Don’t Feel Blue About These Iguanas

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Igor, an adult male blue iguana, weighs around 9 pounds, making him the smallest side of his species. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal

Igor sits on a rock, soaking up a ray of sunlight streaming through a skylight above his enclosure at the ABQ BioPark zoo – the scales covering his plump body taking on an iridescent bluish hue.

He is one of three blue iguanas at the zoo and is part of an endangered species of lizard that originated on the island of Grand Cayman in the Caribbean and was nearly extinct.

Igor’s zoo habitat is meant to mimic his natural environment. “We have overhead misters here to provide humidity and keep him closer to their natural environment,” says Phil Mayhew, one of the zoo’s four reptile keepers and Igor’s main caregiver. He recently returned from a trip to the Cayman Islands, where he learned more about the natural environment of these ancient-looking creatures.

The habitat contains thick foliage with rocky, sunny open spaces for basking in the sun, loose soil, and places to hide. There is also a flowing freshwater stream, which may be part of their natural environment, depending on where they are on Grand Cayman, he says.

The zoo’s reptile staff are responsible for 350 individual animals, including aquatic and tortoises, giant tortoises, alligators, a slender-snouted West African crocodile, a Komodo dragon” and a host of snakes. venomous and non-venomous,” says Mayhew, 29.

ABQ BioPark zoo reptile keeper Phil Mayhew works with the zoo’s three blue iguanas, which are native to Grand Cayman Island and are an endangered species. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

On Grand Cayman, Mayhew was able to see three wildlife preserves inhabited by iguanas, and he spent time working with the blue iguana conservation program, helping staff treat newborn babies, assisting with medical exams, tagging and microchipping reptiles and learning more about their care, feeding and breeding.

“The blue iguana was one of the most endangered species on the planet,” he says. “They had a population survey done in the early 2000s that showed their wild populations were only around 25 individuals, so they started a breeding and release program on the island and they since released over 1,000 iguanas.When I was there, I was able to release the 1,018th blue iguana into the wild.

The biggest threats to the island’s blue iguanas have been predation by feral cats and competition for food and habitat from non-native green iguanas, which “probably were introduced through the pet trade” . The breeding facility on the island is now fenced off and there is a government-sponsored invasive species plan to trap feral cats and eliminate green iguana numbers, Mayhew says.

“Blue iguanas are primarily herbivores, but have been known to eat insects and small rodents and birds. They are not very aquatic, but they can swim if they must. They are primarily terrestrial and spend most of their time in vegetative brush.

Their jointed toes make them effective diggers and climbers, which is especially useful for younger limbs who tend to be a little more arboreal, he says.

In the wild, the blue iguana can live 30 to 40 years, up to 50 in captivity. The oldest captive’s record is 69, Mayhew said.

With the exception of the breeding season from April to June, blue iguanas are mostly solitary. They are also diurnal – active during the day and dormant at night, where their favorite sleeping places are rock crevices, tree cavities, or holes they dig.

Among the largest lizard species in the Western Hemisphere, a mature male blue iguana can measure 5 feet long from the tip of the nose to the tip of the tail and weigh 20 to 25 pounds. Females are a little smaller.

Nine-year-old Igor is a bit shorter, tipping the scales at around 9 pounds. He was in a relationship with 12-year-old Lola, who recently laid 14 eggs but broke three in the nest. The other 11 were placed in an incubator, “but we don’t know yet if there are embryos growing inside,” Mayhew said. “There is a chance that these eggs are sterile.”

In the meantime, Lola, who “was very territorial”, has been moved from the habitat to her own space. A third blue iguana, 12-year-old Frankenstien, is also part of the zoo’s collection. The three blue iguanas were born in captivity in zoos in the United States, but under a licensing agreement they remain the property of the Cayman Islands government, Mayhew said.

Originally from Albuquerque, Mayhew earned a degree in biology from the University of New Mexico and started working at the BioPark zoo in 2018 and moved to the reptile department a year later. His fascination with reptiles, however, long predates this.

“I grew up watching Jurassic Park. It’s probably a misrepresentation of what dinosaurs really looked like, but it sparked my interest,” he says. “I feel like reptiles are a highly underrepresented taxonomic group. They don’t get much credit and they are amazing animals that are capable of things that many mammalian species could never do.

As an example, Mayhew cites the New Mexico whiptail, the common lizard that scurries around backyards or is seen in the mouths of roadrunners.

“They are all women,” he says. “There are no men in this population. They reproduce through a process called parthenogenesis, so it’s essentially a virgin birth – the mother clones herself.

One of the biggest misconceptions about reptiles, including the blue iguana, is that they’re “dumb animals,” when in fact they’re quite intelligent, Mayhew says. “When I train with these guys, they pick up signals quickly. They’ve been on this planet for a very long time for a reason: they’re very good at surviving.

The negative attitude people have towards reptiles may stem from the impression that “they’re neither cute nor cuddly,” Mayhew suggests. “Of course, I have a very different view on this.”

Blue iguanas get their name from the shades of blue-green and blue-gray on their fine scales and the spike-like fins on the ridge of their backs. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)
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