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Irma Was Bad News For Iguanas, Good News For Mosquitoes

Editor's note: The original version of this story said that the iguanas on the U.S. Virgin Islands feed on mosquitoes and that Hurricane Irma decimated the iguana population, which would most likely result in a proliferation of mosquitoes. In fact, iguanas do not feed on mosquitoes and there is no correlation between their reduced number and the mosquito population. We have updated this story.

More than two weeks after Irma hit St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, you can still see how the winds ripped through tin roofs like lids of sardine cans, snapped electricity poles as if they were toothpicks, upended trucks and planes on the airport tarmac. At a nearby marina, a yacht's bow still sticks out of the water.

The strong winds also uprooted trees, cracking their branches and defoliating them to the bare bone. St. Thomas is no longer a lush green rain forest. Instead, it's dull brown with naked trees on the hillsides.

For the thousands of iguanas, this massive destruction of their vegetation is tragic. The tree canopies where they live and hide are all gone. They can't camouflage themselves anymore. The fruit, leaves and hibiscus flowers have disappeared.

Since Hurricanes Irma and Maria, there's also been a lot of rain in the region. That's promising for trees and fruit to grow back so iguanas can hide and eat. But the rains also mean more mosquitoes.

"The debris and receding floodwaters are excellent breeding sites for disease-carrying mosquitoes," says Dr. Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. That's a boon for diseases like dengue, chikungunya and Zika.

"Without healthy populations of insect-eating bats, lizards, frogs and birds, our human populations are more vulnerable," says U.S. Virgin Islands wildlife biologist Renata Platenberg.

She adds that these species are a part of a critical ecosystem that ultimately benefits humans on the island.

Iguanas are not a native to the island, but nonetheless they are part of the wildlife that plays a major role in the food chain. They eat fruit that also attracts insects. They've made the Virgin Islands their home because the climate and vegetation had been, until now, just right.

Despite the role these hungry lizards play in the overall ecosystem, islanders either love them or hate them. Love them because they're tame, social reptiles. They don't bite — unless provoked, of course. Their prehistoric look offers great photo ops for tourists.

And they're hated by locals mainly because they eat home gardens and poop on people's properties.

The iguanas might be able to swim to their neighboring island of St. John, but they'll find the forests are all gone there, too.

"All the islands in the same proximity are all devastated," says iguana lover Laural Branick, a park ranger at Virgin Islands National Park. "There's nothing for them to eat."

With the amount of deforestation caused by this year's hurricanes, it could take a long time for the trees to come back. So for the moment, the green lizards are easy to spot, perched on broken branches, running aimlessly across streets — and sometimes getting hit by cars.

"We should just eat them," says St. Thomas native Brigitte Berry. "They're delicious."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 3, 2017 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of this post said that iguanas feast on mosquitoes, helping to control the mosquito population. In fact, iguanas do not eat mosquitoes.
Rolando Arrieta
Rolando Arrieta manages the Ops Desk, the team that handles the day-to-day content production and operations for the Newsroom and Programming. He also works closely with software developers in designing content management systems in an effort to maintain efficient production and publication workflows for broadcast newsmagazines, podcasts and digital story presentations.