An Antillean cave bat, a blind snake, and a rare dwarf gecko are just a few of the natural treasures found on Virgin Gorda. These, along with 79 species of birds and over 500 types of plants, were among the island's trove of flora and fauna recorded by a tenacious team of researchers with the Island Resources Foundation.
The observations are part of an environmental profile of Virgin Gorda conducted by the IRF – a leader in environmental research in the Caribbean. The profile, says Judith Towle, who co-founded the Foundation with her late husband Ed in 1972, will look at environmental change. Precise and dedicated, Judith has devoted much of her life to the Caribbean and its unique environment. For her, such profiles are a vital tool to understanding island systems, and achieving one requires diligence and determination. "We must look backward to see what has changed in the recent past, look at the current state of the environment and then identify the issues and concerns," she explains.
The IRF's work has made significant impact on conservation and environmental research throughout the Caribbean, but over the years, it is the BVI that has remained a place of special interest for Judith and her team. Two of her colleagues are biodiversity researchers, Jean-Pierre Bacle and Kevel Lindsay, who have tackled their latest project with hard work, boundless enthusiasm – and even a touch of poetry. "Each of these islands has its own narrative, with each telling a unique story," explains Kevel. This "landscape dialect," as he calls it, "cannot be found elsewhere. This is so much more than another research study."
Inevitably the work has been mundane and often difficult. They have ventured into impenetrable bush and climbed impossibly steep embankments, but there also have been a fair share of "Oh, wow" moments. "Many," as it turns out, says Kevel, who has spotted creatures never before seen in the BVI. One of these is a mourning dove, which although found in Puerto Rico, would be new to Virgin Gorda. Another, was the orchid, Psychilis macconnelliae, found dangling precariously from a newly excavated road cut at Leverick Bay.
On one expedition, Kevel was startled by a black snake. "It hit my foot and jumped from the berm of the pond and into the bush. It could have been a black phase of the Puerto Rican racer (normally gray-brown in color), or an entirely new snake," he says of the type of discovery that he's always on the look out for. Getting to the bottom of this conundrum will require further research and is just one of the many challenges that he and the other team members face each day.
"What we are providing is baseline information that will help with island planning in the future," explains Jean-Pierre, who was part of the team that completed an environmental profile for the Jost Van Dyke Preservation Society in 2009. Knowing where rare and endangered species are located, may influence where and how roads are cut in the future. The idea is not to deter development, but to help guide informed decisions, Judith contends.
Over the course of their research the team has visited some of Virgin Gorda's most dramatic landscapes. One is the impressive dune system at Savannah Bay where mounds of sand tower above this one-of-a-kind beach. The eastern peninsula of Virgin Gorda (in the Bitter End and Biras Creek to Deep Bay area) is another. A hike up to the ridge yields a breathtaking vista of "steep cliffs and drop offs, dry environments, beautiful flora and seascapes," says Jean-Pierre. Here the pair observed the shrub Nashia cf. inaguensis, which had attracted wild bees, wasps and other insects with its fragrant scent and the endemic Croton fishlocki set among the rocks and cliffs and sculpted by the wind.
IRF hopes to complete profiles for all the main islands of the Territory in the next two years. The Virgin Gorda profile, which began in October 2011, was wrapped up at the end of May, and the next profile, one for Anegada, was launched right after. Both were funded with grants from the BVI government, the UK's Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP) and private donors spearheaded by the Hokin family of the Bitter End Yacht Club on Virgin Gorda. The group is now seeking funding for an environmental profile for Tortola.
Along with Judith, Kevel and Jean-Pierre, who are based at the organization's headquarters in Washington, DC, several locally based consultants are also pitching in. Dr. Michael O'Neal (an IRF Senior Research Fellow), Dr. Michael Kent, Charlotte McDevitt, Clive Petrovic and Cynthia Rolli, are among those contributing to the profile in areas ranging from the historical to the cultural and marine life to pollution control. Other contributors include Lloyd Gardner and Rosemary Delaney Smith, as well as IRF president, Bruce Potter, who has created a blog site (bvi-environmental-profile.posterous.com) to present profile findings.
An example of where planning and development go hand in hand is Mosquito Island in North Sound. Environmental consultant, Clive Petrovic, is working with the IRF on environmental monitoring for the new eco-resort. Developed by Sir Richard Branson, owner of the upscale resort Necker Island, Mosquito Island is a blueprint for earth friendly development. Roads are being cut and infrastructure put in place with the aim of creating as little environmental impact as possible. Judith ticks off a list of protocols that are being followed: "Trees that are cut are being mulched and plants that are endangered are tagged. Topsoil is separated from rock so it can be used later. We are trying to approach the work at Mosquito as a model for the future," she says. A rare sabal palm found on Mosquito's northeast coast is just one example of the type of plants the team hopes to preserve.
Virgin Gorda's array of newly discovered species has kept the IRF team busy. Among those recorded by the research team is an Antillean Cave Bat (Brachyphylla cavernarum) which Kevel and Jean-Pierre located with the help of Virgin Gorda residents in a bat cave near Spanish Town – the first such sighting on the island. The Jamaican Fruit Bat (Artibeus jamaicensis) and the Velvety Free-tailed Bat (Molossus molossus) were also identified at other sites around the island.
The discovery of the stately cactus known as Stenocereus fimbriatus, was another of the team's "exciting finds." Recorded for the first time in October 2011, the cactus was spied along a mangrove trail that runs from Bitter End to Biras Creak. Endemic to the Greater Antilles including Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, it has also been found on neighboring St. John in the USVI where it is very rare. A small skink-like lizard the Mabuya sp with a unique bluish tail, was observed in the Bitter End area on several occasions and after several attempts one was captured for analysis by herpetologist Blair Hedges. The Virgn Gorda specimen was about a third smaller than the ones on nearby Mosquito Island and Blair believes that different Virgin Islands may possess unique populations. Not all species have to be new to be noted by the team. Some, like the Lesser Yellowlegs, are of interest because shore birds have become a rare site on Virgin Gorda today.
The BVI has become a place close to the heart of the IRF team. Over a decade ago, Ed Towel and Judith decided to move their Caribbean office and library (the Caribbean's most extensive collection of material on natural resources and resource management) from the US Virgin Islands to the BVI with the intention of donating it to the H. Lavity Stoutt Community College. Initially housed at their Main Street, Road Town office, the "Edward L. Towel Islands Systems Environmental Collection," had its official dedication at the College in 2010. Michael O'Neal, who had been president of the College at the time and an anthropologist by training, believes that the IRF's value is its "multi-disciplinary approach, which goes beyond an environmental document and includes socio historical background."
The IRF became involved in producing Environmental Profiles in the late 80s and early 90s, completing profiles for various Caribbean nations including Antigua, Grenada, St. Lucia, Anguilla and Montserrat among others. The BVI came on board later after Foxy and Tessa Callwood, founders of the Jost Van Dyke Preservation Society, approached IRF to put together a profile for Jost, a small island with large concerns. The profile has become a great educational tool for the Society, which has published a lively color booklet entitled An Abridged Environmental Profile of Jost Van Dyke which is used to help educate children and adults about the importance of the island's natural resources and cultural heritage. "Why does biodiversity matter?" is just one of the booklet's topics which also enumerates the island's many unique species including 60 types of birds, five species of frogs, four of bats, six of lizards and three species of (harmless) snakes including the rare Virgin Islands Tree Boa.
One of the most critical impacts of an island profile is to aid in planning – how do planners look at the information and utilize it?" Public involvement in conservation is also important Kevel points out. "An environmental profile allows people to know what needs to be done, and to start thinking about it. They are used by the scientific community, but by others as well because they are user friendly."
Next on the list of environmental profiles is Anegada, the BVI's northernmost island. This low-lying isle of powdery sand beaches and unique wildlife will offer its own set of challenges. All of the profiles add to the growing knowledge of what makes island environments special.