Changing Planet

Iguanas Research Trip to the Bahamas with Shedd Aquarium – Series Post 2

RV Coral Reef II sits off the coast of one of the islands in the Bahamas during the Iguana Research Trip
Shedd Aquarium's research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II sits off the coast of one of the islands in the Bahamas during the Iguana Research Trip. Copyright John G. Shedd Aquarium.

Each year, Shedd Aquarium takes its 80-foot research vessel, the R/V Coral Reef II, to study endangered Bahamian rock iguana populations, alternating years between the Exuma Islands and Andros Island. Annual monitoring is imperative. As regional tourism booms, conditions on the ground change rapidly; regular research helps support management plans that address the current conservation situation.

Over the next 9 days, trip participants of Shedd Aquarium’s Bahamas excursion will be getting their hands dirty as they dig into the research. One of the fun parts of the trip is finding the same iguanas that we’ve worked with for many years. It’s like encountering an old friend. One of the tough parts is getting the work done and still catching some sleep! Once we hit the field, we’ll be operating at full capacity, working hard to be sure that we gather as much useful data as possible in the brief days ahead. That’s where the trip members are lifesavers: many people are seasoned iguana wranglers who accompany Shedd year after year. Without them, our critical work wouldn’t happen.

Dr. Chuck Knapp takes a break while working in the field.
Dr. Chuck Knapp takes a break while working in the field. Copyright John G. Shedd Aquarium.

This year, Shedd will continue long-term population monitoring and also expand on specific research from the 2010 Exumas trip. In 2010 we investigated stress levels and health conditions between iguanas inhabiting visited and non-visited islands. We discovered that feeding is having an effect on health and we want to expand the research this year to include an investigation on parasites.

We will investigate whether the feeding of the iguanas by humans can affect the transmission rate of parasites and bacteria between animals. These iguanas are usually solitary, but they crowd together on ‘fed’ beaches. By collecting and analyzing fecal samples, we hope to learn whether these high-density iguana populations are more likely to spread parasites between individual animals thus harming their overall health.

Shedd’s results will be combined with our previous research in order to make management recommendations to tour operators, relevant government agencies, and wildlife managers to ensure the long-term survival of these iguanas and their habitats.

Iguanas congregating on a 'fed' beach.
Iguanas congregating on a 'fed' beach. Copyright John G. Shedd Aquarium.

Shedd’s basecamp is the CR II as we travel between cays, using small motorized boats to access places with shallow inlets. Sometimes, we can only reach research sites by wading to shore—or jumping from the boat to a limestone cliff and scrabbling up from there. Work will commence on the south cays, where the rough terrain means that iguanas have less exposure to people. Stay tuned for my next post which I’ll send from the field as our research gets underway and our trip participants will be using their iguana-catching skills.

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

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