Iguanas Research Trip to Bahamas with Shedd Aquarium

Dr. Chuck Knapp

Hello everyone: I’m Dr. Chuck Knapp, the Director of Conservation and Research at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois. When I started working at Shedd Aquarium as a young aquarist in 1991, I became fascinated with the world’s most endangered lizards: West Indian rock iguanas. Come along with me as I post blogs and photos of our annual citizen science iguana research expedition to the Bahamas over the next few weeks.

Since 1994, Shedd Aquarium has been a leader in rock iguana conservation through our extensive field research program and outreach activities in Bahamian classrooms and communities. Our work not only raises the profile of iguanas in the Bahamas, but also provides information that assists Bahamian wildlife managers in establishing science-based programs to ensure the lizards’ long-term survival. We are not alone in our commitment, however, as we have wonderful partnerships with Bahamian government agencies and non-government entities. We work closely on management and education activities with the Bahamas National Trust (BNT), the non-government organization mandated with overseeing the country’s entire national park system. In fact, BNT representatives join us each year on our annual citizen science iguana research expeditions.

So what are these extraordinary lizards? Nine species of rock iguanas, genus Cyclura, inhabit the rugged terrain of islands in the Caribbean and the Bahamas (including the Turks and Caicos Islands). They all originated from a single mainland stock that was uprooted and scattered by tropical storms. Each species is unique to only one or a few islands – similar to the Galapagos tortoises – and has evolved to thrive in its unique habitat.

Centuries of combined pressure from hunting, predation by non-native species, and poaching for the pet trade, pushed iguanas to the brink. Of the two subspecies on the Exuma Islands, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists one as critically endangered and the other as endangered.

Rock iguanas are found naturally on eight of the more than 360 cays that make up the Exuma Islands chain, where Shedd will travel this year. The Exumas are popular with tourists who want to get off the beaten path. Yachters, resort guests and powerboat tours frequent the iguanas’ cays for an up-close encounter with these visually striking lizards. Often, visitors come with food in hand to tempt the animals closer. Since the 1980s, some islands have seen a tenfold increase in daily visits, from around 20 people per day to more than 200—and the visits keep increasing. Tourism can create opportunities for people to connect with iguanas, learn about the endangered animals and support the local economy.

One of the rock iguanas takes a close-up. Copyright John G. Shedd Aquarium
One of the rock iguanas takes a close-up. Copyright John G. Shedd Aquarium

However, as more people visit, iguana behavior is changing: iguanas on “fed” beaches are less cautious around people and more likely to congregate in dense numbers to wait for an easy meal. Iguanas primarily eat fruit and plants; however, tourists attract them using bread, ground beef, cereal, potato chips, and other food that resembles nothing in the animals’ natural diet.


The John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago sparks compassion, curiosity and conservation for the aquatic animal world. Home to 32,000 aquatic animals representing 1,500 species of fishes, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, birds and mammals from waters around the globe, Shedd is a recognized leader in animal care, conservation education and research. An accredited member of the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the first U.S. aquarium to be awarded the Humane Conservation™ certification mark for the care and welfare of its animals by American Humane, the organization is an affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, and is supported by the people of Chicago, the State of Illinois and the Chicago Park District. www.sheddaquarium.org
  • […] Iguanas Study Trip to Bahamas with Shedd Aquarium Hello everyone: I&#39m Dr. Chuck Knapp, the Director of Conservation and Analysis at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois. When I started working at Shedd Aquarium as a young aquarist in 1991, I became fascinated with the world&#39s most endangered lizards: … Read a lot more on NatGeo News Watch (weblog) […]

  • Julie Angove

    I am lucky enough to have visited one of the Exuma Cays on a powerboat adventure and seen these fascinating creatures. On my trip the boat crew recommended against giving the iguanas anything but the few grapes they provided. I imagine it is a fine balance between raising interest in conserving these almost prehistoric creatures and that very interest damaging their survival. Would have any recommendations for visitors wanting to engage with the iguanas?
    thank you.

    • Shedd Aquarium

      Hi Julie –

      Thank you for your great question! Right now, researchers are still studying food provisioning by tourists to understand both the short and long-term effects on iguanas. There are still a lot of questions left to answer. That’s why ongoing research programs like Shedd’s are so important; what we learn can help make the best possible management recommendations for iguanas that balance the health of these beautiful animals with the educational and economic benefits to people.

      In the meantime, if you’re going to the Exumas and plan to visit a cay where rock iguanas live, here’s what our local conservation partner, the Bahamas National Trust, recommends: “You should NOT feed iguanas because it changes behavioral norms and may be harmful to their health. However, it is recognized that the Allen Cays are a traditional iguana-feeding destination. If you must indulge, restrict any feeding to Leaf Cay and use only fruits and vegetables. To protect from collapsing nest burrows, do not walk on sandy areas behind beaches. You can help protect iguanas by sharing this information with other people and reporting harmful behavior to the area park wardens or police.”

      – Dr. Chuck Knapp

  • Patricia Clare

    My sister and I were very lucky and participated in one of Shedds field trips with Dr. Knapp. It was the most amazing experiences of our life to work with the iguanas and we learned a great deal. I’m glad the project continues.

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