2017 Pre-Hurricane Update

Conservation, applied research, and recovery of the Anegada iguana, Cyclura pinguis
Report submitted by Kelly A. Bradley, Fort Worth Zoo
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K. Bradley (left) and botany team from the Royal Botanical Gardens, KEW, conducting surveys of rare plants at the east end of Anegada in February.

Overview. We requested funds to continue the Anegada Iguana conservation program as it entered its 20th year. We proposed to build upon the progress made in previous years by (1) expanding investigations of iguana and flora interactions on Anegada, (2) searching for and protecting nests in July, (3) releasing individuals from the headstart facility that are at least 20 cm in snout-to-vent length (SVL), (4) continuing camera trapping program to document the distribution, abundance, and habitat use of the wild/repatriated iguanas and invasive mammals on Anegada, (5) hosting the 6th Annual Iguana Festival, (6) creating a video and purchasing equipment for a video graphic to be displayed inside the new visitor’s center at the headstart facility, and (7) maintaining the field vehicle on Anegada.

Hurricane Update. On 6 September 2017, the entire British Virgin Islands, including Anegada, suffered catastrophic damage due to landfall of Hurricane Irma, a Category 5 storm. All communications were knocked out by the storm and Kelly Bradley was unable to receive any information concerning the status of facility staff, the captive animals on Anegada, the conditions of the cages, or the headstart facility as a whole.

Three days later Michael Young, National National Parks Trust of the Virgin Islands (NPTVI) staff member who works on Anegada, was able to catch an emergency evacuation flight to Puerto Rico. Once Young had cellular service he called to report conditions at the facility. It was with great relief and gratitude that we learned no animals were lost in the storm and there was limited damage to the cages at the facility. Over the last three years, a trip has been made each year to refurbish/reinforce many of the older cages, plus install an entirely new enclosure system. It is clear given the intensity of this storm, that the money spent on facility maintenance and upgrades were worth every cent. We feared the worst, but experienced minimal loss of infrastructure and zero losses of animal life due in part to the generous support from the International Iguana Foundation.

The following outlines progress that was made during 2017 before the hurricanes.

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Natasha Harrigan, horticulturist at the J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens in Tortola, attending the seedlings from the iguana/seed germination study.

Botanic collaboration. We continued our collaboration with Kew botanists and the J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens in Tortola (JROBG) investigating iguana and flora interactions. Collaborators surveyed the island in February to identify patches of diverse forest that might support unknown iguana populations, and a location in the eastern Warner area was identified for future exploration. We also continued the seed germination study to determine if seeds passing through an iguana’s gut enhances germination or growth. Seeds of Amyris elemiferReynosia sp., and Ziziphus rignonii were collected from wild iguana scat and planted at the JROBG. Further plant species would be collected during the October trip. Unfortunately, JROBG was completely destroyed by Hurricane Irma and this work has been put on hold until our partners in the BVI recover. Preliminary results did show promising differences in germination rate. These studies help expand the program’s focus from a saving a single iguana species, to saving important mutualisms within the ecosystem. By camera trapping in areas with high densities of rare plant species, we could create a new method to identify previously unknown subpopulations and new locations for future iguana releases.

An Iguana scat sample from Middle Cay that contained partially digested fruit from Reynosia sp. These seeds were planted as part of the germination study.
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Reynosia sp. seedlings resulting from the germination study at J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens in Tortola.

Nest site locating. Four nests in Windlass Bight and one in Bones Bight were located and fenced. Unfortunately, it is not likely we will be able to tell if these nests hatched post-hurricane.

Captive facility update. In July, the captive facility held 60 iguanas, with 25 that were slated for possible release in October. Two hurricanes within two weeks of each other, Irma and Maria, created an emergency situation for the captive animals. Two NPTVI staff remained on island and feeding the animals with what supplies they managed to procure. The Fort Worth Zoo team was able to have one shipment of produce delivered, and working on getting an emergency supply of pelleted diet to Anegada. However, Hurricane Maria also destroyed the staging area in Puerto Rico that was the best opportunity to get food to Anegada. Instructions were given to NPTVI staff to release all animals if they are unable to feed them. In this case, all 60 captive animals will be released, and K. Bradley will recapture as many animals as possible once she is allowed back on island. Large animals would be released to the core iguana area. Small animals could be put back in facility cages if conditions allow.

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A student volunteer sets up a camera at the Middle Cay site.

Camera trapping. We set up a reconnaissance camera grid in the eastern Warner area in conjunction with the botanic collaboration (above). This area contains a healthy plant community, including numerous black sage plants (Veronia rupicola). This is a Critically Endangered plant that appears to thrive in areas with iguanas. Unfortunately, the cameras collected no images of iguanas in this area between February and May 2017. Cameras were also set up in the core iguana area (Windlass Bight, Bones Bight, and Middle Cay) between May and July 2017 to continue the long-term monitoring of the released and wild animals. Finally, cameras were left observing each of the nests found in August 2017. Systematic camera grid surveys monitor strategic locations for long periods, gathering extensive data not previously collected. This noninvasive method has collected rarely observed behavior and other population structure data in the core iguana area, lending support for the protection of the this area. If the storms have not damaged or moved the nesting cameras, K. Bradley will collect the images/data once she is allowed back on island.

Iguana Fest. Our annual education outreach event was scheduled to take place on October 20. This event has been delayed until a more appropriate time, and will likely be a much smaller event than originally planned. Residents look forward to the annual Iguana Fest — it highlights the island’s uniqueness and encourages resident’s ownership of the iguana program.

Visitor’s Center video. We collected video footage of wild adult iguanas during the May and July 2017 trips. The footage was submitted to the National Parks Trust in August. The NPTVI hired a local company to produce a short video that will be used as an educational graphic in the new visitor’s center. When this project resumes we plan to purchase TV and video equipment for the center.

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A young female captured by a camera trap set in Windlass Bight in May 2017.

Future. Given hurricane Irma, the program’s most pressing needs will be structural repairs at the facility. The NPTVI will also need equipment, materials, and miscellaneous supplies to continue their recovery from the storm. The FWZ and IIF will be in a good position to help our long-term partners rebuild so they can continue to support the iguana recovery program. Researchers will continue our collaboration with KEW on previous studies interrupted by the storm, but also investigate differences in how native plant communities in areas with and without iguanas recover. The 2017 Iguana Fest was to be greatly expanded with close to 150 children from other islands (Virgin Gorda and Tortola), plus the addition of local venders selling handmade products and food/drink. It is our plan that the expanded event will be implemented in the 2018 Iguana Fest. We hope this will help create a sense of normalcy for the island’s residents.