Sunday, January 12, 2020

Lizards of Trinidad and Tobago: 10 Facts

Leaf anole (Anolis planiceps). Photo by Renoir Auguste

Trinidad and Tobago has a spectacular diversity of lizards in the country. The field guide to the amphibians and reptiles of Trinidad and Tobago has much more information on them, but here are ten facts (at time of writing) about lizards in the country.

1. Two lizards can be legally hunted for human consumption during a stipulated time period: the green iguana (Iguana iguana) and the matte or crytpic tegu (Tupinambis cryptus).

2. The Family or group of closely related lizards with the most species on both islands is the Anoles, with at least 6 non-native introduced species, and at least one native species with a wide ranging distribution across Trinidad (Anolis planiceps). It is highly suspected that these are minimum estimates for this group, which is no surprise as Anoles are known to establish themselves across the Caribbean. In Tobago, the most widespread is the Guamangala or Richard's Anole (Anolis richardii) and on Trinidad the bronze anole (Anolis aeneus) is perhaps the most widespread of the non-native species.

3. The smallest type of lizard in the country is the Mole's dwarf gecko (Sphaerodactylus molei) which grows to less than 3 cm long fully grown.

4. The largest type of lizard in the country is the green iguana which grows to up to 2 m long.

5. There are two species of legless lizards on Trinidad: the double-headed worm lizard or white legless lizard (Amphisbaena alba) and the black and white worm lizard (Amphisbaena fuliginosa). Both are often confused for snakes or worms, but are in fact much more aligned with lizards.

Green iguana (Iguana iguana). Photo by Renoir Auguste

6. There is a shiny lizard that is all female and reproduces without the assistance of males (Gymnophthalmus underwoodi).

7. The luminous lizard (Oreosaurus shrevei) is known only from Trinidad.

8. The ocellated gecko (Gonatodes ocellatus) is known only from Tobago and its offshore islands.


Ocellated gecko (Gonatodes ocellatus). Photo by Renoir Auguste
9. Most lizards in the country are predominantly active during the day, with a few gecko species such as the turnip-tailed gecko Thecadactylus rapicauda, active at night.

10. Lizards comprise an important part of ecosystems and local human culture: they are predators to many insects we despise, and are known to be feared because of folklore tales, with one example being the "24 hour lizard, that if it falls on you, you have 24 hours left"!

Saturday, November 16, 2019

Reptiles and Amphibians from Central Trinidad

High woods (false) coral snake. Photo by Rainer Deo

The eight annual Trinidad and Tobago Bioblitz took place at Tabaquite, central Trinidad on November 2nd to 3rd 2019. The event was organized by the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists' Club (TTFNC) along with support and help from The University of the West Indies Life Sciences Department. TTFNC President organized the herpetology group enthusiasts (and co-organized the event itself) and Club member Rainer lead the survey teams during the night to search for herpetofauna.

Cat-eyed snake predating on a treefrog. Photo by Adam Fifi

Over the course of the weekend, the herpetology team observed approximately 50 species of reptiles and amphibians. Some of the highlights included the rare high woods (false) coral snake (Erythrolamprus zweifeli), including both colour morphs, the elusive rain lizard (Kentropyx striata), the Trinidad stream frog (Mannophryne trinitatis) - Trinidad's only endemic frog, and possibly all three species of native freshwater turtle species! A very impressive haul over the course of the weekend and special thanks to all the volunteers and everyone else that made it possible! Where will the next T&T Bioblitz take place and what would we come across then?

Spot-nosed gecko. Photo by Renoir Auguste


There is increasing evidence that the Trinidad and Tobago herpetofauna are changing, with new species being recorded, either to the country from afar, or to science! Bioblitz represents an important way for citizens to participate and learn about biodiversity recording and conservation through active participation. Anyone can be a part of Bioblitz.

To learn more about the local reptiles and amphibians of Trinidad and Tobago, including how you as a citizen can identify them yourself, check out the field guide to the amphibians and reptiles of T&T (see more details on where to get the book here or contact the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists' Club).

Polka-dot treefrog. Photo by Rainer Deo
Trinidad leaf-nesting frog. Photo by Adam Fifi

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The UWI Zoology Museum's contribution to T&T Herpetology

UWIZM logo. Image courtesy the Department of Life Sciences, UWI
This post is dedicated to the outgoing  University of the West Indies Zoology Museum (UWIZM) Curator: Mike Rutherford.

Mike is on his way back home to Scotland having spent a decade in Trinidad and Tobago. During that time, he made great strides to enhancing the University's zoological collection. The importance of the work he did with zoological collections cannot be understated more than enough. And of course, some of the zoological records in the museum include amphibians and reptiles. The following are five out of many positive contributions UWIZM has made to T&T Herpetology.

1)
The UWIZM logo is of the Trinidad golden tree frog! A great way to raise awareness about this Critically Endangered frog.

2)
There are hundreds of amphibian specimens and over a thousand reptile specimens in UWIZM. Specimens date back to the 1950s and 1960s, and even some before then! Some of these can of course be seen on the global biodiversity information facility website (gbif.org). Having these records on GBIF is another way to improve biodiversity data accessibility in Trinidad and Tobago, something we all need to strive for to help tackle conservation issues that affect us all.

3)
Through a great collaborative relationship with visiting herpetologists from across the world, Mike has enabled research to be published using UWIZM specimens. This of course gives good publicity to The UWI and can be a way to strengthen university collaboration.

4)
Whenever UWIZM would have outreach events, more often than not some of the specimens on display would be reptiles and amphibians. Using reptile and amphibian specimens is another way to educate people about their importance not only to ecosystems and the environment but to people. This is especially the case when some people are either afraid of snakes, frogs and lizards, or out right despise them! The hope here is that people can take a couple minutes to hear about them and why they are important and hopefully one by one, people are more inclined to tolerating them at the very least.

5)
A few years ago, Mike and UWIZM organized the very first Bioblitz in the country. It offered a fantastic opportunity for passionate persons to join in with experts and learn more about the species they love. One example was with myself. It was at the first Bioblitz I got to meet John Murphy, an experienced herpetologist. From there, I never looked back and took on herpetology as my passion.

We hope the UWIZM will continue to prosper in the near to long term future for herpetofauna conservation and education for generations to come!

Thanks, Mike!

Mike speaking to school children about some specimens from UWIZM. Photo courtesy Department of Life Sciences

Saturday, August 10, 2019

The Pipa pipa: Have you seen this frog in Trinidad?

The Suriname toad (Pipa pipa) is perhaps one of the most bizarre looking frogs in Trinidad. This frog is predominantly aquatic inhabiting muddy bottoms of rivers. They feed on aquatic invertebrates and fish and use their star-shaped fingers which have filamentous tactile organs to detect food. During courtship the male fertilizes the eggs and then positions them so they attach to the female's back. The skin of the female grows around the fertilized eggs and the embryos develop with the females skin. They hatch after 90-120 days of incubation as miniature adults, about 20 mm in length. On Trinidad all of the records are from the southern portion of the island. When last have you seen this frog in Trinidad? Do let us know so we can help update its distribution on the island.

Pipa pipa  mother with young frogs on her back. Photo from The American Museum of Natural History

Monday, July 15, 2019

5 reasons Trinbagonians should appreciate snakes and why

Micrurus diutius - Large coral snake, Trinidad. Photo by Renoir Auguste
If you ask most Trinbagonians what they think about snakes, more often than not it seems the response is either instantaneous fear or hate. And yet, there are those who do like them, and appreciate their existence. Those of us who do appreciate snakes would try our best to convince others about their importance, but many times are seemingly ignored. In order to highlight world snake day, here are five reasons Trinbagonians should appreciate snakes and why.

1. Predators and pest removers. Snakes are important predators feeding on a variety of animals. They also feed on pests, including rats, snails, slugs, insects, and parrots (all of which can have negative effects on crops). In addition, some snakes even eat other snakes, particularly the venomous ones!

2. Research and Medicine. Studies on snakes have shown that their venom can potentially be used to treat medical diseases in humans. Therein lies the possibility of one day treating human diseases with the help of snakes!

3. Ecotourism. People from countries abroad come to Trinidad and Tobago to see the many snakes we have here. Because of our proximity to South America, Trinidad and Tobago has a variety of snake species (over 40 at the moment). Some of these include the largest snake in the world: the green anaconda, the longest venomous snake in the western hemisphere: the bushmaster, and some of the rarest in the world: the Tobago false coral, an island endemic found nowhere else in the world!

Erythrolamprus ocellatus Tobago false coral, harmlessly resting on hand. Photo by Renoir Auguste

4. Harmless unless provoked. Believe it or not, the majority of snakes in the country are harmless, unless of course they are provoked. Like any wild animal (or human), no one likes being provoked. To snakes, people are threats to their lives, and if they are picked up or stepped on, their instinct will be to try and protect themselves. There are snakes that can potentially cause harm to people in Trinidad, for example the four venomous species: (1) mapepire balsain (aka fer-de-lance), (2) bushmaster, (3) large coral, (4) small coral. However, these snakes will not go out of their way or comfort zone to bite people unless they have been provoked. 

5. Snakes are animals and alive, just like you. Although some cultures have used snakes in their folklore stories to be mythical in nature, in reality, snakes are just animals that are part of the world we live in. Humans share a world with snakes and other wildlife, and should remember that without them, there can be dire consequences to people. 

To learn more about the snakes in Trinidad and Tobago, get your copy of the latest "Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Trinidad and Tobago"!

You don't need to love snakes, but at least have appreciation for them. I assure you, they want to avoid you as much as possible too.

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Invasion history and success for the introduced lizard 'Anolis wattsi' in Trinidad

Anolis wattsi (Watts Anole) from Arima, Trinidad. Photo by Adam Fifi

Anolis wattsi or Watt's Anole is native to Antigua and is one of a few Anolis species introduced to Trinidad. Anolis wattsi is smaller, prefers lower perches and has a higher field body temperature when compared to other Anoles (Michaelidis et al. 2019). These factors have contributed in some way to its successful establishment in Trinidad and a recent report further backs this with its apparent spread across the island (Fifi and Auguste 2017).

Anolis wattsi was first discovered in Trinidad in 1992 by Graham White, current editor of Living World, Journal of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists' Club. The lizard was first spotted on pineapple plants which suggested a possible source as to how it got here. However, later surveys found no evidence to back this up. Thus, the actual introduction source was unresolved. Michaelidis and colleagues (2019) then used genetic studies to infer the source of introduced Anolis wattsi populations in Trinidad.

Based on their genetic results, Anolis wattsi populations in Trinidad more likely came from the northern part of Antigua, as opposed to the south where pineapple plants are cultivated. Also, the spread of individuals within Trinidad is likely from individuals already in the island.

Although competition among Anolis lizards is great when similar ecomorphologically, the only species (currently) that Anolis wattsi closely cohabitates with in Trinidad is Anolis aeneus. This species is larger, uses higher perches, and thus to an extent avoids competition (for resources like microhabitat and food). Because of this, Anolis wattsi is likely to continue to establish itself further in Trinidad.

References:

similarity to invasion success. Herpetological Journal 29: 131-139.

Fifi, A., and Auguste, R.J. 2017.  New localities for the introduced Anolis wattsi (Squamata: Dactyloidae) on Trinidad, West IndiesLiving World, Journal of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club, 2017: 51.

Saturday, July 6, 2019

A frog in Trinidad glows in the dark

Polka-dot treefrog (Boana punctata) as seen under flashlight (left) and under UV light (right), Trinidad.
Photos by Renoir Auguste (left) and Rainer Deo (right).

In nature, when one thinks of animals that glow in the dark, perhaps fire flies (that are actually beetles) comes to mind first, or perhaps marine-minded people imagine those bizarre creatures in the depths of the ocean. Yet, not many people would start to think of frogs glowing in the dark, and it just so turns out, there are frogs that do it, and one such species can be found in Trinidad.

The polka-dot treefrog (Boana punctata) is perhaps one of the most colourful frogs on Trinidad. This widespread Neotropical frog gets its common name from the red dots on the back of individuals. A few years ago, researchers in Colombia, where the species also occurs, happen to shine a UV light in the forest at night, presumably looking for other wildlife. To their surprise, one animal they saw glowing under the light spectrum was a polka-dot tree frog. It appears this feature is not restricted to individuals in Colombia, as we have seen it as well in Trinidad.

Scientists currently do not know what is the purpose of this irridescent glow, which can also be seen in scorpions. Presumably, it perhaps plays a role in visual communication among conspecifics (individuals of the same species). It is something that is noteworthy of investigating further. Who knows what other animals we might find glowing in the dark in our tropical forests, and what it may mean for all biodiversity.

To learn more about this amazing frog that glows in the dark in Trinidad, get your copy of the field guide to the amphibians and reptiles of Trinidad and Tobago. Details at link here.



Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Protected Areas and Trinidad and Tobago's Herpetofauna

Tobago Glass Frog. Photo by Renoir Auguste
Protected areas represent a management tool (or strategy) to help conserve biodiversity. Biodiversity is not only important to wildlife conservation, but to human health, local communities and national economy as well. In order to maximize the effectiveness of protected areas and its overarching uses, information on the species present within them is fundamental. Species lists represent a component that all designated protected areas should have in order to properly manage them and those in and around it. Monitoring has shown to improve management plans with updated information.

Trinidad and Tobago has a variety of designated protected areas. Yet, species lists for them are lacking. A national ecological baseline study (Project ID: GCP/TRI/003/GFF) aimed to help fill this gap for six pilot protected areas. The six areas that were under consideration for protected status (or in some cases, improved protected status) included the Caroni Swamp, Nariva Swamp, Matura National Park/Matura Forest, Trinity Hills, Main Ridge Forest Reserve, and North East Tobago Marine Protected Area. Many different taxonomic groups were assessed, including the amphibians and reptiles (herpetofauna).

Main Ridge Forest Reserve. Photo by Renoir Auguste


From the baseline survey results, 67 herpetofauna species were recorded within the six pilot protected areas. These included 25 amphibian species, 4 turtle species, 1 crocodilian species and 37 squamate (lizard and snake) species. These represent about 70% of the country's amphibians and 50% of the reptiles currently known for the country, suggesting these protected areas are important areas for herpetofauna.


Improved management of the protected areas, national policies, and future monitoring can be based on these results. Indeed, the local government has recently accepted a National Protected Areas System Plan to protect areas in Trinidad and Tobago to help conserve biodiversity based on these results. Hopefully with funding and support, longer term monitoring and local community outreach activities can help provide more quantitative data needed to maintain the long term sustainability of these protected areas and the conservation of biodiversity within them for the benefit of all.

Reference:

Auguste, R.J. (2019). Herpetofaunal checklist for six pilot protected areas in Trinidad andTobago. Herpetology Notes 12, 577-585.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Frogs and habitat quality and why it matters

Urich's frog - Pristimantis urichi (foreground) and Cane toad - Rhinella marina (background). Photo by Rainer Deo
Cane toads (Rhinella marina) are considered habitat generalists whereas Urich's frog, (Pristimantis urichi endemic to Trinidad and Tobago) are habitat specialists - found in forests and at forest edge. The Urich's frog can potentially be used to assess habitat quality with its presence whereas Cane toads can sometimes indicate a relatively disturbed habitat. However, due to the ubiquitous habits of the cane toad, sometimes their paths do cross with forest specialist species. One example can be seen here (photo above) where both species were observed at the Arima Valley in Trinidad, near the William Beebe Research Station (aka Simla).

However, with increasing development, the likelihood of more sightings like these will be limited. As more forest is lost to human disturbance, more forest specialist species will be lost. Frogs have been noted to act as indicators of environmental health, and, also provide health benefits to people such as potentially treating diseases (example diabetes). Not everyone likes frogs, but at the very least, everyone should put effort to protecting them, if not for the benefit of other animals and the environment, but to people health and well-being.

To learn more about these frog species and other local species in Trinidad and Tobago, get your very own copy of the Field Guide to the Amphibians and Reptiles of Trinidad and Tobago! See more info here.

Monday, May 20, 2019

One of Trinidad's geckos gets a name upgrade

Gonatodes ferrugineus (formerly Ghumeralis) from Trinidad. Photo by Renoir Auguste

Geckos are a group of terrestrial vertebrates that tend to be restricted to small geographic ranges. The exception appears in the genus Gonatodes. One species in particular has a range of over a million square kilometres - Gonatodes humeralis commonly called the spot-nosed gecko. However, given its small size, the likelihood of one single small species spread so far is questionable.

Pinto and colleagues (2019) looked into this and used molecular genetic data to investigate the population genetic structure and species delimitation of this Neotropical dwarf gecko. Based on their findings, there is species-level divergence evidence of the population on Trinidad, compared to South America. As such, Gonatodes ferrugineus was resurrected from synonymy for this population.

This is another example of where further research uncovers findings that are there to be discovered.  These findings provide another update to be edited for the future second edition of the field guide to the amphibians and reptiles of Trinidad and Tobago.

Reference
Pinto et al. 2019. Population genetic structure and species delimitation of a widespread Neotropical dwarf gecko. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. 133: 54-66.
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2018.12.029

Sunday, April 21, 2019

New snake, now a new lizard for Tobago

Tobago appears to have an amazing array of unique animals, when compared to Trinidad. Both islands have species unique to each island. Yet, it appears Tobago has more unique wildlife. The herpetofauna are no exception.

Newly described lizard to Tobago: Bachia whitei. Photo by John C. Murphy


In January 2019, a paper came out describing a new snake species for Tobago.

Now, Tobago also has a new lizard species.

Lizards in the genus Bachia at first glance look like worms or small snakes from afar. However, upon closer inspection, the small limbs can be seen.

Most people probably have never seen a Bachia lizard. This may be due to them mainly living under leaf litter or in the surface of soil. They feed on small invertebrates in the soil, such as termites.

Trinidad and Tobago have at least two species of Bachia. One is astutely named Bachia trinitatis which is found in Trinidad and Tobago. However, Tobago has the second species: Bachia whitei (currently considered an island endemic - found no where else in the world!)

Bachia whitei was named in honour of Graham White - current chairman of the Asa Wright Nature Centre's board, and Editor in chief of the Living World Journal of the Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists' Club.

Perhaps the easiest way to distinguish between the two species is the shape of the scales on the body. Bachia trinitatis has hex scale patterns, whereas Bachia whitei has square scaled patterns.

To learn more about these lizards, check out the "Field guide to the amphibians and reptiles of Trinidad and Tobago" which can be bought online if living outside of the country (info here). For those living in Trinidad and Tobago, contact the TTFNC on where you can get a copy.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Poaching of sea turtles in Tobago: Culture, Consumption and Conservation

Hawksbill sea turtle at Castara, Tobago. Photo by Mike Rutherford.

Background
There are five sea turtle species recorded for Trinidad and Tobago: Leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea), Hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata), Green (Chelonia mydas), Loggerhead (Caretta caretta) and Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea) [Murphy et al. 2018]. All five are designated Environmentally Sensitive Species (ESS) in T&T. Sea turtles face various threats. Some of these include climate change, loss of habitat, pollution (including from artificial light) and poaching/exploitation (Hailey and Cazabon-Mannette 2011). Poaching of sea turtles occurs in Trinidad and Tobago despite the year long legal protection of these ESS.

Aim
In 2018 as part of a Conservation Leadership in the Caribbean programme, I embarked on a venture to acquire current information on the status of poaching of sea turtles in Tobago, Trinidad and Tobago, specifically to understand the culture and perception as to why it persists for hopes of improving future conservation management plans for the species to be used by relevant stakeholders.

Method
I spoke with some of the main stakeholders involved in turtle conservation on the island (n=8), including government officials, and non-governmental officials, which included those from turtle patrol groups, and community conservation personnel (where turtle patrol groups were absent from known nesting villages). The objectives were to gain a better understanding of the demand for consuming sea turtles and their eggs.

Results
Poaching is regarded as the main threat to sea turtles on the island, particularly in the north, whereas habitat loss/alteration is regarded as a major threat to sea turtles in the south of the island. This may be unsurprising as the south of the island is more developed and development is continuing to meet the needs of tourism, whereas the north of the island may be considered more rural.

Speaking about the particular species of sea turtles, the hawksbill is perhaps the most exploited of the sea turtles on Tobago. Reason being that it is a preferential choice by the locals to consume the meat of hard shell species compared to the leatherback.  The hawksbill is also a more frequent nesting species in the north of Tobago than the leatherback, whereas the other hard shell species such as the green (nesting females) is less common. The hawksbill is currently regarded as Critically Endangered.

Contributing factors and Challenges:
-turtle meat is viewed as a cultural status (turtle meat is more highly regarded than perhaps chicken or fish);
-food source (one local referred to turtle meat as "sea goat" and says people like how it tastes and it would be difficult to stop eating it);
-lack of financial alternatives (which is an issue among many rural communities);
-lack of financial support for turtle conservation (there are, but perhaps more is needed);
-Lack of enforcement and support from local government (most game wardens only work from 8 am to 5 pm, but sea turtles nest predominantly at night);
-limited legislation (lack of prohibited turtle nesting beaches on Tobago, unlike on Trinidad);
-remoteness of nesting beaches on Tobago (access to monitor and patrol all nesting beaches is already made difficult by lack of resources and finances, but the inability to easily access some beaches is also a problem);
-increased craftiness of poachers (for example, knowing how to avoid persons on patrols and using the latest technology);
-some people that are on beaches monitoring turtles may also be poachers or colleagues of poachers (but with limited persons willing to help out, how does one vet such a situation?);
-lack of awareness/knowledge gap (one official claimed that sea turtles should be eaten to keep their populations in check - although did acknowledge that more data are needed to validate this).


Management measures needed:
-more educational awareness programmes to highlight the importance of sea turtles (and how they help people and boost the economy);
-greater support from the local government;
-patrols on beaches where turtles are known to nest but currently has no monitoring in place (perhaps implement a community plan for those from the community to monitor these beaches?);
-greater financial support, which, is needed to help with all management measures (there can be incentives for conserving these species, which in the long term can not only be beneficial to the turtles, but for ecotourism and the economy of the country);
-designating prohibited areas for high density turtle nesting areas (although perhaps it may seem this may clash with tourism, on the contrary, considering how much money comes in just from people paying to watch sea turtles on Trinidad, this is something that can be followed up on Tobago).

Conclusion
More work is needed. It will require a collaborative effort but most importantly, from people at the local communities. They stand to benefit from having these sea turtles around as do all. This has been reported by Cazabon-Mannette and colleagues (2017) who found that there are significant non-use and non-consumptive values of sea turtles in Tobago, and this highlights the importance of sea turtle conservation efforts in Tobago.  If the the turtles are gone, not only will the marine ecosystem and all the other species (including fish) diminish, but also the local economy.



Leatherback laying eggs. Photo by Renoir Auguste.


References

Cazabon-Mannette, M., Schumann, P.W., Hailey, A., and Horrocks, J. 2017. Estimates of the non-market value of sea turtles in Tobago using stated preference techniques. Journal of environmental management 192: 281-291.

Hailey, A., and Cazabon-Mannette, M. 2011. Conservation of herpetofauna in the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago. Pp 183-217 in Hailey, A., Wilson, B.S., and Horrocks, J.A. (Eds.), Conservation of Caribbean Island Herpetofaunas, Volume 1, Conservation Biology and the Wider Caribbean. Leiden: Brill.

Murphy, J.C., Downie, J.R., Smith, J.M., Livingstone, S.R., Mohammed, R.S., Auguste, R.J., Lehtinen, R.M., Eyre, M., Sewlal, J.N., Noriega, N., Casper, G.S., Anton, T., Thomas, R.A., Rutherford, M.G., Braswell, A.L., and Jowers, M.J. 2018. A field guide to the amphibians and reptiles of Trinidad and Tobago.  Trinidad and Tobago Field Naturalists’ Club. 336 pp