Endangered and extinct

It is surprising the number of animal species indigenous or endemic to Jamaica that became extinct. Others are now on the endangered list.

Extinction in Jamaica goes way back and included mammals, birds, reptiles and insects.

Gary Morgan of the Florida Museum of Natural History claimed, “Jamaica has three extinct species of monkey.” Ross MacPhee and Clare Flemming said the Jamaican monkey disappeared sometime “after AD 1500, possibly after AD 1700” and seemed to have lived primarily in or near caves. These included “Long Mile Cave near Windsor, Trelawney Parish; Somerset Cave, Skeleton Cave, Lloyd’s Cave and ‘the new cave,’ all near Jackson’s Bay, Clarendon Parish.”

Fossil records were uncovered in 1919 by Harold Anthony in the Long Mile Cave in Jamaica’s Cockpit Country. Anthony reported:

January 17 – Spent all day digging in the long mile cave and secured some good bones. The most important find was the lower jaw and femur of a small monkey, found in the yellow limestone detritus. It was not associated with the human remains but not so far from them that the animal must not be strongly suspected as an introduced species.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), “the reasons for the extinction of this species in Jamaica are not known.”

The Daily Mail newspaper speculated, “Jamaican monkey bone fragments suggests that humans killed off the species after they settled on the creature’s island home.” The United Kingdom paper asserted that “the monkeys lived alongside humans around 1,200 years ago” and that “the monkey may be the world’s most recent primate species to become extinct.”

In the March 1966 Quarterly Journal of the Florida Academy of Sciences, Richard Etheridge wrote of the extinction of the northern curly-tailed lizard from Jamaica. As he did with the now extinct monkey, the fossil deposits were discovered by Harold Anthony, this time in Dairy Cave close to Discovery Bay on Jamaica’s north coast.

The Jamaica giant galliwasp is believed to be extinct as the last recorded citing was in 1840. “It is thought that the introduction of predatory species (primarily mongoose) to Jamaica, and the extensive conversion of woody swamp habitat, resulted in the extinction,” IUCN noted. If the giant galliwasp exists, it “is likely to be restricted to a very small area likely at risk from habitat degradation and continued impacts of mongoose predation. As such this species is listed as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).”

Farming and ganja cultivation played a role in the demise of the galliwasp. IUCN elaborated:

The conversion of woody swamps for logging, subsistence agriculture, and residential development has been extensive through the species’ presumed range over the last two centuries. Extensive cannabis cultivation in the area of the Black River Morass, from which the species was historically recorded, has constrained survey efforts in this region and it is hoped that a subpopulation may consequently have survived here undetected. If so, it will undoubtedly be very small and localized, and it is unknown what impact habitat degradation for cannabis cultivation is likely to have on this lizard.

An article in the October 20, 2016 issue of Plos One journal reported that “the Jamaican Sunset moth, often regarded as one of the most beautiful of all moths, became extinct just 116 years after its description. Endemic to Jamaica, it inhabited low-elevation tropical rainforest.” Officially designated Urania sloanus, the moth “was named by Dutch entomologist Pieter Cramer in honor of Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), an English naturalist and collector who explored Jamaica from 1687 to 1689, recording and illustrating the species for the first time in his travel diaries published in 1725.”

Susan Koenig, a wildlife ecologist, said “at least one of Jamaica’s 21 endemic frogs, a species which was restricted to streams in the Blue Mountains, is already thought extinct and a second species, the Jamaican Bromeliad Frog, may also be near extinction.”

Another extinct species is the Jamaican rice rat. Three specimens were collected in the 19th century. According to Angela Han, “the Jamaican rice rat is an extinct rodent from Jamaica. This rat was thought to have dispersed into Jamaica during the last glacial period and is known via three specimens that were collected live during the 19th century.”

Two parrots, the Jamaican Red Macaw and the Jamaican Green and Yellow Macaw, are believed to be extinct. Two others, the Yellow-billed Amazon and the Black-billed Amazon, are deemed vulnerable. Though only regarded as “critically endangered,” the Jamaican Blue Mountain duck was last cited in 1879 or 1880.

Destructive mongoose
The mongoose is the most destructive animal species in Jamaica. Introduced from India into Jamaica in the 1870s to rid sugarcane plantations of rats, it is blamed for killing off other animals as well, not just in Jamaica but elsewhere:

The IUCN lists the small Indian mongoose as one of the top 100 world’s worst invaders. Most endemic island species are naturally vulnerable, occurring in small isolated populations and ranging over small areas. Based on the public health damages, killing of poultry, extinctions of amphibians, reptiles, and destruction of native birds, it is estimated that this mongoose is causing $50 million in damages each year in Puerto Rico and the Hawaiian Islands alone.

In the Popular Science Monthly of November 1898, C.W. Willis wrote:

About fifteen or twenty years ago the mongoose (Herpestes griseus) was imported from India by the colonial government and introduced into the island of Jamaica, in the West Indies, for the ostensible purpose of destroying the large, gray, white-bellied rat which played havoc with the growing cane on the sugar plantations.

The animal is excessively prolific.  “The mongoose breeds six times a year, and each time there are from five to ten young ones.” It began posing serious problems of its own:

In its native habitat it devours snakes, rats, lizards, and other creatures not in favor with humanity…. That the little animal has fairly achieved the object for which it was imported cannot be gainsaid, but that it would ever become the universal pest which it is at the present day, and has been for several years, was never anticipated. So long as it kept to the cane growing plantations, and ate the planter’s poultry and all young and available animal life, all went well; but with its rapid and prolific powers of reproduction and its vagabond and roaming disposition, in a very short time it was found to be in every part of the island, from the seashore to the tops of the loftiest mountains, the highest peak of which is seventy-three hundred feet above the sea level.

Willis grew almost poetic in describing the mongoose’s profligacy and destructive power:

Though it has not exterminated the cane rats, it has lessened their numbers, and saved the sugar planters a vast sum of money. But it has nearly exterminated the ground laying and feeding birds. It devours poultry and eggs of all kinds, on the ground and in trees, including those of the land turtle, so that the latter, once very numerous and highly esteemed as an article of food by the native epicures, is now seldom found. Here may be mentioned an interesting fact, that the mongoose, in no way a tree-climbing animal in its native India, has become such in Jamaica, as its voracious appetite lessened the numbers of ground feeding and laying birds, and compelled it to take to the trees in order to enlarge its food supply.

The mongoose kills young pigs that roam, half wild, over the island; also lambs and kids. It eats fruits of all kinds, fish, wild fowl, snakes, lizards, and crabs; and the once plentiful edible lizards and land crabs are now rarely seen. All young and tender life, both animal and vegetable, is included in its daily menu. When the mongoose has cleared off all the animal life, it turns its attention to the “ground provisions,” and here it shows the varieties of its tastes and the strength of its jaws. It will grovel with its paws until yams, cocos, sweet potatoes, cassava both bitter and sweet, and other ground food tubers are laid bare.

The mongoose contributed to the proliferation of tricks, disease carrying parasites, killing off the birds that feed on these blood sucking arachnids.

Iguana rescue

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The Jamaica Iguana, thought to be extinct until the 1970s when a fresh carcass was found.  The first live iguana was discovered in the Hellshire Hills in 1990. A few hundred now survive due to preservation efforts. (Photo courtesy of Hope Zoo)

The news is not all bad. It was thought the Jamaican iguana had long died out until Edwin Duffus, a pig hunter, discovered a fresh iguana carcass in the Hellshire Hills of St. Catherine in the 1970s.  He found a live iguana in 1990 and informed the Hope Zoo in Kingston, Jamaica’s capital. Since then, conservation efforts have had some successes.

“The Jamaican iguana (Cyclura collei) is one of the world’s greatest conservation success stories,” said Charles Knapp, vice president of Conservation and Research of the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, in the United States:

In the 19th and 20th centuries the Jamaican iguana began vanishing from its island home as habitat loss, hunting, and introduced dogs, cats, and mongooses (to control Jamaica’s rat population in cane fields) took their toll. By the late 1940s, the iguana was believed to be extinct.

But even with such success, there are grave concerns. “Recent developments in Jamaica may rock the iguana back toward a path to extinction,” Knapp bemoaned.  Adam Andrus cited scientists who worry that “a new plan to build a massive port in the iguana’s habitat could push the species back to the edge of extinction.” Deutsche Welle, a German international broadcaster, claimed “the illegal charcoal burning industry in Jamaica destroys its last remaining habitat.”

The Natural Museum of Jamaica lists other animal species that are vulnerable or are endangered. “The Giant Swallowtail is the largest butterfly in this hemisphere and is the largest swallowtail in the world. They are found only in inaccessible regions of the John Crow Mountains and the Cockpit Country. Their habitat is threatened by destruction.”

The coney is “found in remote mountain forests…. Apart from the rat bats, they are Jamaica’s only surviving native land mammals.”

The Hawksbill, the Loggerhead, the Olive-Ridley and the Green turtles “are hunted for their shells and meat and are faced with the loss of their nesting beaches. Accordingly, their numbers are falling.”

For many animals, extinction is still a portentous reality.

Eron Henry is author of Reverend Mother, a novel