Critter Watching

Carol M. Bareuther, RD

Mongoose, iguanas and thrushies, oh my! The Virgin Islands boast a curious collection of critters you won’t find in many other locations, not even Kansas or Oz.
Scientists know him as Herpestes auropunctatus, while kids call him Rikki- Tikki-Tavi. The mongoose was brought to the Caribbean from India in 1870 to help control the rat population in sugar cane fields. Nine mongooses seeded all the long, slim, catsized critters you see scampering across the roadways today! Unfortunately, mongooses are diurnal, while rats are nocturnal. That means these two miss each other, with the mongoose hunting other critters, including birds, lizards, frogs and insects.
Tarantulas and scorpions are among insects in the Virgin Islands. There are several species of tarantulas here, the biggest and easiest to spot being the Cyrtopholis bartholomei. Look down at the ground as you hike forest trails, like the Lind Point Trail and Reef Bay Trail on St. John. Tarantulas live in small burrows with stick-sized holes as entrances. On the other hand, the Golden Weaver Spider (Nephilia clavipes) weaves a web about 6-feet wide strung up in the air across wide spaces like guts. Three or four species of scorpions are found in the Virgin Islands. Their sting is just like a bee’s. So, if you’re allergic to bees you might have a similar reaction to the local scorpion’s sting.
While you’re likely to encounter tarantulas and scorpion’s out-of-doors, worms, ants and cockroaches like to share your home, especially if you leave doors and windows open for the trade winds to blow through. The big black worms, actually millipedes, go by the local name ‘gongolo’. They’re poisonous. Little ants, also called sugar ants, make followthe- leader beelines to any food or drink you spill. Cockroaches, sometimes called Mahogany Bugs, are actually quite clean and don’t carry disease.
Leapin’ lizards! You’ll see little Anole Lizards on windowsills and leaping from leaf to leaf in the garden. When one of these lizards puffs out its red and green throat fan he’s in search of a mate. Another common lizard that visits homes or hotel rooms is the gecko. While most geckos arrived in the Virgin Islands aboard sailing ships in the 17th century, the tiny 1-inch long Dwarf Gecko is native to St. John. Count lizards as friends. They feast on insects – including mosquitoes!
Iguanas rank at the opposite end of the reptile size spectrum. Native to the Caribbean as well as Pacific, adult iguanas can grow up to 6 feet long. Often, you’ll see bright green baby lizards literally fluoresce in the sun but adults, usually 2- to 3-feer long, have greenish-gray, leathery hides with spiky head spines that have earned them leading roles in Japanese monster movies. If threatened, an iguana will lash out with its tail. Iguanas are attracted to the color red and may leap into your lap to nibble at the red hibiscus flower tucked behind your ear.
Resident reptiles also include snakes. The racer, garden and Virgin Islands tree boa are all found in the territory. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service lists the tree boa as an endangered species. Since they’re rare glimpsing one is something to cheer rather than fear. The tree boa can grow to three to four feet in length, has a light brown back covered with dark brown blotches, and a cream-colored underbelly speckled with grayish-brown. It has no harmful venom.
Finally, there are more than 170 species of birds, including the bananaquit, hawks, conures (native parrots) and two species of Caribbean hummingbirds. Put out a bowl of sugar and watch the bananaquits (Coereba flaveola) flock. Also called ‘sugar birds,’ bananaquits are easily recognized by their bright yellow underbellies. Pearly-eyed thrashers, nicknamed ‘thrushies,’ are the brown-feathered birds that make themselves pests at picnic time. Pelicans perch on pilings at piers and are fun to watch as they take flight and dive bomb the seas in search of a fresh fish dinner. Frigate birds, with their iridescent black feathers and 6-foot wingspan, soar over the ocean riding on tropical updrafts.
Be sure to add critter watching to your list of things to enjoy when visiting the Virgin Islands.

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