A life-changing experience studying iguanas in the Bahamas

Dr. Chuck Knapp and College of the Bahamas student Shannan Yates celebrate the sighting of an Exuma Cays Rock Iguana. (Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium)

Guest post by Shannan Yates, a student at The College of the Bahamas, who recently attended one of Shedd Aquarium’s field research trips to Andros Island in The Bahamas.

In the spring of 2014, I had the opportunity of a lifetime that changed me both professionally and personally.

At a conference on Bahamian natural history, I met Shedd Aquarium’s Dr. Chuck Knapp, who oversees the conservation research program at Shedd and has spent decades researching rock iguanas in The Bahamas. At the time, I had been struggling with the decision of attending medical school. Would I make a difference working in a ‘normal career’, as in a sterile hospital wearing a white lab coat, be any different than working as a field researcher?

For me, Dr. Chuck helped to provide that answer. Without thinking twice, I accepted his invitation to accompany him on a citizen science iguana research exhibition to the Exuma Cays. My experience on that expedition–adjusting to the harsh weather and elements – proved to me that the white lab coat in some hospital was not going to be my career path. I found an unexplainable love for field research and the Exuma Cays Rock Iguana (Cyclura cychlura figgisi), in an experience that I will never forget.

College of the Bahamas student Shannan Yates Shannon fills blood vials after a blood extraction, and performs a blood smear on a slide for future parasite analyses.
College of the Bahamas student Shannan Yates Shannon fills blood vials after a blood extraction, and performs a blood smear on a slide for future parasite analyses. (Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium)

Dr. Knapp again invited me to join him on Shedd’s iguana research expedition to Andros Island to study its endemic iguana (Cyclura cychlura cychlura). Arriving on Andros – with its finicky weather and unforgiving flora and fauna- was a far cry from the city, resorts and tropical beaches most people think of when they hear The Bahamas. Clearly, the karst landscape and dry broadleaf evergreen formation was where I would be getting hands-on research experience.

Much of the field work required improvising. Taking fecal samples, collecting blood smears, performing ultrasound imaging and measuring the tail volume of the iguanas were all done outside the confines of a traditional laboratory and instead in the iguanas’ natural habitat. In total, we measured and released 46 iguanas (11 of which had already been documented in previous research), and found the species in three new locations.

College of the Bahamas student Shannan Yates performs an ultrasound on an iguana.
College of the Bahamas student Shannan Yates performs an ultrasound on an iguana. (Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium)

All of this valuable data would later contribute to Dr. Knapp’s research, which focuses on how the diets of iguanas isolated from humans, and those who are being constantly fed junk food by tourists, affects them.

During my six days of work, I got a crash course in decades of knowledge obtained by Dr. Knapp and others like Dr. John Iverson (Earlham College), Dr. Susannah French (Utah State University), and Dr. Dale DeNardo (Arizona State University); something that will be extremely valuable for me as I further my education. No classroom will ever teach you to safely handle a wild animal the way Dr. Knapp has seemly mastered this. If anyone thinks field work is simply a vacation for researchers, they need to attend an iguana research expedition!

Dr. Charles Knapp oversees Shedd’s on-site and global conservation research programs—including those of postdoctoral researchers studying aquatic issues in Guyana, the CaribbeanSoutheast Asia and the Great Lakes—with the ultimate goal of saving wild animals and imperiled ecosystems. his research focuses primarily on understanding the effects of anthropogenic disturbance on endangered taxa and designing conservation strategies to prevent further population declines and habitat degradation. His work with students, citizens, government officials and scientists led to the expansion of West Side National Park in the Bahamas, a considerable achievement in the region.


Meet the Author
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