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Saving Jamaican Iguanas

Dawn Fleuchaus holds up a Jamaican iguana.

Photo provided by Dawn Fleuchaus

Dawn Fleuchaus had always liked to vacation in Jamaica. Six years ago she found a way to combine vacation with conservation research in that country. The Jamaican Iguana Project, a study that began as a collaborative effort of the University of West Indies and the Hope Zoo in Kingston, Jamaica, offered Fleuchaus the opportunity to study the endangered rock iguana in the wild. “I wanted to get involved in field conservation and I love Jamaica,” says Fleuchaus, area supervisor of the Milwaukee County Zoo’s Australia and North America areas. With $3,500 in funding from the Zoological Society over six years, Fleuchaus has participated in the Jamaican study for one to two weeks every summer since 2000, including last summer.

In June 2000 Fleuchaus found herself capturing rock iguanas in a forest outside of Kingston. She then collected data such as the weight and length of each reptile and released them back into the wild. Other researchers placed bands and transmit- ters on the iguanas for easy tracking. The goal of the study was to ensure that igua- nas survive and reproduce from year to year. “The wild population of rock iguanas is one of the few sources of information on these animals,” says Fleuchaus. There are only 18 Jamaican rock iguanas in zoos worldwide. More than 100 Jamaican iguana

offspring have been taken from the wild to the Hope Zoo to be tagged and recorded

by zookeepers before being re-released into the wild once they are large enough to thrive four or five years later. About 50 rock igua- nas already have been released. Rock iguanas are threatened by human-introduced predators such as mongooses, cats, dogs and wild pigs. Loggers, too, destroy the iguanas’ habitat when they cut down trees for charcoal. Fleuchaus and other researchers try to save iguanas by destroying predators. “If we stopped monitoring the area, it would be overrun by introduced predators,” says Fleuchaus.

Why is this research valuable? Iguanas help keep the Jamaican ecosystem in balance because they are responsible for seed disper- sal. Iguanas eat fruit and plants, then travel a wide area and replant the seeds that pass through their digestive system. Seeds scattered over a wide area result in healthier foliage because there is little competition for food and sun from other plants. When iguanas began to disappear from Jamaica, some of the local vegetation and forests began to disappear as well. “Iguanas are no longer the dominant herbivore in Jamaica, and the natural flora of the islands is paying the price,” says Craig Berg, curator of the Zoo’s Aquatic & Reptile Center. Researchers like Fleuchaus, however, are helping to restore the balance of nature.

Studying a Damaged Coral Reef

Zookeeper Earl Conteh-Morgan has dreamed of a career in marine biology since he was captivated by an underwater nature show on television. Last April, Conteh-Morgan found a way to sample that dream career, taking a leave of absence from his job at the Zoo and packing his bags for the Seychelles, islands in the Indian Ocean, northeast of Madagascar. Conteh-Morgan spent 10 weeks there documenting the recovery of the coral reef. Global Vision International and the Seychelles government are conducting ongoing marine research together, including the study of its damaged coral reefs. The volunteer-funded research was an opportunity of a lifetime for Conteh-Morgan, who paid for his own trip there.

Photo provided by Earl Conteh-Morgan

“The coral reef is just one small part, but one important part, of the ocean,” he says. “If the coral reef goes, a huge chunk of diversity is gone that people depend on in a number of ways.” The reefs Conteh-Morgan studied have suffered much in the last few years. About 90 percent of the reefs had died in what biologists call a bleaching incident. When the water temperature around the coral gets too high, coral expel algae living inside of them. There’s a symbiotic relation- ship between coral and the algae. Coral provides nutrition and safety for algae; algae provide coral with 85 percent of its food through photosynthesis. Without the constant food source, the coral will turn white and die. Add the devastating effects of the tsunami that hit the Indian Ocean in

December 2004, and things didn’t look good for the thousands-of-years-old reefs.

E a r l C

o n t e h - M o r g a n e x a m i n e s a c o r a

reef in the Seychelles.


During his daily scuba dive, Conteh-Morgan was surprised by the diversity of marine life still living in the reef. He focused on 42 kinds of coral, and found representatives of almost all of them still alive and present. He also saw

numerous fish, lobsters, octopus, sea cucumbers, shrimp and other invertebrates that had returned to the reef. “Coral reefs are the canary of the ocean, alerting us when the ocean itself is in danger,” he says. Without healthy marine environments, “it makes it much harder for marine life to survive, for people to make a living off the ocean, and for people to enjoy the ocean.”

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    By Julia Kolker & Emilie Rusch

Alive Winter 2007


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