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An Exuma rock iguana's face is covered in many reddish and orange scales, with a large flap of loose skin below its large mouth.

Why iguanas for Shedd? 

Why would an aquarium study iguanas? 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 an effective way to promote protection of interconnected island and nearshore ecosystems.

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 black-market pet trade. And because the iguanas inhabit tiny islands, they have nowhere to go when threatened.

“Tracking these iguanas over the brush to study them is a lot of work, but it’s so incredibly important to the survival of these species.”

Chuck Knapp, Ph.D., Vice President, Conservation and Research
An Exuma rock iguana rests on the warm sands of a Bahamian beach as the R/V Coral Reef II, Shedd's research vessel, waits in the ocean offshore.
An Exuma rock iguana is held securely as its head is measured, part of an Iguana Research Trip in the Exumas, Bahamas.

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—the New World’s largest lizards—can be uncooperative. Undaunted, Chuck Knapp, Ph.D., has made the conservation of the Bahamian rock iguana his life’s work, and now he is a leading authority on them.

Twice a year, Knapp 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 was the first to observe that Andros iguanas lay their eggs in termite nests and that the powerful lizards can swim between nearby islands.  

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!

Our most recent iguana studies 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.

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