Comprised of over 700 islands, cays and rocks, the Bahamas is largely considered a maritime nation. When you think of the Bahamas, you may picture clear blue water, endless white sand beaches and pristine coral reefs teeming with colorful marine life, but the nation’s myriad islands also support a diversity of terrestrial flora and fauna. And this is exactly what Shedd Aquarium’s iguana research team will be looking for on our upcoming trip to Exuma Islands, Bahamas.
I’m Rebecca Gericke, conservation and research programs manager at Shedd. As a marine biologist and avid SCUBA diver, it’s difficult for me to imagine visiting the Bahamas without a mask and snorkel in hand. For this research expedition, however, I’ll be leaving my dive gear behind and instead packing nets, gloves and boots. This time, I’ll be searching for the Exuma Islands rock iguana, Cyclura cychlura figginsi, a critically endangered lizard endemic to this island chain.
The Exumas iguana is one of ten species of rock iguana endemic to the islands of the West Indies. The iguanas evolved in the absence of natural predators and competitors and were thriving until the arrival of European settlers and their dogs, cats, pigs and goats in the 16th century. People and animals hunt the iguanas, feral pigs root up nests to eat the eggs and goats strip the landscape of the vegetation that the iguanas feed on. Additionally, as the small islands develop into major tourist destinations, much of the critical iguana habitat is destroyed, and today the rock iguanas are the most endangered lizards in the world.
Led by Vice President of Conservation and Research Dr. Chuck Knapp, Shedd’s iguana research team will consist of citizen volunteers who have a passion for conservation and a desire to get their hands dirty while conducting authentic scientific research. On this expedition, we’ll also be joined by partners from the Bahamas National Trust, conservation staff from Island Conservation, and a student from the College of the Bahamas.
Based on Shedd’s research vessel, the Coral Reef II, our team will spend a week traveling up the Exuma island chain, visiting several islands and cays along the way. Some of the cays have been studied for more than 20 years, and the data we collect will contribute to a large dataset of the iguana populations. On other cays, only tracks have been documented, and we’ll aim to acquire scientific documentation that iguanas are present and estimate the population size.
We’ll spend our days traversing the challenging landscape of the Exumas, scrambling up sharp limestone cliffs and climbing over tangled vines in search of iguanas. Once spotted, our staff and citizen scientists will work as a team to harmlessly secure the animal. We’ll take basic measurements, such as length and weight, and make general assessments of overall body condition—much like the information a doctor may collect during a routine check-up. We’ll also collect blood samples for genetic analyses and insert an identification tag similar to the microchips used in dogs and cats. These tags are especially important because they allow us to track individual animals over time. The data we collect will contribute to long-term analyses of population growth and stability and will be used to guide targeted conservation measures.
Shedd’s iguana research program is our longest running citizen science research program, and we’ve been studying these populations of iguanas for more than 20 years. The success of this program is largely due to the dedicated citizen scientists who volunteer for the expedition every year. Our participants have a sense of adventure and a desire to make a difference for wildlife conservation. Many of our volunteers are repeat participants that have been assisting with iguana research for several years; they care as deeply for the iguanas as Shedd’s staff and research partners.
Citizen science is a powerful tool that harnesses the knowledge and resources of a diverse group of individuals. Our participants contribute to a scientific research program, make observations and ask new questions, and help direct future research objectives. In turn, the participants become vested in the research and develop a stake in the success of the program and the animals we study. Since its inception, more than 100 citizen volunteers from around the world have participated in Shedd’s iguana research expeditions.
As a first time participant, I’m looking forward to seeing how these iguanas have adapted to life in the harsh environments where they are found. It’s exciting to know that I’ll be collecting data that can be used by managers and government agencies to protect critical iguana habitats and ensure the survival of the population for future generations. I’m also especially eager for the moment when I get to hold my first iguana and marvel at its beauty up close.
Stay tuned for an update later this month after we return from the expedition. For more information on our iguana research, or any of Shedd’s research programs in the Great Lakes and throughout the world, follow us on Twitter and join the conversation by tagging #SheddIguana!