Revisiting Redonda

Revisiting Redonda one year after the goats were helicoptered off and the vermin e-rat-icated was every bit as exciting and gratifying as I could have hoped last year. I’d guessed we might see some grasses fighting their way up through the dust and rocks, maybe a few extra lizards happy to not have to watch out for day-hunting monster rats. What we actually saw exceeded my most optimistic expectations though.

Here’s a panorama I captured in 2017:

2017And another, from exactly the same spot, in 2018: 2018

With the astounding regrowth of grasses and sapling trees all over the island has come a complete transformation. The roots are locking in all of that dust and so instead of a fine powder of aerosolized guano, walking through Redonda is mostly dust-free and soil is starting to be stabilized and created. I can only imagine what this is doing for water quality in the immediate vicinity.

In addition, we saw insects everywhere and a much larger diversity than last year. Our helicopter was greeted by butterflies and on the first night we discovered several terrifying amblypygids had made our workspace their home; scuttling around every night on the prowl.

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Some things remained the same; we still worked in the concrete manager’s house which is still the best source of shade and shelter on the island. Our work was overseen this year by more than a dozen anoles who agreed it was a terrific spot to escape the heat of the day.

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The lizards of Redonda have made a pretty staggering recovery from last year. We calculated density in two ways: with a long transect around the whole island where we counted each lizard we saw, and a mark recapture plot where we catch each lizard, give them a unique number, and then resurvey two days later to see how many of them we find and how many unmarked ones we’d missed. By both estimates we think the anole population and the ground lizard (Pholidoscelis) have doubled.

IMG_8868.jpgHere was lizard number 50 at one of the plots and we weren’t even done catching that morning!

Redonda is doing great and I am so pleased to get to see the first year of its transformation. I can only imagine how much it’s going to continue to change into the future. I can’t wait to go back and find out!

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A great video about FFI conservation in Antigua

If you’re curious who I’ll be working with in Redonda, check out this video about FFI’s conservation efforts in Antigua. Dr. Jenny Daltry is the leader of the Redonda restoration effort and the one who initially contacted us about the lizard research, so I’ve been working closely with her to coordinate plans.

FFI has been working in the area for years. They were instrumental in bringing the Antiguan racer back from the brink of extinction. I’m so excited to work side-by-side with some of their staff in the field! (… and grateful that they’re the ones collecting rat carcasses, not me. I’ll stick with the lizard research, thank you very much.)

If you want to skip ahead, Jenny talks about the Redonda conservation efforts starting about 15 minutes in.

Redonda

I know this is a bit last minute notice but it seems like that’s how this whole project has been. I’m headed to Redonda in a week!

Redonda you ask? Never heard of it? Yeah, well, neither had I. Redonda is a little tiny island in the Lesser Antilles and to save you the trouble of searching for it, here it is on a map:

(you’re going to have to zoom out a few clicks to get some context)

Redonda is owned by the government of Antigua and Barbuda. Up until a few days ago the only residents on the island were goats, rats, and three species of endemic lizard. (Alright, there are a few avian reptiles too but my mother’s the birder of the family and the four-legged ones are just so much cooler). I say up until a few days ago because the government of Antigua and Barbuda have decided to designate a beautiful, massive new marine sanctuary with Redonda as the jewel in the center. The only problem being that that jewel is currently crawling with goats and rats and that just won’t do!

In partnership with some great conservation organizations (Flora and Fanua International [FFI] taking the lead) the goats are being ferried off the island (they are a rare breed) and the rats are being removed somewhat less ceremoniously with a highly targeted poison that won’t hurt any of the native species. You can read more background on the project here. The removal of goats and rats is going to change the face of Redonda.

Judging from other islands in the neighborhood, Redonda probably used to be covered with lots of vegetation and was definitely a lot more lush than it is today. Unfortunately, after goats and rats were introduced a little over a century ago all of that vegetation has been nibbled down, making Redonda into a barren boulder moonscape. Conditions are so harsh now that the goats are actually dying of starvation (you know it’s bad when even goats can’t find something green to nibble) and the rats have turned into diurnal apex predators, stalking lizard prey even in daytime!

This is particularly problematic because the only place in the whole world these three lizard species are found is on this island. There’s a little tiny gecko that’s so rare it doesn’t even have a formal scientific name yet. There’s a large “ground lizard” called Ameiva atrata that is almost completely black and looks really awesome. And there is an anole called Anolis nubilis, known as the Redonda tree lizard. That name is unfortunately ironic because there is exactly one tree left on the entire island. It’s a non-native Casuarina species from Australia that was planted on the island decades ago and was so unpalatable that even the starving goats let it be!

It’s for these lizards that I’m headed to Redonda. I’m teaming up with FFI and the government of Antigua and Barbuda to put together as comprehensive a dataset as possible on these lizards in the wild. Our goal is to see how they change as Redonda recuperates following the rat and goat removal.  I’m flying to Antigua in exactly 1 week and I’ll be in Redonda 2 days after that. Over the next few days I’ll post a few more times with details of the trip. I’m extremely excited but my brain is fairly bursting with packing lists and contingency plans. I’m looking forward to filling you in on the details.