The agoutis that inhabit Grand Cayman have become more visible in the eastern parts of the Island, causing many visitors and residents who visit the botanic park in North Side and other rural areas to wonder about the oddly shaped, doggish looking, but harmless creature that sporadically appears in bushes and open pastures.
Dasyprocta Punctata, as agoutis are referred to in scientific circles, has served as a highly coveted dish of natives in the Cayman Islands over the years. However, the creature is actually not native to Grand Cayman and is not found in Cayman Brac or Little Cayman.
“Agoutis, known as rodents and said to be related to rabbits and guinea pigs, were introduced to Grand Cayman in the 1900s and replaced the Hutia, a similar type of animal, which was endemic to the Islands but is now extinct. Early travellers brought them here from South America for food. The animal thrived in Grand Cayman’s environment,” said Mat Cottam, senior research officer for the Department of Environment.
He pointed out that no survey has ever been done to determine the number of agoutis living on the Island and as a result, it would be rather difficult to tell “how they are doing”.
“We have had a lot of sightings of them at the botanic park, especially at evening time, but it is hard to say if the increase in such glimpses of this otherwise fairly elusive animal should not be attributed to heightened development. It is important to be careful that we are not seeing more because there is less natural habitat.”
Mr. Cottam added that there is no conservation effort geared toward agoutis, nor is there a national policy to protect them, but he explained that because the animals are not endangered, are not indigenous to Grand Cayman and can still be found in great numbers in other countries, their protection has not been deemed a matter of national importance.
“Because the agouti has occupied the niche of the now extinct Hutia, their impact on the environment is probably not as great as some of the other invasive species living in Grand Cayman. They compete with iguanas and birds for the same kind of food and that might be the worst,” said Mr. Cottam.
Agoutis can live up to 17 years and usually give birth to one to four offspring.
There was a time, however, when agouti numbers were so high and the animal wreaked such havoc on crops in Grand Cayman that the government at the time paid a bounty for them. As former clerk of the Legislative Assembly and National Hero Sybil McLaughlin recalled during a recent interview: “Talmage Ebanks, who was the messenger back in those days, would bring in the agouti heads and, oh my, what a smell, but I would simply cover my nose and issue the vouchers to the corresponding claimants.”
A similar measure was floated as a means of controlling chicken numbers in Grand Cayman less than 10 years ago. Though in the end, nothing was made into law.
Most recently, green iguanas, another invasive species living in Grand Cayman, have been taken off the protected animals list after lawmakers approved an amendment that specifically defines protected iguanas under the Animals Law (2003) as Cayman’s two indigenous species: the Blue Iguana on Grand Cayman and the Rock Iguana in Cayman Brac.