It’s All About Iguanas!

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Some Background to the Project

So my work here varies slightly from day to day, but the main themes are the conservation of Bats and Iguanas, I’ll be talking about my work with the latter briefly in this blog. On the island of Utila there are 4 endemic species, one of which is the Swamper (Ctenosaura bakeri) or Baker’s spiny tail iguana.

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Swamper Iguana

This Iguana is classified as critically endangered, there are two main factors contributing to this; hunting affects Iguanas all over the developing world, presumably they’re rather tasty as over hunting is driving this particular Iguana to the edge of extinction and the lack of education and job opportunties amongst the locals means that many of the hunters are unaware of the damage they’re doing to this species or they have no other way of making money. The other problem is the destruction of their habitat. Mangrove swamps aren’t the most stunning places in the world at first glance and they can be perceived as offering little in land value. This is perhaps the reason that they are so readily destroyed to further development of beach homes and holiday resorts that add to Utila’s successful tourism industry. This is tragic however, as mangrove swamps are a beautiful, unique and important ecosystem; they protect the island from coastal erosion and are incredibly biodiverse. I’ve witnessed some of the destruction first hand and it really is awful to see how shortsighted people can be and how they treat an environment, which they ultimately depend on. The irony is that a tourism industry based on the beauty of the island’s coral reefs is damaging the mangrove swamps, which act as a nursery for many of the reef’s species of fish.

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In the thick of the mangroves

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An area of mangroves that has been destroyed

The day-to-day work

I largely assist on the population studies of the species (Ctenosaura bakeri). The Utilian Iguana is only found in the mangroves of Utila. This means I get the pleasure of spending most of my time wading through the warm salty waters of the mangroves on the ‘hunt’ for Iguanas. When I first arrived in the mangroves the Iguana’s seemed like some kind of mythical beings or reptilian ninjas, invisible to the naked eye! Even when my other teammates would point one out, I could rarely actually see them until we were right by the tree it was sat in. Like any good hunter though I’ve adapted and learnt how to think like an Iguana, now despite their best efforts to hide, I’m spotting almost half of the Iguanas we tag on an average day in the field, which feels pretty good! Especially when I am ‘hunting’ them to protect them and not for any other reason. Locating the Iguanas is only the first half of the battle, catching them is the next art that had to be mastered. We use a long pole with a noose on the end.

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Jordyn Mulder catching an Iguana

This is the most effective method of catching them and doesn’t cause them too much stress, which is a good job really as an angry Iguana can have a mean whippy tail and will try it’s best to take a bite out of your thumb in order to get away! From 12ft below underneath the Caribbean sun, an Iguana’s head is quite a tricky target to loop a noose over. A personal highlight of mine is climbing the trees to get closer to my catch. This also provides an amazing view of the rest of the mangroves and helps me to scope out other potential areas they might be hiding out in.

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Me climbing to catch my next Iguana

Each Iguana gets a unique number and the tree it was caught in is labeled and marked on a GPS. This part is very important as each Iguana ‘owns’ maybe a handful of trees in its territory and needs to be released onto its own tree to avoid any neighbourhood disputes. I know I wouldn’t be too thrilled if when I got home after a long day at work and my neighbour was sat on my sofa, so we try to pay them the courtesy of always returning them home. Tagging an Iguana consists first of a visual tag made of beads, these are essentially jazzy piercings that make the Iguana look stylish, without impeding its everyday life and allow us to instantly see if it’s a recapture or a new Iguana. Once we’ve done this we give them a PIT tag sub-dermally around its mid region. This allows us to scan and identify the Iguana and get information by looking at our past records, such as its home territories, an estimation of age etc. These tags also allow us to monitor the growth of juveniles. It’s always encouraging to re-capture an adult that was released as a juvenile several years previously and managed to survive! Once we’ve done the relevant tagging and taken a photo of their perdy little faces we put them back on their tree to carry on sunbathing and hopefully avoiding the other Iguana hunters on the island.

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Taking an Iguana’s measurements

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Inserting a bead tag

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Each individual is returned to the tree from which they were caught

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My Journey to Kanahau

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Undergoing a BBSRC funded PhD allows me and my fellow colleagues the opportunity to carry out a placement that, by rule, must be unrelated to my current field of research.

My Current research sees me working 9 – 6 (minimum) daily in an almost windowless laboratory, battling with the huge task of creating new antibiotics to replace the current ones that bacteria are quickly becoming resistant to, as you can imagine it’s rather draining.

After a year of my PhD the time to start organizing my placement grew ever nearer until I could put it off no longer. I started searching through potential placement options between experiments (missing out on valuable tea breaks as I went, you can only imagine my frustration at this new chore eating into my already limited downtime!).

After reluctantly lining up a few uninspiring ways to see out my prescribed 3 months, in another lab, doing someone else’s research I happened across an email that I would usually have discarded as spam, intended for the Biologists working under the BBSRC. It contained a link to the website of Kanahau, an organization situated on an island called Utilla (near Honduras). This was the first time I allowed my imagination to run wild and view my placement as an opportunity to get away from the monotony of life in a Synthetic Chemisty lab and have some fun!

I spent a little time on Kanahau’s website and talking to a previous volunteer that was also from my university and (spurred on by my boyfriend’s impending 3 month trip to the Philippines) decided to run away and become a conservation researcher in Central America for 9 weeks!

I first saw Utilla from the window of my flight from San Salvador on the way to Roatan (getting here from the UK took a series of flights on increasingly smaller planes, culminating in a private flight from Roatan to Utila). The view was simply spectacular; as someone who has never been any further from the UK than Europe the scenery was shocking, the vividness of the colours and the thick warm taste of the air were something I hadn’t expected. The feeling that I was being flown through the panoramic landscape shot at the start of a David Attenborough documentary was only strengthened when the pilot of my tiny plane pointed out the Whale Shark swimming just below us, visible through the LITERALLY crystal clear water. Had I not have been completely aghast by the beauty of my current surroundings I might have had the forethought to take some pictures, however I feel ultimately lucky to have experienced that moment fully, without the distraction of a camera lens.

I got off our plane, thanked the pilot and waited in the small café at the end of the runway for Andrea to arrive, Andrea is part of the team here at Kanahau and the lead researcher, she showed me to my accommodation for the first 3 weeks right by the botanical gardens. Already I was starting to draw comparisons with my routine at home. I certainly prefer walking through the gardens in the morning casually picking fruits for my breakfast smoothie to the unpleasantness of the number 86 bus, overcrowded with sweaty Mancunians jostling for seats.

So as I adjust to the novelties of island life, after the 6 month road to Kanahau, plotting and planning my way to the hammock from which I’m currently typing, I’ll be writing small blogs about my experiences. Before coming here I would have welcomed the insights of a previous volunteer to help me make my decision, so hopefully I can help to give outsiders a window to the amazing work that is being done here and is being planned for the future, by such a small and passionate team.

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My private flight from Roatan to Utila

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The view from Pumpkin Hill

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The view as approaching Utila

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My home for three weeks at the Botanical Gardens