Pristine Brac a treasure trove for scientists

Renowned dinosaur expert plans research projects

For businessmen and politicians on Cayman Brac, lack of development is a problem that is hurting the island’s economy. 

For one renowned earth scientist, however, the absence of human impact represents a rare opportunity.  

Dr. Phil Manning, who found fame as a dinosaur expert but whose field of study spans the 3.8 billion year history of planet Earth, is seeking grants to begin a series of studies of the “pristine ecosystem” on the Brac. 

He visited the island last year and believes there is a small “window of opportunity” before it becomes too overdeveloped to study its unique flora and fauna, including a largely uncharted cave system and the endangered rock iguanas that live within it. 

He said, “I was bowled over by the pristine nature of the eco-system. It is a remarkable place. There has not been much research done there and I could see huge potential. 

“We are now looking for grants to support a team of biologists, ecologists and earth scientists to look at the whole eco-system. There are so many options for a scientist, it is like going into a sweet shop and seeing all these goodies and not knowing where to start.” 

Dr. Manning has found fame largely as a dinosaur researcher. But he acknowledges the chances of finding T-Rex fossils on the Brac are non-existent. Scientists estimate the island has only existed for 15 million years, whereas dinosaurs last roamed the earth more than 60 million years ago. 

What Dr. Manning, and the post-doctoral students from Manchester University’s school of earth, atmospheric and environmental sciences, hope to find on the Brac is a previously untapped trove of flora and fauna that could provide new clues to man’s impact on the planet. 

“My research group is interested in the evolution of life from 3.8 billion years ago to the present day,” said Dr. Manning. 

“The Brac offers a unique glimpse of life in the Caribbean for the simple reason that humans didn’t really occupy the island until 200 years ago. “It doesn’t matter where we occupy, we alter the environment in which we are living – we have done that on every single land mass on the planet. What makes the Brac so special is there has been so little impact.” 

Dr. Manning’s interest in the island was sparked by a trip, organized by his friend Dr. Karen Rosenthal, the dean of St. Matthew’s University veterinarian school in Grand Cayman. 

Dr. Rosenthal said the cave systems and the rock iguanas on the Brac were of particular interest. She added, “When an island like the Brac is becoming more populated and more developed, we recognize that time for study is limited. There is probably nothing we can do to stop the destruction but we want to go there first and document it.” 

The scientists believe there is a prospect of finding new species in the unexplored areas of the Brac’s ecosystem.  

“You hear all this lovely stuff about saving the rainforests because a cure for cancer could be hiding behind the bark of some obscure tree,” said Dr. Manning. “That is an extreme example, of course, but the analogy is real. There are obscure flora and fauna out there that could change the way we view science. 

“To find that you have to go somewhere were very little research or exploration has been done.” 

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Rare rock iguanas that inhabit the crevices of Cayman Brac’s uncharted cave system are stirring scientists’ interest. – PHOTO: KAREN ROSENTHAL