Learning about the Reptiles of Union Island

Three students from the Avila University research group searching through leaf litter and under rocks for small, poorly known reptiles found together in one habitat only on the slopes above Chatham Bay.

If you have recently noticed a group of foreigners covered in scrapes and mosquito bites, you might have decided that they are not your average “tourists”. What sets these travelers apart is the substantial amount of time they spend looking up into trees and under bushes, rooting through leaf litter, and carefully examining the soil and debris under rocks. Why they would do that instead of enjoying the more appealing features of the island is best explained by their interest in the island’s reptiles.

In fact, these odd visitors are students participating in a summer research program at Avila University in Kansas City, Missouri, USA. Dr. Robert Powell, director of the program, has led students on similar research expeditions since 1991. The program, designed to expose students to the realities of field research and encourage them to pursue careers in the sciences, is supported by a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

This year’s students from all over the U.S. and Puerto Rico display a passion for herpetology (the study of reptiles and amphibians). During their three-week stay on Union Island, which supports more currently known reptilian species than any of the other Grenadines, they expect to make significant strides toward a better understanding the local fauna.

Research projects range from tracking Congo Snakes at night and evaluating lizard population densities to how they behave toward one another and determining what portion of a lizard’s maximum abilities are actually used in their day-to-day lives as they search for mates and food and evade predators.

In addition to learning more about the small Union Island Gecko, discovered by Fr. Mark de Silva, resident of Mayreau, in 2005 and named after Union Island’s own Jacque Daudin, the group has confirmed the presence of the Grenadine Dwarf Gecko, known only from Bequia until recently sighted and photographed on Canouan and Union, and discovered the presence of a Blind Snake. No Blind Snakes were previously known from the Grenadines, and a species on Grenada is known from only two specimens. Determining if it is the same species or a new species must await comparisons with museum specimens in the U.S. and DNA analysis scheduled for after the group’s return to Missouri.

One of the Blind Snakes found on Union Island. These tiny worm-like snakes (this individual is about 8 inches long) live underground and use their blunt heads for burrowing. Notice that the eye is completely covered by a scale, rendering the animal blind. Whether this is a new species or the same form that is known from Grenada remains to be seen.

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