S.O.S CALL FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES
S.O.S CALL FOR ENDANGERED SPECIES
2005-05-27 at 12:27:00 pm #9666SOS call for ancient blue iguana
Cayman Island scientists are calling for assistance to pull a
unique species of blue iguana back from the brink.
The animal has a long history: DNA evidence suggests it has been around for
the past three million years.
However, the mere 25 of them left on Grand Cayman seemed recently to face a
“Time is obviously not on the side of this remarkable creature,” said Fred
Burton, director of the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme (BIRP).
The captive breeding programme is going from
strength to strength
Fred Burton, BIRP
“But there are no insurmountable biological, political or social
barriers to the re-establishment of a viable wild population.
“Saving the blue iguana really boils down to the human financial resources we
can direct to the task.”
On the brink
The BIRP is significant in the study of how a species can be brought back
from the brink of extinction.
With a heady mixture of science, iguana ingenuity, understanding of iguana
psychology, and local and international support and funding – scientists believe
they may just be able to bring the iguanas back to a critical mass required to
sustain a population.
The blue iguana’s problems stem from humans, though for the most part the
damage to the iguanas has been quite unintended.
The first European settlers arrived nearly 300 years ago, and the pets that
they brought with them, such as dogs and cats have continued to push the iguanas
back from the coast and into less hospitable inland areas. The displacement and
land-use change has accelerated with a major human population boom in the last
The blue iguanas, named because of their skin which turns slowly from slate
grey to blue throughout the day as the sun shines, were once shot and eaten by
people and are still attacked by pets.
GRAND CAYMAN BLUE IGUANAScientific name: Cyclura lewisiRelated to iguanas found on Cayman Brac and Little Cayman, but
quite distinctNever stops growing, but growth rate slows with ageBiggest adults believed to be up to 1.4m nose to tailEndemic to Grand Cayman, i.e. found nowhere elseBlue colour only expressed in the presence of other iguanas
The iguanas do not instinctively recognise dogs and cats as lethal
predators and the first chance to learn often ends in tragedy.
The BIRP hatches and rears blue iguanas for two years, so sparing them the
severe mortality that would usually decimate a year’s hatch.
The pioneer blue iguanas are then released back into the wild and
radio-tracked as they mature and start breeding.
These studies are providing vital information for the development and
management of a protected area.
The iguanas have strong personalities and are superbly adapted to their
natural environment and they are learning to cope with today’s world in
As fast learners, the iguanas have expanded their natural diet of some 50 or
so native plant species, to over 130 by discovering new edible plants brought to
the islands by horticulturalists and landscapers.
They can also adapt to a man-made environment (if there are no dogs or cats);
they are as happy sleeping under a wooden shed as in a natural rock hole.
Hope also lies with the design by BIRP workers of honeymoon suites for the
iguanas breeding in captivity which include specially constructed retreats and a
carefully prepared diet of fruits, flowers and assorted greenery.
“Iguanas are fairly basic in this area. Good food, plenty of
sunshine and a nice place to nest and hang out and they will pretty much get on
with it,” said Dr Matthew Cottam, special projects officer at the Cayman Islands
Department of the Environment, who works with the BIRP.
But is it too late for the iguanas? Can they be saved?
“The captive breeding programme is going from strength to strength,” said
Fred Burton. “Our monitored releases are working brilliantly so far.
“If we can protect enough habitat and maintain it free of unnatural
predators, there is every reason to hope we can give the blue iguanas their
“This is one species we can save.”