Thirteen baby blue iguanas hatched in Grand Cayman this week, resulting from captive-breeding efforts by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands.
The latest batch of hatchlings makes 2019 one of the most successful recent breeding years for the Blue Iguana Recovery Program, explained operations manager Luke Harding.
To date, 20 blue iguanas have hatched in captivity in Grand Cayman this year.
In the early days, workers will be focussed on keeping the young reptiles warm, dry and fed.
“They all seem to have hatched very well,” Harding said, adding that the seven born in June continue to eat and grow.
Eleven of the hatchlings born this week resulted from just one pair of parents, he said. The other two came from a second pair of parents.
Moving forward, breeding in such large numbers will no longer be the programme’s focus, however, Harding explained.
Now that the programme has surpassed its goal of releasing 1,000 captive-bred iguanas to the wild, researchers will turn to the next phase of conserving the endangered reptile.
Breeding efforts will now focus less on propagating large numbers and will seek to promote genetic diversity.
“We are now looking at key genetics,” Harding said.
“It’s a new era and a new challenge. There is still a huge way to go to make sure the population stays stable and the habitat is protected.”
Harding said the most recent wild population survey earlier this year at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park produced good results.
The programme performs annual surveys that rotate between three locations: the botanic park, Colliers Wilderness Reserve and Salina Reserve.
Currently, he estimates there are between 1,100 and 1,200 blue iguanas in the wild.
A number of challenges face blue iguanas once they are returned to their natural environment. Dogs, habitat loss and humans can all threaten the reptile’s survival.
In recent years, the population has also been hit by a potentially deadly bacteria that left 17 blue iguanas sick or dead between 2015 and 2017.
Harding said researchers still do not know the origin of Helicobacter bacteria but they have developed a treatment protocol with the help of the Department of Environment and the Wildlife Conservation Society.
Harding said researchers know the bacteria did not originate in captivity, but pointing to a source in the wild at this point would be speculative.
Since the bacteria was first seen in the wild, he added that it is difficult to know how many wild blue iguanas were affected.
“This is likely not to be isolated just to Cayman. It could have huge implications for conservation,” Harding said.
While the bacteria is viewed as a major threat, it is not a constant problem and has not produced any known cases since 2017.
Improving understanding of such threats will be another major focus of the next research phase.