GUANTANAMO BAY, Cuba (NNS) -- While often seen around Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NSGB), the Cuban rock iguana (Cyclura nublia) is actually a rather rare species.
Although Cuban rock iguanas are common within the protected confines of the base, they are considered endangered along with the other seven species of West Indian rock iguanas.
Living in island ecosystems where a delicate balance exists between man and iguana, these animals are threatened by habitat loss (new construction) and the introduction of non-native predators - primarily feral cats and dogs. Another major threat, which is particularly evident on NSGB, is the automobile. Vehicle strikes increasingly claim iguanas in many areas throughout their range. The iguana's current population status is greatly reduced from the time when there were ten species of rock iguana and consisted of the highest biomass of any terrestrial animal living on the islands in their range. Since that time, two species have been forced into extinction and the populations of the remaining eight species are only a fraction of what they once were.
The Cuban rock iguana is primarily an herbivore eating cacti and other drought-tolerant evergreen shrubs. The dry cactus forest is an important habitat for iguanas as it provides an area for hiding, sleeping, cooling off, and laying eggs. Non-threatening to humans, the males can actually be quite territorial with each other and are often seen fighting over habitat. The males convey their ownership claims of territory by first head-bobbing and then may physically battle for space. While territorial battles between males usually amount to shoving matches, they sometimes escalate to violent altercations which leave some adult males with cuts, wounds, and, in extreme cases, severed limbs. Females, which settle disputes less violently, often lack the wounds and subsequent disfigurements seen in many males.
While interaction with these animals is difficult to resist, it is not beneficial and usually the iguana loses. Please do not feed iguanas as this disrupts their normal diet and renders them dependent on humans. Iguanas that have been fed gain a learned reaction that a human equals food and will appear aggressive when we don't feed them. You can also help iguanas by keeping dogs on a leash and cats indoors, as dogs and cats left unattended can easily kill young iguanas. When hiking and biking off road, please stay on designated trails so as to avoid nests and disruption of habitat.
One observation that I have made during this tour is the lower numbers of large iguanas on the base. Since my arrival a month ago, I have seen numerous iguana carcasses on the roads. Many were large adults which were very visible in the road. While some of these strikes may have been unavoidable, most were no doubt due to driver inattention, cell phone usage and excessive speed. For those who are not aware, the Cuban rock iguana is a protected species in accordance with the Final Governing Standards for Cuba. As a protected species, those who intentionally injure, harass, or otherwise harm these animals will be held accountable for their actions and disciplined accordingly. Intentionally striking one of these animals with a vehicle is a punishable offense.
We can all do our part to promote the continued conservation of this unique and imperiled species. Slow down and observe the speed limits, pay attention, and give wildlife a break. Should you observe a driver make no attempt to avoid an iguana, and subsequently strike the animal, please note the license plate number and report the incident to Security at (757)458-4105 immediately. Remember, conservation begins with you.
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