Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip this

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Steve Barten
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Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip this

Post by Steve Barten » April 11th, 2013, 2:34 pm

I recently visited Grand Cayman to teach a week-long class at St. Matthews University. I was only responsible for 2 to 3 hours of courses a day, leaving plenty of time to explore the island. Luckily my hosts were naturalists and knew where to go to see what I wanted to see. They also knew people working in places we visited who allowed us great access. Because this is a herp forum, I posted by photos of birds and other critters elsewhere in the FHF Bird Forum here: http://www.fieldherpforum.com/forum/vie ... 19&t=15827

Grand Cayman: first mandatory stop is the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, home of the Cayman Blue Iguana, Cyclura lewisi, breeding facility. We met John Marotta, head warden of the breeding project, and he was kind enough to show us around. A daily tour of the breeding facility is available at 11:00 if you visit.
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John is sitting in one of the adult pens with several PVC pipe shelters hidden in the rocks. Breeding pens are larger, and there also are rows and rows of screen cages for raising juveniles and yearlings. They have access to the incredibly strong sun and are fed native plants, a natural diet. The baby iguanas are held until they are large enough to be a little more predator-proof before being released.

I’m more of a snake guy, but I have to say I found the Blue Iguanas to be stunningly beautiful and impressive.
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As blue as the heads and bodies are, the feet are jet black.
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When they rest, the Blue Iguanas often raise their tail tips.
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As we walked around the larger breeding pens, a large male was on the outside. An escapee?
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No, just one of the many residents whose territory includes the Botanic Park and the breeding facility. All of the Blue Iguanas have colored glass beads attached to their cervical crests to allow identification from a distance by the unique color combination.
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They are confident and not shy, having evolved on an island devoid of predators (until man came); so different from the flighty Green Iguanas. They reminded me of the tame Land and Marine Iguanas in the Galapagos.
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He started posturing when another, smaller iguana approached too close.
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Here are some of the screen cages for raising juveniles:
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Note the PVC pipe used as a retreat.
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A wide gravel path allows an easy hike through the Botanic Park. Wild Blue Iguanas are relatively common and are easily seen.
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We found this pair of females close to each other. They were breathing heavily as if they had just interacted.
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One had a bloody lip, evidence that the greeting had not been peaceful.
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We saw other herps in the park. Blue-throated Anoles, Anolis conspersus, were common. This is the only shot I got of one with his dewlap displayed, and of course the focus on the head is soft.
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This Blue-throated Anole, a lizard endemic to Grand Cayman, is on a species of bromeliad that also is endemic to Grand Cayman.
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The Hickatee, or Taco River Slider, Trachemys decussata angusta, has a yellow postocular stripe that extends down the neck.
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Old Hickatees develop a faded pattern, and some acquire melanotic spots, not unlike out red-eared sliders. Image

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I asked John where I might see Ground, or Dwarf, Boas, Tropidophis caymanensis, on the island. He said they are not uncommon, but they are fossorial, crepuscular, and most commonly are found at dawn or dusk after a rain. But one of his wardens had one in a cage at his house nearby, would I like to see it and photograph it? Yes please. Good thing I did; it was the only one I saw on the trip.
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The Ground Boas have a yellow tail tip and exhibit caudal luring, but unlike juvenile Cottonmouths and Copperheads, they wave the tail tip in a very slow and deliberate pattern. Also, the yellow tail tip and luring behavior persist in adults.
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One of our party went to sit in a chair while I worked with the snake and almost sat on this 4.5-inch Cuban Treefrog, Osteopilus septentrionalis.
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There also was a colony of Curly-tailed Lizards, Leiocephalus carinatus, in the yard.
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The next afternoon we visited the Cayman Turtle Farm, http://www.turtle.ky/, to make a veterinary house call on one of their birds. The farm has a large breeding pool full of adult Green Seaturtles, Chelonia mydas, with an expansive sandy nesting beach. They collect and incubate the eggs and raise the young for meat. Eating turtle meat is a cultural thing in many parts of the Caribbean, and they believe having farmed meat available takes pressure off the wild population. Also, the farm releases yearling turtles, and their website claims that over 31,000 turtles have been released to date. Obviously, there is some controversy both in harvesting the turtles for meat and releasing so many with little or no screening for disease. The facility also is primarily a tourist destination, with exhibits and opportunities to touch, hold, and even swim with seaturtles.
This may be my favorite shot from the trip.
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Trying to escape!
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Feral Green Iguanas, Iguana iguana, infest the Cayman Turtle Farm, and are conspicuous on every path, patch of grass and wall. Green Iguanas are not native to Grand Cayman, but the Gorgetown Primary School kept a pair of them in an outdoor cage in the early 1990s. They produced babies, which were observed escaping from the cage. Several years later adult iguanas were seen throughout the neighborhood, and now they cover every part of the island. In 2006 they started breeding in the Botanic Park. Green Iguanas are commonly seen dead on the roads, and all of the environmental agencies receive calls every week asking for help in removing them from someone’s property. One of the most common complaints about iguanas is that they frequently jump into swimming pools to defecate.
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This iguana was crossing the parking lot of the university.
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At a bird sanctuary we saw more iguanas than birds.
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More Green Iguanas
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The Turtle Farm has a 9-foot crocodile that was rescued in 2006 in the mangroves of the island from fishermen who were trying to kill it. DNA analysis showed her to be a hybrid between an American Crocodile, Crocodylus acutus, and a Cuban one, C. rhombifer. She is housed in an enclosure surrounded by both chain link fence and plexiglass to prevent tourists from inserting their fingers, but making photography difficult. The keeper was nice enough to open the door and allow me to go inside the enclosure to take some images.
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Another day we went back to the Botanic Park to see more Blue Iguanas. You can never see too many of these magnificent beasts.
This one was running from a bigger male in the parking lot.
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The bigger male (this is the same individual we saw on the first day).
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This one lives on a brick patio with picnic tables at the midpoint of the trail.
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The red sclera (whites of the eyes) is normal for Cyclura.
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We saw this particularly colorful Green Iguana in the Botanic Park.
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I spotted this Cuban Treefrog resting along the trail. Many tourists walked right past without seeing it, even while I was focusing my camera on the frog.
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My hosts conjured up another adventure. A friend and colleague from the Department of the Environment reported that an unusual, non-native Cyclura had turned up on the island. Someone managed to catch it and turn it in to their department. We were invited to come do a physical exam and blood draw for a health assessment.
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The first challenge was to extract it from its hiding tube. He didn’t want to come out and one of my hosts worked up quite a sweat.
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It looks like a Lesser Caymans Rock Iguana, Cyclura nubila caymanensis, or a Cuban Rock Iguana, C. nubila nubila. Theories as to its origin include rafting over from Little Cayman (smuggling on the daily commuter flights would be nearly impossible), being carried from Cuba by a refugee as a potential future meal, or escape from the turtle farm. The latter was ruled out, as the farm doesn't keep Cyclura. Jeff Lemm saw the photos and thought it might be a hybrid. Further testing (DNA?) and scanning for a microchip are planned.
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On the last afternoon we hiked a certain trail to look for snakes where my hosts had seen them on many occasions. There was a grove of mango trees in full fruit that had attracted dozens of Cayman parrots (see my Bird Forum post). The terrain was rough limestone with many piles of boulders with tunnels and cracks and crevices. It looked very snakey. We saw beautiful Blue-throated Anoles.
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A Cuban Treefrog jumped across the trail. Even though we had seen others, the massive size of these frogs was startling. Image

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We found our target on the crawl, the Cayman Racer, Alsophis cantherigerus caymanus. These snakes are fast and flighty like our North American racers and coachwhips, but after several minutes of working with this one it calmed down and held still for a few seconds for photos. When first touched they flatten their necks like a Hog-nosed snake or semi-cobra.
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The second racer was bigger and more brightly colored. Image

It too was flighty and wouldn’t hold still without restraint.
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I wish I had worked with it more to calm it down. We tried one shot without restraint and it sped away.
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For more info on the Bule Iguanas, go to the Blue Iguana Recovery Program home page here: http://www.blueiguana.ky/

Thanks for looking.

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TravisK
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by TravisK » April 11th, 2013, 3:29 pm

Thanks, this was a visual treat!


I love so many things about this picture!
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Dan Krull
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Dan Krull » April 11th, 2013, 3:48 pm

Absolutely wonderful post! Thank you so much!! Wow.


Dan

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Sam Bacchini
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Sam Bacchini » April 11th, 2013, 4:43 pm

Dan Krull wrote:Absolutely wonderful post! Thank you so much!! Wow.


Dan
I agree, great post!

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Jeff Lemm
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Jeff Lemm » April 11th, 2013, 5:00 pm

Great shots Steve!! I am still willing to bet that unidentified iguana is still one of the hybrids the turtle farm used to have. I saw them there less than 10 years ago - I think of have pics of it somewhere. I'll check it out.

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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by DracoRJC » April 11th, 2013, 5:04 pm

:thumb: :thumb: :thumb:

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DaneConley
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by DaneConley » April 11th, 2013, 5:08 pm

Wow absolutely amazing. Those iguanas are so sick looking. And the Cayman racers are so freaking stunning.

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Mike Pingleton
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Mike Pingleton » April 11th, 2013, 6:44 pm

Terrific! Holy cow there are some great shots in this post!

-Mike

qaz
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by qaz » April 11th, 2013, 7:43 pm

I have always been fascinated by the reptiles and amphibians of the Caribbean, especially those in the genus Cyclura. Thanks for sharing!

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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by VICtort » April 11th, 2013, 8:53 pm

Great shots and interesting narrative. With so many reptiles to be seen, is Grand Cayman free of the mongoose which plagues other Caribbean Islands? Are the green iguanas known to compete with or impact the native Cyclura? Any effort to harvest Iguanas by the locals?

Thanks for this great post. Yes, the overhead shot of the young green turtle is beautiful, maybe the turtle farm would use it for a post card?

Vic

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Steve Barten
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Steve Barten » April 12th, 2013, 5:23 am

Thanks for all the compliments, and thanks again to Jeff Lemm for looking into the unknown Cyclura ID. (I sent you an email).
The mongoose does exist on Grand Cayman but I heard absolutely nothing about them while on the island. Frederic Burton doesn’t mention them in his The Little Blue Book; A Short History of the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana http://www.amazon.com/Little-Blue-Book- ... ook+iguana. Various websites state that the mongoose has reduced the snake population, but it looks like that got posted once and the others used cut and paste to repeat the statement without documentation or verification. Racers eat baby Blue Iguanas, so a depleted snake population might help the iguanas. I don't know how extensive the mongoose population is. Maybe Jeff Lemm knows more.
I have not heard that the Green Iguanas compete with or impact the Blues. The Greens tend to be more arboreal and Blues more terrestrial, and it looked to me like there was plenty of plant material to eat for all.
I also did not hear that natives are harvesting – I presume you mean eating – Green Iguanas. Remember that Green Iguanas didn’t exist on the island until the 1990s and Blue Iguanas were so rare (literally a few dozen individuals total) up until the last few years that few islanders had ever seen one. Thus there is no culture for eating iguanas. Also, feral chickens are far, far more numerous than iguanas, so if islanders harvested anything, I would guess chickens would be easier. (See a photo of a flock of chickens and ducks in my Cayman post in the FHF Bird Forum here http://www.fieldherpforum.com/forum/vie ... 19&t=15827).
Also, remember that while any economy has poverty, Grand Cayman is one of the hotbeds for international banking and there also is a lot of wealth on the island.

Steve B

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Mulebrother
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Mulebrother » April 12th, 2013, 5:23 am

outstanding post...not normally my thing...but i really enjoyed this one!

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Cole Grover
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Cole Grover » April 12th, 2013, 6:28 am

Killer post, Steve! Really, really nicely done. Any geckos seen, invasive or otherwise? The big Iguana iguana look to be thriving and healthy - there are some truly impressive-looking beasts in that photo set.

-Cole

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Steve Barten
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Steve Barten » April 12th, 2013, 7:42 am

The Wood Slave, Aristelliger praesignis, and Ground Gecko, Sphaerodactylus argivus, are listed as being on all 3 Cayman islands, but I didn't see any.

Steve B

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Roki
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Roki » April 12th, 2013, 9:37 am

Great post! Thanks for sharing. That sea turtle picture truly is stunning. Those blue iguanas really are very impressive as well.
Cheers,
Roki

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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Matt Cage » April 12th, 2013, 12:15 pm

Incredible post!

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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Reptiluvr » April 12th, 2013, 1:20 pm

Very cool post. The Blue-throated Anole is gorgeous but man that Green Sea Turtle shot is amazing! The colors are surreal.

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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by JakeScott » April 12th, 2013, 5:12 pm

QE III Gardens is an amazing place; one of my favorite in the islands! I never managed to find any Tropidophis either. I looked heavily and was able to see quite a few racers, but none of the tiny guys. Thanks for sharing your photos and trip recount.

-Jake Scott

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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by peterknuteberg » April 17th, 2013, 5:19 am

Steve, this was a wonderful post. The photos were fantastic and the young sea turtle shot was a prize winner. I wonder if there could be hybridization between the green iguanas and the blues? Wouldn't the presence of greens be a huge problem other than pooping in people's pools?

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Steve Barten
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by Steve Barten » April 17th, 2013, 10:52 am

Mongoose correction!
in spite of several references to mongooses on Grand Cayman found on the internet, my friend at the Cayman Department of the Environment tells me there are no mongooses on the island. That's a good thing! :thumb:

Steve B

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nightdriver
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Re: Herps of Grand Cayman; if you hate Blue Iguanas, skip th

Post by nightdriver » April 17th, 2013, 8:37 pm

Those Blue iguanas are sweet animals. :thumb:

I wish I had the space for some Cyclura. :(

-nightdriver

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