Responsible travel: Grand Cayman nature tours
Who eats what? Piecing the puzzle together
The survival of Cayman’s native plants is fundamental to the survival of Cayman’s creatures – butterflies, moths, dragonflies and other insects, birds, bats, Blue Iguanas, etc. Plants of wildlife significance are intertwined in food chains and food webs. The Cayman Islands have roughly four different vegetation zones or plant communities – coastal, wetland, dry evergreen forest, woodland and shrubland and man-modified areas, including parks, gardens, mini-woodlands, dyke roads, canals and lakes (created by digging for fill).
Much of Cayman has been man-modified over the years. Areas were cleared for subsistence farming to provide food for the settlers. There was no reference to mosquitoes in any old writings. It is thought likely that mosquitoes were brought to the islands by turtle fishermen when they went further a-field to fish. In 1966 the Mosquito Research & Control Unit (MRCU) started operations to combat the mosquito problem. Canals were dredged and a system of dyke roads was built. These dyke roads through mangrove forests and wetlands provide excellent opportunities for bird-watching. Gardens, parks and mini-woodlands also provide food and cover for both resident and migratory birds.
Fifty-eight species of butterfly have been recorded in the three Cayman Islands and each is dependent on its specific larval food plants. If these disappear, so will the butterflies whose caterpillars feed on the leaves. Ann is the co-author of ‘Landscaping with Cayman Islands Native Plants for Butterflies and Wildlife’ booklet and the more recent Butterflies of the Cayman Islands book. Both of these list larval food plants and nectar plants. Cayman has 5 endemic butterfly subspecies, Cayman Brown Leaf butterfly, Cayman Julia, Cayman Lucas’s Blue, Cayman Pygmy Blue – our smallest butterfly and Grand Cayman Swallowtail – our largest butterfly.
The Grand Cayman Pygmy Blue butterfly is the smallest butterfly in the Western Hemisphere, possibly in the world. Grand Cayman has its own endemic subspecies, Brephidium exilis thompsoni, named after Gerald Thompson one of the students on the 1938 Oxford University Biological Expedition to the Cayman Islands. This tiny butterfly is restricted to low-lying, saline situations where the dominant vegetation is Glasswort - Salicornia perennis (larval food plant) and Sea-pulsey - Sesuvium portulacastrum (nectar flower). Such conditions are localized and colonies of Brephidium exilis thompsoni usually occupy areas of less than one hundred square metres. Preservation of its habitat is essential to its survival. Ann suggested that Barkers National Park in West Bay is probably one of the best places for preservation.
Reducing, reusing and recycling starts with awareness and continues with commitment. Leaves, garden prunings, fruit and vegetable trimmings, shredded paper and cardboard all go into the recyclers in our garden, becoming nutrient-rich soil in a few months. Our Department of Environmental Health encourages people to start their own recycling program.
We re-use plastic bottles and containers. Supermarkets now charge 5 cents for every plastic shopping bag. This has at last made shoppers provide their own reusable bags. Special bins are at various locations for depositing aluminium cans for recycling.
The native plants in our wildlife garden are already adapted to the environment, the dry season and the wet season, so they do not need additional watering. They provide food and cover for native creatures – birds, butterflies, lizards and so on.
What’s in a name?
Different countries have different common names for plants. The preservation of the Cayman common names is important, as they may reflect how the plant was encountered or used, such as Shake Hand, Ironwood, Candlewood, Smokewood and Wash Wood.
Ann tries to positively affect her local community by aspiring to inspire others to get to know, appreciate and preserve native plants, which, through food chains and food webs, help to preserve native creatures. At present, only property owned by the National Trust for the Cayman Islands is protected. Ann served on the Trust’s Environmental Programmes Committtee. She encourages people to support the National Trust for the Cayman Islands, to visit their website, especially the Information Sheets and to visit the Trust’s properties such as the Mission House, Governor Michael Gore Bird Sanctuary, East End Lighthouse Park, Mastic Trail and Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. The Trust’s Visitor Centre on South Church St sells tough, plasticized, waterproof Bird and Butterfly Identification Cards and books on local flora, fauna and geology. In addition, Cayman Islands Department of the Environment’s website has a Virtual Guide to the Birds of the Cayman Islands. Ann also encourages her guests to visit the National Museum, the National Gallery and Pedro St. James Historic Site.
The Grand Cayman Ironwood Forest is last remaining significant fragment of dry rocky forest lies SE of George Town on a Cayman Dolostone limestone ridge. Over the years, Ann has identified and listed the indigenous plants, many of them Endangered or Critically Endangered. A road was proposed to go through the forest, which generated a lot of publicity. An interpretive boardwalk was planned to showcase a very small portion, but there is now no access.
Another proposed major highway passes very close to a stand of extremely slow-growing Endangered Wash Wood trees – Jacquinia keyensis. Ann pointed this out and the trees have now been fenced off.
Many birds perished during or after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, when there was little food or cover. Ann compiled a Mini-woodlands list to aid the preservation & re-planting of Cayman's indigenous, & a few naturalized, trees & shrubs, in clusters, rather than singly, creating networks of mini-woodlands to help the re-establishment of bird populations.
As part of Cayman’s Darwin Initiative, a Native Tree Nursery was established at the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park. Ann was on the committee and selected suitable plants from her Mini-woodlands list. The Nursery was opened in March 2009.
While Ann served on Cayman Islands Stamp Advisory Committee, she initiated the production of various stamp issues to draw awareness to Cayman’s natural history:
Cayman Cultural Series I - Native Trees and their traditional uses, February 2006
Darwin Initiative – creatures and their habitats, July 2008
Cayman Cultural Series II - Silver Thatch palm and its many uses, January 2009
In addition to www.caymannature.ky Ann has created Picasa web albums of photos of Cayman’s natural history.