Forest fire kills off 26% of endemic ‘Old George’

| 11/05/2021 | 28 Comments

(CNS): More than a quarter of the endemic and critically endangered ‘Old George’ (Wittmackia caymanensis), a type of bromeliad plant, was destroyed in the March brush fire at the Ironwood Forest in George Town, the Department of Environment has revealed. Writing in the latest edition of the department’s bi-monthly magazine, Flicker, Jane Haakonsson, the editor and research officer in the Terrestrial Resources Unit, said this last piece of old growth ancient forest was badly damaged by the blaze and many protected and endangered species, including Old George and the ghost orchid (Dendrophylax fawcetti) were impacted.

Old George reproduces asexually through basal offshoots, and efforts to get the plant to grow elsewhere have failed, suggesting that the dwindling microclimate in the Ironwood Forest is important to seedling establishment. This places the species in more danger, given that much of its original habitat has been lost as George Town has urbanised. The fire has added to its plight.

“Its final holdout in the Ironwood Forest remains at risk now more than ever,” Haakonsson warned. “It appears that all Old George which occur primarily at ground level, within the extent of the fire, were completely burnt. Very few dry forest tree species within the extent of the fire survived… We overlaid the Old George abundance maps with the polygon of the extent of the fire, and calculations show that an approximate 26% of the Old George population was lost to this one event.”

Although the DoE does not have the same level of information about the mysterious ghost orchid, the researchers believe that the fire has also impacted its dwindling numbers. The Ironwood Forest is actually a mosaic of freshwater wetlands, dry forest and dry shrubland, which due to the elevated humidity provided by the wetland supports a variety of epiphytes and orchids.

The fire started sometime in the afternoon on 12 March. It appears to have originated from a property bordering the forest area and was fuelled by the wetland fern and sedges, but the dry forest areas downwind of the wetlands were also severely impacted by the flames.

The rhizomes of the wetland sedges and ferns were protected from the fire by the water table and have already begun sprouting new shoots. These wetland species are expected to recover quickly, the DoE experts believe, which sadly cannot be said for the dry forest species that were lost, as the researchers do not know how long it will take to recolonise the cleared areas.

The DoE is hoping to use drones to help it carry out the necessary research and also keep an eye on the recolonisation of the dry forest habitat to ensure that no invasive species gain a foothold in this important area of ancient forest and the last remaining habitat for several important and endemic Cayman species. Logwood is a particular threat as it is already present within the Ironwood Forest area and is an aggressive colonizer of low-lying damp habitats.

See full article in Flicker issue #52 here.

See back issues of Flicker on the DoE website here.

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Category: Land Habitat, Science & Nature

Comments (28)

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  1. Finito says:

    Next up Fin will put in a Planning Application for 2,000 condos surrounded by an 8ft high wall to keep the locals out.

  2. Anonymous says:

    Cayman is an environmental disaster, it’s shocking how you treat the wildlife here. Literally no one gives a F

    Be nice and put out some water

  3. Anon K says:

    Hmmm… someone may have deliberately set the forest on fire, so to run a road through the burnt area! There were alot of debates about this forest and a needed main road! Has the fire department surveyed the land properly for any man-made causes? I find it strange that the burning is almost horizontally across the land from one end to the next.

    • Townah says:

      The bit that burned sits atop a rocky ridge, therefore not much water retention. If you look at the current google map image, it shows that the area is grassy, therefore it would have been dry and inevitably the path of least resistance for fire to spread.

      I’m all for conspiracy theories but this doesn’t seem to be one.

  4. Anonymous says:

    The future of Grand Cayman’s environment is looking bleaker and bleaker every day.

    • Anonymous says:

      Yes, and the CIG is incapable to protect it’s own.

      They watch, they ignore, they turn their back as they line their pockets through blinded vision with money from the developers, who bought the land from ignorant Caymanians.

      BUT, we elected them – WE ARE TO BLAME!

  5. Anonymous says:

    Ok lets run the road through the burnt section now.

  6. Anonymous says:

    I don’t doubt that Old George will recover. It actually propagates better than common weeds so might be reintroduced with some planting. I’d be more concerned about the loss of Dendrophylax which is challenged by its loss of microclimate. Except for a few specimens that got confiscated in Holland en route to Chelsea Flower show some years ago Cayman is it’s only last refuge. I guess in another decade these will be gone too. Sad

  7. DD says:

    It’s going to be lost or extinct sooner or later, folks. The forest is a piece of “bush,” its too small now. It’s a sad case, but what more can you do? Send drones??? O pleaseeee! Have they tried purchasing more lands around the Mastic trail, and relocating the orchids there?

    • Anonymous says:

      6:40 With what money prey tell?? The reserve for government to buy up land for conservation is shockingly small..

    • Say it like it is. says:

      6.40pm Wasn’t it a local farmer who cleared a large section of the Trail “by mistake”.

  8. Supa Depress says:

    Just pave this whole place and get on with it. Earth day last month quickly forgotten. Depressing as we could be an example not a laughing stock. Who cares about the endemics…plants or people. Ugh. SMH

  9. Anonymous says:

    Not to worry! Now that this property has been exposed, it will soon be sold to a developer, CPA will give approval for whatever (against DoE advice) and it will be concrete!!

    Sorry Old George!

  10. Anonymous says:

    Might as well put that connector road through there now then.

  11. Anonymous says:

    This fire happened because of the recklessness of someone burning rubbish. Nothing to do with the environment, you cannot protect against the stupid.

  12. Anonymous says:

    Why everything is so 🤬 in Cayman?

  13. Anonymous says:

    What will happen to the person who was illegally burning? Nothing.

  14. Anonymous says:

    Any arrests?

  15. Anonymous says:

    Good maybe now we can build the much needed road through it.

  16. Al Catraz says:

    “Old George reproduces asexually”

    He had better luck when he was Young George, but the ladies just don’t come around as much anymore.

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