Hello everyone: I’m Dr. Chuck Knapp, the Director of Conservation and Research at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois. When I started working at Shedd Aquarium as a young aquarist in 1991, I became fascinated with the world’s most endangered lizards: West Indian rock iguanas. Come along with me as I post blogs and photos of our annual citizen science iguana research expedition to the Bahamas over the next few weeks.
Since 1994, Shedd Aquarium has been a leader in rock iguana conservation through our extensive field research program and outreach activities in Bahamian classrooms and communities. Our work not only raises the profile of iguanas in the Bahamas, but also provides information that assists Bahamian wildlife managers in establishing science-based programs to ensure the lizards’ long-term survival. We are not alone in our commitment, however, as we have wonderful partnerships with Bahamian government agencies and non-government entities. We work closely on management and education activities with the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), the non-government organization mandated with overseeing the country’s entire national park system. In fact, BNT representatives join us each year on our annual citizen science iguana research expeditions.
So what are these extraordinary lizards? Nine species of rock iguanas, genus Cyclura, inhabit the rugged terrain of islands in the Caribbean and the Bahamas (including the Turks and Caicos Islands). They all originated from a single mainland stock that was uprooted and scattered by tropical storms. Each species is unique to only one or a few islands – similar to the Galapagos tortoises – and has evolved to thrive in its unique habitat.
Centuries of combined pressure from hunting, predation by non-native species, and poaching for the pet trade, pushed iguanas to the brink. Of the two subspecies on the Exuma Islands, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists one as critically endangered and the other as endangered.
Rock iguanas are found naturally on eight of the more than 360 cays that make up the Exuma Islands chain, where Shedd will travel this year. The Exumas are popular with tourists who want to get off the beaten path. Yachters, resort guests and powerboat tours frequent the iguanas’ cays for an up-close encounter with these visually striking lizards. Often, visitors come with food in hand to tempt the animals closer. Since the 1980s, some islands have seen a tenfold increase in daily visits, from around 20 people per day to more than 200—and the visits keep increasing. Tourism can create opportunities for people to connect with iguanas, learn about the endangered animals and support the local economy.
One of the rock iguanas takes a close-up. Copyright John G. Shedd Aquarium
However, as more people visit, iguana behavior is changing: iguanas on “fed” beaches are less cautious around people and more likely to congregate in dense numbers to wait for an easy meal. Iguanas primarily eat fruit and plants; however, tourists attract them using bread, ground beef, cereal, potato chips, and other food that resembles nothing in the animals’ natural diet.