Cayman Islands Blue Iguanas Threatened by Bacteria


The Cayman News Service reports on how the native blue iguanas of the Cayman Islands are threatened by the deadly Helicobacter bacteria, believed to be transmitted by the invasive green iguana, though further testing is needed to confirm that theory:

Whatever type of disease killed 14 blue iguanas at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park over a two-year period, it appears to have been contained and there have been no further cases for the last six months, according to staff at the National Trust for the Cayman Islands and the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme (BIRP). The cause of death for those 14 and illness in three other blues may be linked to the Helicobacter bacteria, and the prime suspect in the transmission of the disease is the invasive green iguana, though further testing is underway to confirm that theory. More than half of the iguanas that died tested positive for Helicobacter. While the others were unable to be tested, the staff is operating under the theory that the bacterium was in all of them.

If the green iguana is the source, that would not only put the blues at further risk but could also pose a major threat for the rock iguana on Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. But if it turns out greens are not connected to the blues’ illness, the search will broaden to other species, such as the Cayman racer snake.

The two-year outbreak of the disease appears to have been contained to blues that live within the park, where the total population is about 200. There are approximately 1,000 more in two reserves on Grand Cayman – Salina and Colliers — which were apparently clear of the disease. BIRP environmental field officer Karen Ford explained that during patrols of the reserves, there have been no signs of illness among the iguanas and their activity was normal. To prevent any possible contamination between the blues at the Botanic Park and those living in the reserves, staff who work at all three areas adhere to strict quarantine, biosecurity and monitoring protocols,

While Ford said the small number of cases of infection shows the disease is not highly contagious, the experts from BIRP and the Trust admit that very little is known about the Helicobacter bacteria. They are also as yet unable to rule out other mitigating factors in the deaths.

[. . .] In a pushback to an editorial in the Cayman Compass criticising the time lag between the events which took place from May 2015 to earlier this year and making that information public, Pineda said that the quick actions of the BIRP team and the Trust prevented what could have been “catastrophic”, and everyone was concentrating on getting that situation under control.

Overall, blue iguana conservation efforts have been “highly successful”, Ford said. “To date not many other conservation programmes have reached the point that we have.”

However, she struck a note of caution. “The threats that were there 20 years ago are still here and even more so today than they were before. The blue iguanas will always have to be under some sort of conservation programme for the rest of time.”

[Photo of Grand Cayman Blue Iguana by John Binns from]

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