It hardly seems like 20 years ago this month since a fresh-faced aquarist named Chuck Knapp started studying iguanas in the Bahamas. Long-time Shedd members have followed his exploits—and many have been a part of them on our iguana research expeditions. In his quest to help save this most-endangered group of lizards, Chuck has become an internationally recognized expert as well as head of Shedd’s conservation and research department. Happy anniversary, Chuck, and keep up the amazing work! — Editor
Time flies when you’re having fun! It seems clichéd, but it is true in my experience studying endangered Bahamian rock iguanas. For the last 20 years I’ve had the privilege to work with these amazing lizards on Andros Island and in the Exuma Islands, Bahamas.
My first encounter with Bahamian rock iguanas was in 1993 in the Exumas — an island chain of 365 cays (pronounced “keys”) — and the transformative experience of witnessing these prehistoric animals in the wild nudged me on the unexpected path of dedicating my professional career toward preventing their extinction.
In the early years, much of my work focused on the logistics of conducting research in remote areas. I couldn’t run to a hardware store if I forgot a piece of equipment. Preparedness was tantamount to a successful season. Improvisation was also important, especially when conducting first-of-its-kind research. Using radio telemetry to study movement patterns of rock iguanas was relatively new 15 years ago, and techniques were perfected by trial and error. I remember constructing elaborate harnesses — we called them “iguana bras” — for affixing radio transmitters to the lizards’ torsos. My heart sank because instead of tracking iguanas, I was finding harnesses that had slipped from their bodies. To salvage the field season, I used duct tape, which was a workable short-term fix for a longer-term challenge.
I wish that I’d had today’s technology when I first started my fieldwork. The relatively inexpensive automated camera and video equipment now available would have been a game changer for documenting the unique nesting behavior of the Andros rock iguanas. The females lay their eggs in termite mounds. My only options for observing and recording this phenomenon were to visit multiple mounds every few hours or to wait at a single mound all day–not something I as a solo scientist could afford the time to do.
Regardless of the challenges, I am extremely proud of the work that has been done over the last 20 years. Our long-term commitment has resulted in significant advances in the conservation of Bahamian iguanas as well as a better understanding of conservation strategies for Caribbean iguanas throughout the region. We were among the first to investigate the efficacy of translocating rock iguanas, or moving them to islands with fewer threats, to reduce the risk of extinction. Our detailed ecological studies and distribution surveys, along with direct consultation with Bahamian authorities, resulted in the expansion of an existing national park on Andros Island to include critical iguana habitat and important populations.
As you can imagine, a lot has changed over two decades. The islands where I work are small, uninhabited and accessible only by boat. Twenty years ago it was common to be alone with nature for the entire day. Today, some areas in the Bahamas have become popular with tourists and consequently more accessible. In the Exumas, it is now rare to go more than a few hours without seeing a person.
Increased tourism in some areas is putting pressure on iguana populations, and thus our research is adapting as conditions on the islands change. Most recently, we investigated the impacts of tourism on endangered iguana populations. We especially looked at how unnatural foods given to the iguanas by island visitors affect the animals’ health. The results will be used to help guide future strategy for developing a more sustainable tourism industry.
To be sure, I am passionate about all aspects of my job. Even after 20 years, my heart still skips a beat when I see these amazing animals in the wild. Indeed, my favorite aspect of the research is releasing the lizards after collecting their information and watching them scramble back into the bush.
Shedd’s iguana research program is a collective effort, and I have the honor of working with incredible individuals and organizations. This work would not be possible if not for the crew of our research vessel, many Shedd staff members, academic partners, Bahamian colleagues and the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), which is the nongovernment organization mandated with overseeing the entire national park system for the Bahamas. It’s been a pleasure working with the BNT to advance iguana conservation.
Much of Shedd’s research has also been supported by the numerous citizen scientists and students who over the years have contributed their time and resources to the program. Sharing my love of the Bahamas and the iguanas with them is one of my favorite aspects of the job. Lastly, this work would not be possible without the assistance and guidance of the past-president of the BNT, Mrs. Sandra Buckner.
— Chuck Knapp, Ph.D.