Green iguanas top suspects in blues’ death

| 11/09/2017 | 43 Comments
Cayman News Service

(L-R) Karen Ford (BIRP) and National Trust’s Stuart Mailer and Christina Pineda

(CNS): Whatever type of disease killed 14 blue iguanas at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park over a two-year period, it appears to have been contained and there have been no further cases for the last six months, according to staff at the National Trust for the Cayman Islands and the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme (BIRP). The cause of death for those 14 and illness in three other blues may be linked to the Helicobacter bacteria, and the prime suspect in the transmission of the disease is the invasive green iguana, though further testing is underway to confirm that theory.

More than half of the iguanas that died tested positive for Helicobacter. While the others were unable to be tested, the staff is operating under the theory that the bacterium was in all of them.

If the green iguana is the source, that would not only put the blues at further risk but could also pose a major threat for the rock iguana on Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. But if it turns out greens are not connected to the blues’ illness, the search will broaden to other species, such as the Cayman racer snake.

The two-year outbreak of the disease appears to have been contained to blues that live within the park, where the total population is about 200. There are approximately 1,000 more in two reserves on Grand Cayman – Salina and Colliers — which were apparently clear of the disease. BIRP environmental field officer Karen Ford explained that during patrols of the reserves, there have been no signs of illness among the iguanas and their activity was normal. To prevent any possible contamination between the blues at the Botanic Park and those living in the reserves, staff who work at all three areas adhere to strict quarantine, biosecurity and monitoring protocols,

While Ford said the small number of cases of infection shows the disease is not highly contagious, the experts from BIRP and the Trust admit that very little is known about the Helicobacter bacteria. They are also as yet unable to rule out other mitigating factors in the deaths.

Ford discovered the first sick iguana during a routine patrol at the Botanic Park in May 2015, she recalled at a press conference Friday. The animal, which was lethargic and showing signs of illness, was taken to Island Veterinary Services (IVS) and treated by Dr Ioana Popescu, but it died the same day from blood poisoning. Over the next two years, 16 more iguanas became ill with the same symptoms; all together three recovered through treatment with antibiotics and 14 died.

At first, staff was baffled by the deaths, Ford said, but partnerships with the Wildlife Conservation Society, St Matthew’s University, the Cayman Islands Department of Environment (DoE) and IVS helped to narrow down the most likely culprit as Helicobacter.

To contain the infection, staff followed strict protocols, which included stepping in bleach baths for their boots and use of hand sanitiser, similar to what would be done in a hospital. Whenever a hatchling is released after a two-year “headstart”, there are additional protocols for staff to transport the iguana to and from the quarantine area so there is no chance of infection.

As another precaution, breeding, which occurs from March to June, has been suspended, with breeding pairs kept in separate pens to reduce any chances of an animal getting sick. Christina Pineda, executive director of the National Trust, explained that the Trust, the DoE, the Botanic Park and other partners were involved in that decision.

Meanwhile, they are working to pinpoint the cause of the illness and means of transmission, particularly the hypothesis that the green iguanas carry Helicobacter. Dr Popescu, as part of her master’s thesis, is investigating any link to green iguanas by sending faecal samples from between 50 and 100 of that invasive species overseas for testing. A recent fundraiser brought in the $3,800 needed for that study; any additional funds collected will go towards vet bills for the blue iguanas, which can be as high as about $3,000 a visit, depending on what treatment, such as surgery, is required.

Ford takes the plight of the blues very personally since she works with them every day. “I’ve developed a relationship with all of them” at the park, she said, adding she knows who’s “chilled out”, who’s scared of her and who to stay away from.

The last two years have been difficult, she acknowledged. “It’s been emotional. There’s been sad times, there’s been happy times, but that’s just part of the job; you just keep going.”

Pineda also defended the delay in publicising the infection of the 17 blues, saying they were focused on saving the blue iguana, pointing out that things could have been much worse without the joint action of the Trust and the BIRP.

In a pushback to an editorial in the Cayman Compass criticising the time lag between the events which took place from May 2015 to earlier this year and making that information public, Pineda said that the quick actions of the BIRP team and the Trust prevented what could have been “catastrophic”, and everyone was concentrating on getting that situation under control.

Overall, blue iguana conservation efforts have been “highly successful”, Ford said. “To date not many other conservation programmes have reached the point that we have.”

However, she struck a note of caution. “The threats that were there 20 years ago are still here and even more so today than they were before. The blue iguanas will always have to be under some sort of conservation programme for the rest of time.”

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Comments (43)

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  1. CaymanNurse says:

    A now-closed pet store on Dr Roy’s Drive was selling green iguanas as pets for years- and those iguanas are like Houdini escape artists! Add to that all that were inadvertently set free during and after Ivan and you have our present situation. How can the National Trust be held liable for that? The brainiac who allowed the importation of the greens to the pet shops is where probable liability lies.

  2. Anonymous says:

    What a load of nonsense.
    What you posted made no sense so I went on the links you provided and things got even worse. All psuedo-science that sounds neat until you actually think about it. Proof that some people need training wheels when using the internet.
    Dr. Dre and Dr. Pepper each know more about medicine an science than this Kruse Hack!

  3. HAHA says:

    My son and a few friends were fined about 5 years ago 500.00 for catching a few iguanas in west bay as they tried to explain to the officer that these species of iguanas was very invasive and could one day be a problem He ignored the facts anyway.
    The boys had to go before a judge as well and he shut the young men up and would not allow them to give their input at all.
    In this case the young boys had more sense than all the adults put together…

  4. Anonymous says:

    The blame for initially ignoring the green iguana invasion cannot be fairly placed at the feet of DOE or The National Trust. Please recall that the law which protect our indigenous blue iguanas was originally written (by the esteemed legal minds) to protect “iguanas”. Like other failures, inconsistencies and loopholes in our legal statutes, there was no foresight in preparing that law. As such, ALL iguanas were protected by law until just a couple years ago. Therefore, public and NGO agencies such as DOE and The Trust could NOT undertake or be overtly involved in green iguana culling or other control methods.

    I must agree with the critics, however, that DOE does share some culpability in underestimating the threat. Eventually when the issue could be addressed, the first failure of DOE was to grossly underestimate the numbers of greens. I recall one published estimate for the island-wide population of 200,000 green iguanas, which isn’t even close to the numbers of greens which reside in the ponds behind the airport post office!!

    • Anonymous says:

      They should have lobbied to have the law changed!!!! Piss poor excuse.

    • Pull the other one.... says:

      Total nonsense. Anyone who has taken a constitutional law class will know that the Animals Law as originally drafted was never intended to protect imported green iguanas. This is just a shibboleth being spread by those in positions of authority to explain away their abject failure to protect Cayman from this invasion.

  5. Armchair Quarterback says:

    I suppose you could have done better? Please explain without the use of hindsight.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I think that the Blues ate some of those Frankenbugs that were realeased by Oxytec! Same time period of time?

    • Anonymous says:

      @8:30 pm
      interesting that not many people are making this kind of connection. Butterfly effect!

    • Jotnar says:

      The genetically modified mosquitoes that were released at the other end of the island? Those ones. Eaten by a lizard that doesn’t eat mosquitos? And the first case was noted in May 2015, whereas the mosquito release didnt take place until July 2016? Yeah, sounds likely.

      • Anonymous says:

        There were earlier releases in prior years of these GM mosquitoes and they were done in the East End!

  7. Anonymous says:

    can’t we just spray paint some green iguanas blue?

  8. Anonymous says:

    how did the greens pass their medicals for their permit approvals?

  9. Anonymous says:

    blue lives matter.

  10. Anonymous says:


  11. Anonymous says:

    I am sorry to say, that between this new problem, and the invasion of the green iguana; the blues don’t have a chance of establishing a strong colony outside the confines of the Botanic Park.

    At the rate in which the green iguana reproduces, the writing is on the wall. It would take half of the human population beating arms to even make a dent I. The green population. The only alternative, the best one, is to introduce a predator of the green.

    I know that sounds crazy, but hear me out. Introducing a predator, all of the same sex, will help us bring the numbers of the green down. For example, letting ago 200 MALE hawks, they would spend their entire lives eating greens. Not being able to breed themselves, they would eventually die out. Hence biological control.

    The 200 plus blues in the wild should be recaptured until we have brought the greens under control. Otherwise all that has been done up until this point, will be for nothing.

    • Anonymous says:

      And how do you train a hawk to differentiate between blues and greens? What if hawks don’t like iguana and they eat all of our Cayman Parrots? Didn’t think this through did ya?

      • Anonymous says:

        You fool, hawks are a natural predator of the iguana. Research it instead of sounding like a numb skull. Capture as much of the blues in the wild until the geeens are brought under control.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Here is a good example of why in most advance countries they treat the existence of INVASIVE species very seriously!!! But no, not Cayman.

    This national tragedy falls squarely on the shoulders of the Nationa Trust and the DOE!!!!

    If the threat of the green iguana was taken seriously years ago we might have just stayed the extinction of the blue iguana. I am afraid that this might be the end of the blues in the wild.

    Downright shameful and a disgrace DOE!!!!!

    • Anonymous says:

      Take it easy.

    • Anonymous says:

      Highly pad for their uselessness. The usual procrastinating until it gets out of hand, then the big outcry.

    • Anonymous says:

      Except the Blue Iguanas were practically extinct before the greens showed up so, no, If the threat of the green iguana was taken seriously years ago it would not have made any difference in the extinction of the blue iguana. – PS> We did stay their extinction.

      But do’t let facts foil your rant.

  13. Anonymous says:

    This is a colossal screw-up of the National Trust, and the DOE. Their poor response to deal with the green iguana invasion has resulted in a fatal pathogen being transmitted from the greens to the blue’s.

    THAT is why they did their best to hide this from the public. They knew that they dropped the ball, and was hoping that it wouldn’t become public knowledge.

    Instead of dealing with this the proper way, DOE is full of people who believe they have been given authority straight from God to tell people what to do with their land.

    • Anonymous says:

      Stay on point. You’re experiencing opinion drift.

    • Sick of the ignorance says:

      The National Trust is NOT responsible for control of any invasive species. That is a Governmental issue that should have been handled by Dept if Agriculture who continue to shirk their responsibility until present day. Please get your facts straight before posting inflammatory remarks

  14. Anonymous says:

    I’m no scientist but I believe the chance of this deadly bacteria being transmitted to the blue iguana by the Cayman racer snake is minimal or non-existent. I would imagine that Cayman racer snakes and blue iguanas have co-existed in the wild for eons of time, without negative impact. The only “new” factor is the green iguanas. Therein lies the likely culprit!!

    I try to kill as many and I can chop!!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Mosquito control chemicals, GM mosquitos, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, the toxic Dump chemicals and parasites, bacterias viruses, fungi; radioactive and hazardous waste from the hospital…..
    They would never know, and so won’t you when you start getting ill for seemingly no apparent reason.

  16. Rose says:

    I am concerned that it took 2 years for this news to come out. What else of a national security should the public be made aware of? You have people handling iguanas in a cull that potentially could make them sick. This is alarming and further investigation is warranted. Has any cullers been ill? Who will take care of their medical bills?

    • Anonymous says:

      Newsflash. Iguanas (green or blue) already harbour all sorts of weird ‘bugs’. Whether they have helicobacter or not, that may or may not be making blue iguanas sick, anyone handling green iguanas (dead or alive) needs to be smart. Use gloves & wash hands.

  17. Anonymous says:

    What is worrying about the non disclosure of the possibility of the green iguana being a carrier of this bacteria is the fact that there are persons who eat the same green iguanas. Can this bacteria be spread by ingesting the meat of the green iguana?

    • Anonymous says:

      Cooking with heat kills bacteria. Chicken carries salmonella and beef e-coli so unless people are eating iguana sushi it won’t be a problem.

    • Anonymous says:

      Carniverious creatures, including humans can and do catch diseases from the flesh they eat, it is sometimes the risk of being a meat eater. But, thankfully, not all diseases are transmittable and yes heat does kill bacteria, usually.

    • Anonymous says:

      Newsflash. The green iguanas already carry bacteria that might make you sick. If you weren’t worried before you don’t need to be now.

    • Sick of the ignorance says:

      It is not yet proven that green iguanas are the culprit therefore no information was withheld in this regard. If you read the article closely you will see that green iguanas are the first avenue being investigated.

  18. Anonymous says:

    If the greens are really the problem then our blues are history. Feel sorry for Mr Burton… All that hard work and dedication for nothing.

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