Alligator vs. the Marshmallow

As a science book writer, I am asked to speak at schools and libraries about my favorite subject: reptiles. I often use props to help people visualize the facts I present. For instance, an iguana egg is about the size of a marshmallow. So, I bring a bag of marshmallows to use and, when allowed, for the kids to eat. The last time I spoke, one bag didn’t get used and the soft puffs got hard. These hard marshmallows brought back a memory from my childhood involving alligators on Sanibel Island, FL.

When I was a child, people in the park gathered at a bridge to feed marshmallows to the local gators. It was not well understood then how we were affecting the local alligators’ behavior. We know now how bad it is to feed wild animals. Not only is the food not good for them, they lose their fear of people and become “problem” animals. Simply relocating them doesn’t usually work, because they are plopped down in the middle of another’s territory and a moved individual can be killed by its own kind already there.

But back to my story about feeding marshmallows to alligators. The only marshmallows Mom could find in the trailer was a forgotten bag way back on a shelf. The usually fluffy confections were rock hard. But we were going to throw them in the water and gators have a bite strength of 2125 pounds per square inch, so a hard marshmallow should be no problem, right? I soon joined the other feeders tossing the treats into the water. Their marshmallows bobbed until a gator stealthily approached, snatched it rapidly, submerged, and re-emerged a short distance away, waiting for the next one. Several gators took turns gobbling down the sugary snacks.

Until they got to my marshmallows. A gator approached, quickly bit down on one and submerged.  Suddenly, the water erupted with thrashing. The marshmallow was released . . . unscathed. The gator swam away. This happened again and again until all the gators failed at damaging my marshmallows and swam away in disgust. The other people looked at me angrily. I had driven all the alligators away, leaving only my hardened marshmallows bobbing in the gently moving water.

I like to think that in my unintentional way, my disgusting marshmallows helped prevent a few alligators from becoming “problem” animals.

I guess I was a conservationist even back then.

a collage of books about conservation

I hope you will check out my books on the subject of Conservation. I love to make science books fun–it is a part of who I am–but conservation is a subject deserving of both our respect and action. Saving endangered species and looking out for all life on the only planet we and they have is up to all of us.

Saving the Sister Isle Rock Iguana

a book cover with a photograph of an iguana on the island of Cayman Brac

The Cayman Islands are a system of three islands located south of Cuba: Grand Cayman, Cayman Brac and Little Cayman. I’ve been privileged to work as a citizen scientist for the conservation of the two types of iguanas found there. The most famous is the Blue Iguana found on Grand Cayman, Cyclura lewisi.  Their body color really is sky blue.  They were almost lost to extinction, but some hardworking humans created the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme and their numbers are climbing. This doesn’t mean they are out of danger, but it is a step in the right direction as they say.  You should visit the Blues at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park if you’re ever on Grand Cayman.

I am more interested in the lesser known Sister Island Rock Iguanas (SIRI), Cyclura nubila caymanensis.  They’ve also been called the Lesser Caymans Iguana but there is nothing lesser about them. They’re said to be a subspecies of the Cuban Rock Iguana, Cyclura nubilaThey are endemic to only the Sister Islands.

Little Cayman has a fairly large population of iguanas, but Cayman Brac’s iguanas are having a tough time surviving.  Along with the usual human-caused problems, habitat destruction and feral pets, the iguanas on Brac have a high road mortality. Because the iguanas enjoy the warm, smooth roads, they are at risk for being run over by cars. Sadly, over the last few years many of the local iguanas have died this way.

My friend Bonnie Scott Edwards, who lives on the Brac, asked me to help her spread the word about the iguanas being needlessly killed. I’m always willing to help with causes like this. She had some terrific photos of iguanas both living and dead – I prefer the live ones myself. Then my friend, Anderson, who does great drawings for my books, filled in the blanks with his illustrations for my book, Silent Rocks. The book turned out great and I hope it helps not only to educate people but also tugs at their consciences. Every time an iguana is senselessly killed, a part of the future dies.

Some people wonder about the value of the iguanas. Did you know that many plants require the help of the iguanas to germinate and grow? When seeds pass through the iguana after being eaten, they germinate faster. The iguanas also help with the seed dispersal because it’s hard to make such large, active lizards stay in one place. They go up the bluff, then down the bluff, then up the bluff, then down–well, you get the idea.

However, not just any iguana will do. Many areas have introduced the Green Iguana, Iguana iguana, into rock iguana territories. Some research suggests that seeds passing through the Green’s gut does not help the plants in rock iguana territories. Only the correct iguana will do. This makes sense, since many of the plants evolved along with the iguanas. More studies are being done.

I’m helping Bonnie with her mission to save her Brac iguanas. They’ve put up some signs reminding people that there are iguanas on the road, so they’ll slow down and maybe even stop texting. Bonnie also tells them about the dangers of letting their pets run loose. Iguanas didn’t evolve with large mammalian predators, so they don’t know that dogs and cats are dangerous. They think they are just friends they haven’t met yet. It is so sad when they realize their mistake too late.

Then there’s the habitat destruction, with the iguanas’ dens being buried during construction. And lastly, are the poisons. Some rat poisons are the same color as the iguanas’ favorite flowers. Of course, the rats and mice were introduced by people, too. So many dangers have come along with people.

The population of the endemic Sister Island Rock Iguana (Cyclura nubila caymanensis) on Cayman Brac is in serious decline. These vegetarian lizards are an important part of the island’s ecosystem. The reduction in population is the result of human activity on their habitat and the threats can only be eliminated by human action.

But people can also solve these problems and I’m hoping the people on Brac working to help the iguanas do succeed. Like the blue iguanas on Grand Cayman, the Brac rock iguanas can be brought back from the brink of extinction.

I wrote a book about this important issue. It’s called Silent Rocks. Bonnie’s photos of the iguanas of Cayman Brac are wonderful.