approachable on islands where there are fewer predators, or quicker to flee on islands that contain introduced hunters such as feral cats. But despite this largely anecdotal evidence for island tameness, “no one has ever established that it’s a general phenomenon in any group”, says Cooper. “We showed that for a large prey group — lizards — there really is a significant decline in wariness on islands.”

Taming of the few

“Island tameness is an old idea, but there have been few tests of it,” says Dan Blumstein, a behavioural biologist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “This is a needed paper that convincingly shows some of the drivers of island tameness in lizards.”