The Struggling Wish Willies
The Endemic Iguanas Make their Stand on the Bay Islands

April 1st, 2011
by Thomas Tomczyk


Roatan Spiny-tailed iguana on a trumpet tree at Gumbalimba park

Roatan Spiny-tailed iguana on a trumpet tree at Gumbalimba park

Roatan is home to an impressive five endemic animals: one crustacean, four lizards and a mammal. For a relatively small island that number is quite impressive and makes the island an attractive place for biologists and researchers wanting to describe the original species and do groundbreaking research. “It’s especially great from the perspective of starting a conservation program,” says Stesha Pasachnik, PhD, who has been studying Roatan’s Spiny-Tailed Iguana as a postdoctoral researcher with the Bay Islands Foundation. Dr. Pasachnik has been gathering data on the habitat, diet, reproduction and threats of the Roatan Spiny-tailed Iguana, wish willies, or jamo, as there are commonly called on Roatan, since September 2010.

Dr. Pasachnik begins her work by catching the lizards, and has tagged 230 through late March 2011. She also takes a sample of the iguana’s blood for genetic analysis and to measure stress levels in the animals. Each iguana is injected with a passive transmitter the size of a grain of rice, which allows her to identify the same iguana the next time she catches it. These transmitters are similar to what is now being put in dogs and cats to keep track of them. Dr. Pasachnik is also attaching a radio tracking device to certain iguanas. This will allow Dr. Pasachnik to accurately figure out their movements and range of travel.

Cruise ship tourists take photos, touch the iguanas and ask some questions about Roatan's Spiny-tailed iguana

Cruise ship tourists take photos, touch the iguanas and ask some questions about Roatan's Spiny-tailed iguana

Wherever she goes, Dr. Pasachnik carries a small, backpack size laboratory. She has a syringe, wire cutters, colorful beads, skin glue, and a GPS. “If it is a male I know for sure. If it is a female, I often check again,” says Dr. Pasachnik as she slips a metal probe into the reptile’s cloaca – the posterior opening that serves as the intestinal, reproductive, and urinary tracts of certain animal species.

The researcher then marks the iguana with unique beads on the back of the neck and paints the specimen’s number in white-out fluid for further identification and monitoring. Dr. Pasachnik records where each iguana was found, how much it weighed, how long is it, its gender and occasionally takes a blood sample for genetic studies and to measure stress levels.

Dr. Pasachnik estimates that there are around 2,000-2,500 Roatan Spiny-tailed iguanas left in the wild. “The difficulty [in estimating population] is that population density can be so different from one area to the next here,” says Dr. Pasachnik.

An important part of Dr. Pasachnik’s work is outreach: talking to tourists, locals and workers at the places that the iguanas live. An ongoing challenge is making sure the island tour guides don’t encourage tourists to see iguanas as food, and tell them how good its meat tastes. “Its confusing for tourists when I tell them that the iguanas are protected, and the tour guides tell them that they could try to eat them in Coxen Hole,” says Dr. Pasachnik.

Roatan’s iguanas value is not in its meat, but in the enrichment of the environment and its diversity they contribute to. “It is important to teach them [the tour guides] that they can make more money showing the iguana for a tip, than putting them into a pot and stewing it,” said Marco Galindo, owner of the Gumbalimba park, where the Black Iguanas thrive.

Since 1994, it has been forbidden to hunt Iguanas in Honduras, but like most things in the country the enforcement of the law has been questionable at best. Roatanians have been especially fond of making iguana dishes around Holly Week, the time that usually coincides with the iguana’s laying their eggs. “Iguanas don’t enjoy the reverence on Roatan that they do on other Caribbean islands. On many islands, the locals consider the idea of killing and eating them a kin to eating pets. They are protected with a sense of island pride,” wrote Ken Burnes, an American business owner living on Roatan.

Dr. Pasachnik’s tagging of iguanas takes her to about eight sites on Roatan including: Gumbalimba Park, Mahogany Bay, Arches Iguana Farm, Paya Bay, Coco View and First Bight. Dr. Pasachnik has determined that Roatan’s Spiny-tailed Iguana lives not only on Roatan, but also on Santa Helena, Barbareta and possibly Morat.

Bay Islands Voice and researcher Dr. Pasachnik has tried in vain for four months through different avenues to get access to Barbareta, where reportedly Roatan Spiny-tailed iguana protection is taking place. Barbareta belongs to an American billionaire Kelcy Warren and has supposedly a thriving iguana population, something of interest to the Dr. Pasachnik’s study. “Studying the black iguanas on Barbareta would be very important in understanding the species,” says Dr. Pasachnik.

While Warren has tried his best to keep people off the privately owned island he ran into trouble with his less wealthy island neighbors. In 2008 three youths from Santa Helena died when whey were rammed by a boat operated by Barbareta’s security guards trying to chase them away from landing on Barbareta and hunting for iguanas.

At Mahogany Bay, a place that welcome’s Dr. Pasachnik research, where she often takes a ride in the chairlift to spot the iguanas from 50 feet, then brings out her extendable fishing rod with a metal noose. Iguanas are attracted to the noose and some even run towards it thinking it cold be an insect. Dr. Pasachnik then pools the rod tightening the noose around the iguana. She uses a cotton bag to grab the iguana behind its head and places it head down in the bag. It’s an efficient way to catch the wish willies and the most likely way to prevent being bitten.

The wish willies love hiding under the artificial concrete barriers that abound the Gumbalimba Park. When attacked by boas, they are able to loose their tail that will grow back. People, birds and boas are the wish willies only predators. The combination of ample space, plenty of food, and protection from predators has allowed the Spiny-tailed Iguanas to thrive at the Gumbalimba Park. They far outnumber the larger and more common Green Iguanas, and occasionally will feast on the Green Iguana’s eggs.

The Spiny-tailed iguanas love eating fruits, flowers and insects and are opportunistic enough that will eat the eggs of the fellow Green Iguana when an opportunity arises. “They love hog plums, hibiscus flowers, ants even Fidler Crabs… and most of all noni fruit,” says Dr. Pasachnik, who often finds the noni fruit seeds in the scat analysis of the lizard’s feces.

Dr. Pasachnik also uses traps to catch iguanas in areas that have smaller populations, or where they learned to be especially weary of people hunting them.  Dr. Pasachnik hasn’t confronted the group of hunters that comb the island forests with dogs and bee-bee guns. “I see them all the time, my role isn’t to stop people from doing what they did for years, but to present my side of the story and educate them about iguanas,” she says.

One place that Dr. Pasachnik took a stance was when she came across a Lonely Planet “Honduras” 2005 edition that had a photograph of a boy holding a hog-tied iguana. Dr. Pasachnik was distort and wrote the publisher of the popular guidebook a letter complaining about the popular tourist guide book promoting an activity that is not only illegal, but also threatens the existence of the species.

Black and White mangrove’s tree trunks provide a great place for iguanas to find hiding spots. The lizards are also good swimmers and jumpers moving efficiently in the land and seashore environments. Their metabolism picks up pace as the day progresses. Their blood temperature rises, they are able to digest food quickly and run faster.

The biggest iguanas that Dr. Pasachnik is finding are 30 centimeters for males and 26 centimeters for females, measured from head to base of the tail. The tail of the iguana can add another 29 centimeters or so, if it hasn’t lost its tail as they sometimes do.

Among the many reptiles in danger of extinction in Mesoamerica are the Spiny-Tailed Iguanas (Ctenosaura). Of the 11 genera of iguanid lizards, the genus Ctenosaura is the most rich species, currently encompassing 18 distinct species. This genus is threatened with extinction by habitat destruction and fragmentation, over-hunting, and exportation for the illegal pet trade. In most cases these species lack any active means of protection at the national and regional levels. Though laws are often in place, enforcement has traditionally been difficult at best, thus these illegal poaching events usually go unnoticed.

Researcher Stesha Pasachnik, PHD, weighs one iguana in her makeshift lab

Researcher Stesha Pasachnik, PHD, weighs one iguana in her makeshift lab

Large lizards, such as the Iguanas are among the most endangered species of lizards in the world. This is due in part to the fact that many of these species are endemic to islands. There are added threats faced by island species as they are restricted to small and often times rapidly developing areas, are more prone to extinction from introduced competitors and predators and are at a higher risk for threats associated with loss of genetic diversity.

Three IUCN (The World Conservation Union) critically endangered species, C. oedirhina, C. bakeri and C. melanosterna, are endemic to the Bay Islands and northern versant of Honduras. These species exemplify the family-wide decline with increasing vulnerability due to their limited ranges. They are also considered to be the top three most ecologically vulnerable species in Honduras. There is currently a lack of information concerning much of the biology of these species. However, there is evidence that all three species are in decline and that they are at high risk of extinction. Thus immediate conservation, management and protection is needed.

Scientific Text by Stesha A. Pasachnik, PhD
Bay Islands Foundation
University of Tennessee

Iguanas in the Bay Islands:

Ctenosaura bakeri, Utila’s Spiny-Tailed Iguana, is endemic to the island of Utila, Honduras. This species was listed as Critically Endangered by the IUCN in 2011 due to its limited and fragmented geographic range, small population size, habitat destruction, and over-hunting. This species has also been classified as one of the top four most ecologically vulnerable reptile species in Honduras. Utila is a rapidly developing island and a critical C. bakeri habitat, including mangrove forest, is being lost due to development for the tourist industry. C. bakeri, is a mangrove specialist and is thus restricted to only 10 km2 of suitable forest habitat. Mangrove forests are being destroyed for use as garbage dumping sites or filled for the building of homes and marinas. Exotic plants also threaten this species as they cover beach-front areas, which are the preferred nesting sites, thus making them unusable for nesting. Hunting of this species is extreme and is increasing rapidly as more and more people move to the island in support of the development. The population size of C. bakeri is unknown but is thought to be less than 10,000. Lastly, it has been shown that this species is capable of hybridizing with the wide-ranging and sympatric congener, C. similis.  Though this is currently happening too infrequently to greatly threaten this species with increases in habitat destruction, hybridization could become a greater problem, as it will destroy natural habitat barriers between the species, thus devastating the endemic species, C. bakeri.

Ctenosaura melanosterna, the Black-chested Spiny-Tailed iguana, is endemic to two localities within Honduras, the Cayos Cochinos Archipelago and the Valle de Aguán region on the north-central mainland. Due to a small geographic range and declining fragmented populations C. melanosterna was categorized as Endangered in the 2011 IUCN Red List Assessment. C. melanosterna has also been classified as one of the top four most ecologically vulnerable reptile species in Honduras. Though little is known about this species, the total area of occupancy is thought to be less than 1000 km2, and the population size less than 2,500 mature individuals fragmented into 10-15 subpopulations. Ongoing work being conducted within the Valle de Aguán shows that the population is declining and is in extreme danger of extirpation due to habitat destruction and hunting for consumption and the pet trade.

Within the Cayos Cochinos Archipelago, C. melanosterna exists primarily on Cayo Cochino Pequeño and Cayo Cochino Grande. Both islands are now within the Cayos Cochinos Archipelago Natural Marine Reserve (CCANMR) managed by the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation (HCRF). The population on Cayo Cochino Pequeño is protected by the presence of an HCRF research establishment; however, the population on Cayo Cochino Grande, although legally protected, remains susceptible to poaching due to limited presence of the HCRF on the island, leaving this population of C. melanosterna increasingly vulnerable.

Ctenosaura oedirhina, The Roatan Spiny-Tailed Iguana, is endemic to Roatan. This species was listed as Endangered by the IUCN in 2010 due to its limited and fragmented geographic range, small population size, and habitat destruction. The species has also been classified as one of the top three most ecologically vulnerable reptile species in Honduras. Though thorough surveys are just now being conducted, the total area of occupancy is thought to be less than 100 km² and the population size is estimated to be less than 2,500 individuals, broken into 10-15 subpopulations.

In addition to the previously discussed issues causing these species to be listed as endangered by the IUCN, the fact that these species show up in the international pet trade is cause for additional alarm and listing under CITES. Recently (March 2010) in a joint efforts from Guatemala and Honduras we were able to succeed in listing all three of these species as well as a sister taxa, occurring in Guatemala, under CITES Appendix II. This is a great step forward for the conservation of these species on an international level, however this does not negate the national and regional issues that need to be addressed in order to protect these species.

One of the biggest challenges facing those interested in conserving these species is the fact that there is presently a lack of information concerning much of the basic biology of these species, as well as knowledge of their actual population sizes, extent of occurrence and threats. It is clear that additional information is necessary in order to properly assess these species, and then work towards methods of conservation, protection and management. Further, in order to create a sustainable management plan for these species, additional information must be acquired in order to determine the extent of each threat faced by the species, which areas are in greatest need of protection, and what biotic and abiotic characteristics are required in order to guarantee the survival of the species.

In 2008, Dr. Pasachnik and The Utila Iguana Research and Breeding Station organized the annual IUCN Species Survival Commission, Iguana Specialists Group meeting and workshop, held on Utila. The goal of having this meeting on Utila was to raise local awareness and awareness within the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group as to the severity of the situation for these species. At this meeting research objectives required to protect and conserve C. oedirhina, C. melanosterna and C. bakeri were identified. At this point it was discovered that many strategies could not be evaluated due to lack of information. This was most apparent when dealing with Roatan’s iguana, C. oedirhina, as virtually no research has been done on this species since it was described in 1987.

To combat the potential extinction of these species Dr. Pasachnik (Roatan), Andrea Martinez (Utila) and Chad Montgomery (Cayos Cochinos) have formulated a multi-faceted approach to conserving these species through local capacity building, education, habitat protection, and population monitoring. The primary goal of our project is to ensure the long term survival of the three endangered species of Ctenosaura that occur within the Bay Islands and the ecosystems that they are a part of. Thus our immediate goal is to create a sustainable conservation program driven by local organization and individuals to educate, manage and protect these unique species and their environments far into the future. In order to meet these goals we are currently working to: 1) Increase understanding and improve conservation awareness of the target species within the local and international communities, 2) Build local capacity to create and implement a long-term conservation program focusing on the conservation of the target species, 3) Monitor the population status and threats of the target species, 4) Ensure protection of the target species, and 5) Develop a management plan for the three target species.

Though we will be focusing primarily on the Spiny-Tailed Iguanas of the Bay Islands a variety of other species will be positively affected by this project. These iguanas play an important role in the ecosystems of the Bay Islands, thus conserving them will lead to the conservation of many other species of plants and animals. [/private]

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