St. Thomas ⎯ The U.S. Virgin Islands and large swaths of the Caribbean region have been largely transformed throughout the course of history by humans and natural disasters. Here are a few natives species that are endangered and in many cases, simply rare.
1. Puerto Rian Screech-owl (Megascops nudipes)
Puerto Rican Screech-owl occurs in forested habitats, including some urban areas. The humid, lowland forest of the Puerto Rico region is the primary habitat, though they have been known to be in the dry forests of islands and neighboring cays. Any small island with available nest cavities is ideal for this species.
The Puerto Rican Screech-Owl is regularly found in the Puerto Rican region, which includes Mona, Monita, Puerto Rico, Culebra, Vieques, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and the British Virgin Islands according to scientists.
This variety screech-owl was listed as a rare sighting on St. Croix dating as far back as the 1800s, although there are records of breeding populations in the past on island. The screech-owl was last reported to have been seen on island 1980 and in some references is listed as locally extinct to St. Croix — declining numbers are attributed largely to deforestation.
Locally extinct definition – Local extinction or extirpation is the condition of a species that ceases to exist in the chosen geographic area of study, though it still exists elsewhere. Local extinctions are different from global extinctions.
2. Virgin Islands tree boa (Chilabothrus granti)
There are several native species of snakes in the Virgin Islands. The garden snake, the Virgin Islands tree boa, the Blink Snake and others. The Virgin Islands Boa is one of the more talked about species, which is also protected under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.
The Virgin Islands tree boa is a native tree-dwelling snake and is the only native snake with a mottled (marked with spots or blotches) pattern on its skin. The coloring on adult snakes is a light brown or tan, with black-edged dark brown spots, with a cream-colored underside with grayish-brown spots.
The Virgin Islands tree boa hunts at night in the canopy and sleeps during the day. It finds refuge in vegetation cavities, in termite nests, and under rocks and debris.
An adult tree boa can reach 41 inches (104 centimeters) in length, from snout to vent. This species is not venomous and is harmless to people but does have teeth that can deliver a painful bite if provoked.
The Virgin Islands tree boa remains relatively small in size, preying on small birds, lizards mice, and other small animals. This boa shouldn’t be confused with other invasive snake species that can grow to be larger and more dangerous to small pets and children.
Despite being classified as endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Virgin Islands tree boa remains at risk due to severe habitat destruction and fragmentation caused by intense development across each island.
Vent definition (for snakes) – a common cavity at the end of the digestive tract for the release of both excretory and genital products in most vertebrates.
3. Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis)
Did you know that corals are actually animals? Well, they are an essential part of the animal kingdom.
This coral also exhibits the fastest growth of all known western Atlantic fringe corals, with branches increasing in length by 3.9–7.9 inches per year. This makes it one of the three most important Caribbean corals in terms of its contribution to reef growth and marine habitats throughout the Virgin Islands.
“Staghorn [coral] are one of the species that UVI coral biologists focus on with their conservation, efforts,” VI-EPSCoR Community Engagement Specialist, Jarvon Stout said. “It is one of the species used in the Virgin Islands Reef Response (VIRR) citizen science type project, where small coral fragments are grown on specially crafted structures and then transplanted back onto natural reefs (after some period of healthy, disease-free growth) to replenish coral cover locally.”
The dominant mode of reproduction for staghorn corals is asexual, new colonies can form when branches break off of another colony and reattach to the substrate. This trait allows for rapid population recovery from physical disturbances such as storms and other natural disasters.
However, it makes recovery from disease or bleaching events — where entire colonies are killed — very difficult. Staghorn also reproduces through broadcast spawning like other coral species.
Dr. Marilyn Brandt is the lead researcher for coral disease monitoring and coral conservation work coming out of the University of the Virgin Islands.
4. St. Croix ground lizard (Ameiva polops)
Growing to a size of between 35 and 90 mm (excluding the tail, which makes it just over 3.5 inches in length), adults have a pattern of light brown, dark brown and white longitudinal stripes down their back.
Below these are a series of narrow brown, black and white vertical stripes, which extend from the sides down to the stomach. The stomach is white with bright blue markings (males), and the rest of the underside is a deep pinkish-red hue.
The tail changes from a brown color near the body with alternating rings of blue and black. The entire tail of juveniles and hatchlings is a bright blue color. It eats virtually any prey item small enough to capture, including berries, amphipods, moths, ants and small hermit crabs.
The St. Croix ground lizard is considered one of the world’s most endangered reptile species, with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimating that there are just over 500 individuals living on three tiny islands off the coast of St. Croix.
The St. Croix ground lizard was believed to be extinct in the early parts of the 20th century, before being rediscovered on Green Cay and Protestant Cay in 1937. Habitat loss, fragmentation and the introduction of invasive mongoose who prey on the ground lizard have caused numbers to plummet in recent decades. Today, it is still listed as critically endangered.
5. Extinct — Caribbean Monk Seal (Monachus tropicalis)
The Caribbean Monk Seal or the West Indian Seal has passed the phase of critically endangered and has been declared extinct since 2008. The monk seal was last seen in the wild in the 1950s before disappearing in the decades that followed. Read our story about the Caribbean Monk Seal here.
Featured image via Guillermo J Plaza’s Flickr profile.