Genny Ross-Barons tracks the Black Iguana on the Caribbean island of Roatan, the only place in the world you can find these fascinating creatures.
I had the great pleasure of being invited to spend a day at Gumbalimba Park, shooting pictures and taking notes. I felt like a National Geographic field reporter) accompanying Stesha A Pasachnik from the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, University of Tennessee, while she conducted her research on the Ctenosaura Oedirhina.
Okay, that’s it for big words from me… I spent the day hanging out with Stesha (who is a super-duper expert), taking pictures and asking questions about what the heck she was doing to those Black “Spiny Tailed” Iguanas!
I’ve seen the Black Iguanas around the island of Roatan, but certainly not as many as the green ones. Apparently Black Iguana females lay up to 18 eggs at a time, while Green Iguanas lay up to 60 eggs at a time. I never gave the iguanas much thought. I thought of them the way people think of squirrels back in Ontario — wild critters that hang out in trees, doing their thing. But Iguanas don’t raid my bird feeders like the squirrels always did. Turns out I had a lot to learn!
The Only Place to Find Them
Unlike the Green Iguana which has a territory stretching into North, Central, and South America, the Black Iguana has only one place it can be found and that is right here on the Island of Roatan! How cool is that?
But alas, they are in trouble, and on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species classified as ENDANGERED due to hunting and loss of habitat. Stesha tried to describe to me how a classification is determined; honestly, I didn’t quite grasp the information, but at the rate the Black Iguanas are declining, the day will soon come when we on Roatan will have to tell visitors that there USED TO BE Black Iguanas (that were unique to Roatan) but are now extinct.
It is not uncommon to see adults and children at the side of the road, looking up into the trees in hopes of bagging an iguana that may be resting there. Iguanas (in general) are a food source here. I want to stress that Stesha’s intent is not to try to enforce a “no catch Black Iguanas” rule — she is on Roatan to track and record information about the Black Iguanas, and to educate us on their value as a unique to Roatan treasure.
An interesting note on the Black Iguanas’ loss of habitat (which you would think would impact their numbers) is that Stesha is having more success finding them in developed areas where they are more protected from winding up in a stew pot, than in undeveloped areas where they are easy prey.
Gumbalimba Park, Paya Bay Resort, Cocoview Resort, Mahogany Bay, and the village of Punta Gorda, all allow Stesha access to their properties to conduct her research and are becoming active partners in promoting eco-educational programs for their visitors.
Upon arrival at Gumbalimba Park we were escorted via golf cart (also, my idea of something pretty cool) to a choice area for finding Black Iguanas hanging around in the grass and trees. Within minutes, Stesha’s assistant Mikel Belcires caught one! Stesha was in place to bag the creature and immediately got busy preparing a syringe to take a blood sample. She had to work quickly to draw the blood before the stress of being captured effected the test results. Black Iguana #186 definitely was not impressed and spent the whole time biting down on the sack from which he had been removed.
Blood tests complete, he was returned to the bag while Stesha prepared the “pit tag” for insertion under his skin (this tag is similar to the ones inserted by vets to ID pet dogs and cats.) While the Black Iguana was still in the bag, Stesha weighed him, then removed him again and measured him. (The tail was measured separately due to the Black Iguana’s ability to loose and grow a new tail.) She inserted the “pit tag” and then determined whether the iguana was male or female. Interesting tool to test that one —I won’t go into details.
Next up came body piercing and painting! #186 was assigned a unique combination of beads that made for a quite attractive piece of jewelery on the back of his neck, and “white-out” was applied for easiest identification at a later date. A few pictures were taken and #186 was free to go. The entire process took no more than seven minutes, including the time Stesha too to all the pertinent information as she worked.
I watched and took photos of a second Black Iguana as it was caught and data was recorded. The only difference between this iguana an the first one was that #187 was much smaller and younger so some tests were not possible. Photos of the entire day’s activities can be seen here: The Black “Spiny Tailed” Iguana Project.
At noon, it was time for us to part company and I headed for my vehicle parked in the lot at the entrance to Gumbalimba. I was pleased to see many Black Iguanas hanging around the area, sunning themselves on the rocks outlining the lot. I’ve got a whole new appreciation for the Black Iguana now!
A group of visitors was walking by as I got in my car, and I heard one of them comment to his friends, “Hey look, an iguana!” The rest of the group didn’t seem overly impressed. Then I leaned out the window and said, “These Black Iguanas can ONLY be found on the Island of Roatan.” The entire group returned, and started taking pictures of the iguana, in awe at witnessing Roatan’s Unique Treasure—the Black “Spiny Tailed” Iguana!
All photos © Genny Ross-Barons
Previously published on The Roatan Vortex on February 25, 2011.