An aerial view of Anegada

“Where is the wildlife?” visitors will ask from time to time, and it is a good question. They mean exotic animals, of course: pumas, howler monkeys or toucans – animals that are common to other tropical regions in the hemisphere, but not to these islands. Instead, the BVI’s wildlife is one of subtle beauty, often hidden; creatures and plant life that need to be discovered by looking closely and listening hard.

Some of our most prevalent creatures are herpetofauna, as they are known in scientific circles. These reptiles and amphibians – lizards, frogs, snakes, and even one unique tortoise, are creatures that by their very nature are known for their quiet appeal. The anole lizard, for instance, tends to blend in with its environment. A true master of disguise, it is often only the sound of one of these engaging reptiles scampering through dry leaves that will alert you to its presence. If you find one on a dark wooden deck, it will turn as nut brown as the wood – and if sitting on a leaf, it will try its best to turn green. It’s a good trick and a handy one if you are trying to avoid the neighbor’s cat.

The Saddled Anole (A. stratulus) and the Grass Anole (Anolis pulchellus), are two of the most commonly seen lizards here in the BVI. Slim and a light greenish brown, with a pointed snout and a distinctive pale stripe along its side, the grass anole, like its name implies, is found in grassy areas, or bushes. The Saddled Anole is similar in shape to the Grass Anole, but differs in its darker mottled coloring, as well as its choice of habitat, preferring the relative safety found in the upper limbs of trees.

One of our most impressive anoles is the Crested Anole (Anolis cristatellus), or the “man lizard”, as it is known here. It has an intimidating spiked crown and a colorful throat fan called a dewlap (yellow-green in the center with a crimson border), which he uses to scare off rivals. In a wonderfully masculine display, a male Crested Anole will court a female by throwing out his throat fan and performing a few quick pushups – the ultimate in attention getting behavior.

A Southern WoodslaveGeckos are another master of camouflage, although through transparency rather than color. Here in the BVI the most common gecko is the Southern Woodslave (Hemidactylus mabouia). Like a reptilian version of the Invisible Man, the gecko’s body seems almost free of pigment, a nocturnal specter that likes to hide behind paintings and mirrors and pops out at night to scramble up a wall and snatch an unsuspecting moth. Its phenomenal climbing ability is due to some very high tech footwear. The gecko’s flattened toes are crossed by tiny flaps of skin called lamellae, each of which carries hundreds of tiny hooks which catch onto even the smoothest surface. Native to West Africa, it is believed that this unusual gecko first came to the BVI aboard slave ships.

Five feet in length, the Anegada Rock Iguana (Cyclura pinguis) is one of the BVI’s most impressive inhabitants. Found primarily on Anegada, where it is indigenous, this large reptile is both unique and highly endangered. Looking a bit like the creature from a sci-fi movie, it is heavy set with chunky legs and is a dark steely gray. His eyes are red and he has a low zig-zag shaped crest running along the center of his back. Shy and retiring, this ungainly creature is difficult to spot in the dry, dense bush of Anegada. Loss of habitat and predation by wild cats and dogs has reduced its numbers greatly, and this iguana, which was once common throughout the region including Puerto Rico, is now on the endangered species list. In an ongoing program sponsored by the BVI National Parks Trust, iguana eggs are collected in the wild and then hatched in a protected environment. Called Head Start, the program nurtures the young reptiles until maturity when they are released back into the wild.

Green Iguanas (Iguana iguana), common in South and Central America, are also found in the BVI. Although some may be escaped pets that have proliferated, it is also thought that these iguanas may have been brought here by the Amerindians as they made their way up the island chain from South America over 1,000 years ago. In the BVI, they are most commonly seen on Peter Island and the North Sound of Virgin Gorda. Unlike the Anegada Rock Iguana, they are less shy of humans and can sometimes be seen sunning by the side of the road or nibbling a hibiscus from the gardens of one of the North Sounds’ several resorts.

The BVI’s few snakes are small, inconspicuous – and most importantly, not one of them is dangerous. In other parts of the world, colorful scales might signal a venomous snake, but here, they are drab in color, quiet citizens that are rarely seen. Perhaps the most interesting of our several snakes is the Virgin Islands Tree Boa (Epicrates m. granti), which is endemic to Puerto Rico, Culebra and the US and British Virgin Islands. This miniature boa is nothing like its large South American cousin. Primarily nocturnal, it is small and slim (around 41 inches in length) and light brown with chestnut blotches edged in black. Like other boas, the Virgin Islands Tree Boa is a constrictor, suffocating its victim by squeezing it (usually an unsuspecting lizard or small rats), and is not venomous. As with the Anegada Rock Iguana, loss of habitat and predation by domestic animals has put these rare creatures in peril.

An Anegada IguanaThe Red-footed Tortoise (Geochelone carbonaria) is another one of the BVI’s unique reptiles. This distinguished looking fellow is around two feet long and has red spots on its feet and orange coloring encircling its mouth. Once prevalent in the BVI, it is now mainly found in protected areas, such as Guana Island, a resort and private nature preserve, and at the Botanic Gardens in Road Town, where there are three adults and two recently hatched youngsters. In the wild, its diet consists of fruits (mangos are a particular delicacy), leaves and flowers. In the Botanic Gardens, the tortoises’ diet is more varied and includes a variety of vegetables. Native to South America, the Red-footed Tortoise, like the Green Iguana, may have been introduced to the Lesser and Greater Antilles by Amerindians in pre-Colombian times.

Although amphibians and not reptiles, the BVI’s native tree frogs are among its most charming creatures. On a rainy evening, when the foliage outside is moist, you may here a cacophonous chorus of chirping. Don’t be fooled; the sound is not from an insect or a bird, but from the pervasive Bopeep Frog (Eleutherodactylus). Little more than an inch long, it is beige, with large soulful eyes, and like the anole, its color will vary from light to dark according the surface it’s perched on. It is often confused with the Puerto Rican Coqui (E. coqui), which has become a virtual poster child for that island. And although the Coqui can also be found here, it is an introduced species, perhaps having hitched a ride in an imported flowerpot.

Next time you are out taking a walk in the BVI, or strolling through the garden of your home or hotel – stop and listen. The animals of the BVI may lack the razzle-dazzle of their counterparts on other tropical islands, but in their own way, they are just as special. All have a unique character that sets them apart... you just have to pay attention.