Studying Iguanas in the Bahamas

It might sound like a dream job, but the climate is hot, the terrain is treacherous, and the study subjects — some of the most endangered lizards in the world — can be uncooperative.

Undaunted, Dr. Chuck Knapp has made conservation of the Bahamian rock iguana his life’s work. Through his field studies, which began in 1994, Shedd is the leading authority on this species.

Rock iguana populations have suffered due to habitat loss on their fragile islands, the introduction of predators such as dogs, goats and pigs, heavy illegal hunting, increasing contact with tourists and smuggling for the illicit pet trade. And, as inhabitants of tiny islands, they have naturally small populations and nowhere to go when threatened.

Why iguanas at Shedd? 
Aside from the fact that these terrestrial lizards are surprisingly good saltwater swimmers, the factors contributing to their decline also degrade marine ecosystems. Saving iguanas as a charismatic flagship species is also an effective way to promote protection of interconnected island and nearshore ecosystems.

Chuck’s work has focused on two subspecies, the Andros Island iguana and the Exumas Island iguana.

Twice a year, Chuck leads research expeditions aboard Shedd’s research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II. Enlisting Chicago-area college students or volunteer citizen scientists for his research team, he island-hops to gather long-term genetic and life history data on several iguana populations.

He also works closely with the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), which oversees the country’s national park system. Shedd’s long-standing commitment to conservation in the Bahamas earned it a position on the BNT Science Advisory Committee. Chuck’s research and recommendations contributed to the expansion of a land-and-sea national park to include critical iguana habitat on Andros.

Please don’t feed the iguanas!
His most recent investigations (and publication) address the effects of an unnatural diet — junk food offered by tourists — on the health of the iguanas. Comparing lizards on destination islands with wild counterparts that do not have contact with tourists, he found that the former have alarming digestive problems, a range of nutritional deficiencies and even elevated cholesterol levels.

When he began his work in the Bahamas, Chuck soon realized that more schoolchildren had seen an iguana in a stew than in the wild. Along with his collaborations with the BNT, he began building a relationship with the local people, especially the kids. He has involved students in his fieldwork, and he gives educational presentations at schools and community events. Shedd even sponsored a youth soccer team on Andros — the Iguanas — to promote pride in their island’s unique wildlife.

Location

The Bahamas

About the team

Learn more about Dr. Knapp and the conservation research team!

Blog

Check out Chuck's recent work on the Huffington Post blog!

You can help!

Learn about Shedd’s iguana conservation program firsthand by joining Dr. Chuck on an iguana research expedition aboard the R/V Coral Reef II in the Bahamas. Check back next year for registration details!

You can also support all of Shedd’s conservation research programs through a gift to the annual fund.

About Dr. Chuck Knapp
In retrospect, Dr. Chuck Knapp, vice president of conservation and research, began his Shedd career as a student in Shedd's high school marine biology program. His course was set: At 18 he became a Shedd volunteer, and he was hired as an aquarist after college. He became fascinated by the rock iguanas in Shedd’s collection and dedicated himself to their conservation. The iguana project is Shedd’s longest-running field research program. Chuck holds the Louis Family Conservation Chair in the Daniel P. Haerther Center for Conservation and Research.