"The wide world is all about you:

you can fence yourselves in,

but you cannot for ever fence it out."

    Gildor Inglorion to Frodo Baggins, in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

    John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892-1973)

 

Saint Croix's ameiva, Ameiva polops, male. Protestant Cay, off northern Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands.

 


 

The Worshipers of the Sun


    At a distance of 150,000,000 kilometers from us lies a yellow dwarf star, a sphere of compressed gas in a state of plasma 1,400,000 kilometers in diameter. It contains about 99.9 percent of the mass in our solar system. Its thermonuclear engine transforms more than 400,000,000 metric tonnes of hydrogen into helium every second. The output of radiation of that chemical reaction provides Earth's surface with most of its extra-planetary energy.

    Thus, this star provides for the organic life of the Blue Island floating in space. Indeed, some terrestrial vertebrates seem to be very fond of the Sun.


REPTILES

 

    The scaly ones: breathtaking theophanies of fulgent splendor.

 

    My favorite animals.

 

    Ancient reptiles, like their anapsid ancestors, were among the first amniotes and, as such, among the first truly terrestrial vertebrates in that they severed their reproductive ties to open water.

 

    Until rather recently the term "reptile" had quite a specific "popular" definition that included just lizards, snakes, turtles, crocodiles, and tuataras. That has changed with the ever-increasing use of information on genetics and a better understanding of cladistics and phylogenies, coupled with the disuse of morphology to define species and lower taxa.

 

    According to the best (at present) cladistic definition, and without discussing the scientific terminology that describes common traits, a "reptile" is "the most common recent ancestor of extant turtles, crocodilians, and saurians, and all of their descendants". In other words, the diapsids. Thus, the group actually includes not only the aforementioned poikilothermic organisms popularly known as "reptiles", but also endotherms such as pterosaurs and dinosaurs (including the avian dinosaurs, namely birds).

 

    However, I will follow the traditional taxonomic usage of the term "reptile" to refer to turtles, crocodiles, lizards, snakes, and amphisbaenians, and will treat birds in their own sections.

 

    No other vertebrate group is as varied in this region as reptiles, and no other has as many endemics per island as it does. Hundreds of species live in the Caribbean, and even the smallest cays are inhabited by some reptiles, as long as they have some woody vegetation on them. In fact, although the number of genera is low if compared with that of the continental Neotropics, the reptilian fauna of the Antilles comprises more species (perhaps more than 700) than the sum total of all other terrestrial vertebrates in the region.

 

    The West Indies truly are islands of reptiles.

 

The Reptiles of the Caribbean Islands

 

    Due to their impermeable skins and capacity for fasting during long periods of time, many of these reptiles are able transoceanic colonizers of new regions. In the New World, and in modern times, several species of Hemidactylus geckoes have invaded both insular and continental areas by hitch-hiking on man's ships. Even earlier, some species of the same genus evolved in the Antilles and South America after their ancestors crossed the Atlantic Ocean on rafts of fallen trees and branches, all the way from distant Africa. Among the West Indies themselves, interesting biogeographic patterns arise when species of one island invade, and sometimes further speciate in, other islands found quite some distance away. For example, the Cuban Anolis porcatus invaded some of The Bahamas and Navassa Island (off western Hispaniola) and continental North America, where it evolved into local endemic species. The Hispaniolan Anolis distichus have also invaded The Bahamas and North America, evolving into at least endemic subspecies there. And the blind snake Typhlops platycephalus and the anole Anolis cristatellus, both Puerto Rican, have naturally invaded some of The Bahamas. The latter evolved there into Anolis scriptus.

 

    Some Antillean genera are widespread, and two reign supreme by the sheer number of their species: Anolis (anoles) and Sphaerodactylus (dwarf geckoes). Anoles and dwarf geckoes are everywhere in the Caribbean islands: in deserts, rain forests, coastal thickets, pine woodlands, grasslands, swamps, and from sea level to the cold summits of the high mountains. In fact, Anolis is the largest known genus of reptiles, with about 400 species described to date. Probably many more remain to be discovered in both genera and, while they are also found in the American continents, it is in the West Indies where they reach unparalleled degrees of diversity and ecological adaptation.

 

ORDER SQUAMATA: LIZARDS AND SNAKES

 

    Lizards and snakes (order Squamata) are the largest extant group of reptiles. They inhabit every continent except Antarctica, as well as many islands continental and oceanic. A few Eurasian species are found even within the Arctic Circle.

 

    For the sake of an orderly presentation, I will treat lizards apart from snakes, but it must be understood that there is not a clear phylogenetic separation between the two groups.

 

SUBORDER LACERTILIA: LIZARDS

 

    Most species of lizards are diurnal, although many are primarily nocturnal, particularly among geckoes (Gekkonidae) and night lizards (Xantusiidae). They range in size from the minute Jaragua sphaero (Sphaerodactylus ariasae), to the three meter-long Komodo monitor, (Varanus komodoensis), of Indonesia.

 

    Highly adaptable, lizards have invaded almost every niche on Earth, and can be found everywhere from deserts to rain forests, on the ground, underground, and on trees, and just below the snow line of alpine regions. Most species have strong legs, and some can run very fast, indeed. Others have vestigial limbs or have lost them altogether, their resulting morphologies and means of locomotion being serpentine. A number of them are semi-aquatic in freshwater and marine habitats, although no modern species have severed their ties to land completely. (The gigantic mosasaurs, extinct relations of the modern monitors, were truly marine). By far, most species reproduce by eggs, although some are ovoviviparous.

 

    Unlike several groups of snakes, lizards have not developed poison glands and means to inject venom into their prey. None, that is, except for the helodermatids of North America. However, it has been recently discovered that just because most lizards - and, for that matter, most snakes - do not possess a specialized mechanism to inject venom, it seems that many, if not most, possess virulent enzymes in their saliva that can be moderately to deadly toxic to their habitual prey. It has been know for some time that the earless monitor of Borneo, and a few species of Varanus monitors, all in the Old World, have toxins in their saliva. Yet it might sound strange, but nonetheless be true, that a "cute and harmless" lizard like an anole or curlytail can be deadly venomous... just not to humans. After all, many toxins are highly specific in their targets, and anoles do not usually eat people.

 

    Diurnal lizards frequently possess excellent color vision, indeed probably better than ours. The gaudy colors of many iguanids, agamids, and chameleonids serve as inter- and intra-specific means of recognition. Nocturnal species, like most gekkonids and xantusiids, possibly have a very limited ability to see color but, instead, they have a highly developed capability of seeing in poor light conditions.

 

    Lizards of many different groups possess the capacity to shed their tails when attacked and held by such organs. The vertebrae have a fracture point, usually located in their middle, which breaks under pressure. Once separated from the body the tail will reflexively thrash about and distract the predator from the rest of the animal, which will then flee to safety.

 

    The majority of lizards lay their eggs un secluded areas or bury them in soft and humid earth. Lizard eggs can be soft- or hard-shelled (mineralized). A number of species, on the other hand, are ovoviviparous, giving birth to miniature replicas of themselves.

 

Most lizards lay rubbery eggs which need to remain humid in order to survive.

These were laid in an excavation under a rock, by a Puerto Rican giant ameiva, Ameiva exsul.

Susua State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.



A gravid female Sphaerodactylus macrolepis guarionex shows its egg through the skin of its belly.
Guajataca, north-western Puerto Rico.


    Altogether, eleven families of lizards are found in the West Indies: Anguidae, Gekkonidae, Gymnophthalmidae, Iguanidae, Phyllodactylidae, Polychrotidae, Scincidae, Sphaerodactylidae, Teiidae, Tropiduridae, and Xantusiidae. Some of them, namely polychrotids, teiids, tropidurids, and xantusiids are exclusively American.

 

    Among the New World groups, some have very similar morphological, ecological, and behavioral counterparts in the Old World, with which they perhaps have an ancestor in common. Thus the iguanids and polychrotids are paralleled by the agamids of Africa, Asia, and Australia. Similarly, the teiids have a a parallel in the lacertids of the Eastern Hemisphere.

 

    All the Antillean families of lizards are discussed here save for the polychrotids, which are treated in the next section.


INFRAORDER GEKKOTA


    Gekkotans comprise several Cosmopolitan families with similar traits. Often, they possess eyes covered with transparent scales (like those of snakes), and are generally nocturnal. Also, most species have some sort of specialized scales on their toes ("lamellae") which allow them to be good climbers. Some are able to climb sheer glass, and even hang upside-down from it. Three families are present in the Antilles: Gekkonidae (typical geckoes), Phyllodactylidae (leaf-toed geckoes), and Sphaerodactylidae (dwarf geckoes and Caribbean tree geckoes).

 

    Because their sensitive eyes are perpetually exposed to visual stimuli, the pupil, like a cat's, contracts to a slit in nocturnal species, or to a tiny dot in diurnal ones. If the scales that cover the eyes become dirty, the lizards will lick them clean with their wide, mobile tongues.

 

    These lizards are notorious for being among the most vocal of reptiles. Several large species bark or croak spontaneously to declare their territory. In the West Indies, some members of Aristelliger are good examples of species with this faculty. Smaller species, like Hemidactylus and Phyllodactylus, emit thin squeals and growls when captured or when fighting. Members of Sphaerodactylus seem to be voiceless. (The very name "gecko" is an onomatopoeia of the call of one Asiatic species, the huge and beautiful tokay, Gecko gecko, from which the infraorder obtains its name).


    Members of this group exhibit social interaction patterns that can be highly complex. Tongue-flicks, arched backs, jumps, waving and thrashing tails, head-bobbing, chirps, hisses, and croaks are all part of the communication repertoire that allow geckoes to avoid, threaten, search for, and engage others of their kind. Some of the tiny Sphaerodactylus geckoes can even stand straight up on their two hind legs in order to survey their territories for rivals or mates, highly visual organisms that they are. Unfortunately, since many species are highly secretive or nocturnal, these "shows" are seldom seen by the casual human observer.


    With their large, unblinking eyes, and often possessing bizarre shapes and colors, many geckoes have a strange, otherworldly appearance and are therefore feared by many people. However, even the largest species are totally harmless to humans, unless provoked into biting.

    Some West Indian geckoes are among the giants of their kind, like the Cuban Tarentola americana, the Hispaniolan Aristelliger lar and, in the Lesser Antillean islands, Thecadactylus rapicauda. At the other end of the size scale, geckoes of this region include the smallest known reptiles on Earth: Sphaerodactylus ariasae of Navasa Island, and S. parthenopion, of the Virgin Islands, both about 16 millimeters in snout-vent length.

Some geckoes have a degree of binocular vision. These are male and female Sphaerodactylus roosevelti.

Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.

 

A female Sphaerodactylus klauberi stares at the camera. Guilarte State Forest, central Puerto Rico.


Family Gekkonidae: True Geckoes

    There are typical geckoes in every corner of planet Earth except the Arctic regions. While being one of the most species-rich lizard groups of Earth there is, however, only one native representative in the West Indies. This is the Neotropical house gecko. Widespread in the American tropical regions, in the Antilles it is only found in Saint Lucia, Lesser Antilles. Even there, it seems to be restricted to the Maria Islands, off the south-eastern coast of Saint Lucia itself.



Neotropical house gecko, Hemidactylus palaichthus, female. Maria Major Island, off south-eastern Saint Lucia, Lesser Antilles.


Family Phyllodactylidae: Leaf-Toed Geckoes and Their Kin


    Leaf-toes are so called because of the shape of their lamellae, which resemble two spreading leaves or a fan-like structure at either side of the tip of their toes. The Antillean members of the genus Phyllodactylus are found in Barbados, Lesser Antilles, as well as in the Greater Antillean banks of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rican leaf-toed geckoes (Puerto Rican race, Phyllodactylus wirshingi) male and female.

Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.

This species lives exclusively in xeric regions - usually with a limestone base - of Puerto Rico.

This gecko hides in crevices and under rocks during the day, but at night will climb boulders and trees in search of insects.

Its enormous eyes are very well adapted to see in the dark, as is the case with most geckoes. Unlike most diurnal reptiles,

nocturnal geckoes probably see only in black and white, having sacrificed color vision for sensitivity to light.

 


Phyllodactylus wirshingi, juvenile. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.

Unlike adults, juveniles of this species are strikingly banded in light and dark gray.



Dominican leaf-toed gecko, Phyllodactylus hispaniolae. Azua, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


    The thick-tailed gecko, Thecadactylus rapicauda, is common in the forests and sub-urban areas of the Lesser Antilles and some of the Virgin Islands. It is most often seen at night, clinging to buildings' walls and tree trunks, lying in wait for passing insects and smaller lizards. Its skin, strikingly leathery to the touch, tears easily and its strange, webbed feet seem to be out of proportion to its body. Usually placid, the occasional individual may still display an egregiously bad temper if held against it will. Across its wide range, the species displays a wide array of color patters depending on population. During the day, an individual may be discovered resting under some object or inside a crevice, in a coiled position that seems to mimic a dangerous - albeit small and fat - viper.

 

    The thick-tail is one of the largest leaf-toed gecko in the Antilles and the Americas. Unlike its Phyllodactylus relatives, its lamellae do not resemble double leaves.

Close-up of a female thick-tailed gecko, Thecadactylus rapicauda. Eggleston, south-central Dominica, Lesser Antilles.

 

A female thick-tailed gecko, Thecadactylus rapicauda, cleans its eye with its tongue.

Eggleston, south-central Dominica, Lesser Antilles.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Mel Jose Rivera).


Thick-tailed geckoes, Thecadactylus rapicauda, male seeking shelter in a hole in a cave, and female.

First photograph: Cabrits National Park, north-western Dominica, Lesser Antilles.

Second photograph: Eggleston, south-central Dominica, Lesser Antilles.

This species is also found in Central America and northern South America,

aside of the Lesser Antilles and the Puerto Rican bank (in some of the Virgin Islands).


    The other genus of this family present in the Antilles is Tarentola. Found in Cuba and Jamaica, they can grow quite large. Sadly, the Jamaican species seems to be extinct.


Family Sphaerodactylidae: Dwarf Geckoes, Caribbean Tree Geckoes, and their Kin


    Second only to anoles in the number of West Indian species, this family is found in both the Old and the New Worlds. The two genera present in the region are all exclusively American, and mostly Neotropical. One of their traits is that in most species the egg clutch is reduced to only one. Such egg is often quite large for the size of its parent.


    Members of Aristelliger range in size from quite small to the largest gecko overall in the Caribbean: the Hispaniolan giant gecko. This huge affair of a climbing lizard sometimes spooks people as it clings to walls and ceilings, seemingly staring at humans who walk by. (In fact "lar" is a "household spirit" in Latin).


    Other species, like the Jamaican croaker, emit astonishingly loud calls than can be heard from a couple hundred meters away.



Hispaniolan giant gecko, Aristelliger lar, two males and a juvenile. Los Haitises National Park, north-eastern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

Its Latin epithet ("lar") refers to a household guardian deity or spirit.
It nocturnal call is similar to the of its congener A. praesignis (below).

(Audio file courtesy of Mr. Miguel Angel Landestoy).



Aristelliger lar hides from view into a crevice on a wall.
Los Haitises National Park, north-eastern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.


Hispaniolan desert geckoes, Aristelliger expectatus.
First two photographs: male. Neiba, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
Last photograph: female Jaragua National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.


Jamaican croaking geckoes, Aristelliger praesignis.

First three photographs: two males and a juvenile. Windsor, north-central Jamaica.
Fourth photograph: male. Negril, western Jamaica.

Fifth photograph: female. Sheffield, western Jamaica.
Last photograph: juvenile. Negril, western Jamaica.

The loud calls of males and females are characteristic sounds in lowland areas of Jamaica.

 

Caicos geckoes, Aristelliger hechti.
First two photographs: males. French Cay, Turks and Caicos.
Last two photographs: male and juvenile. Big Ambergris Cay, Turks and Caicos.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


   And then there are the Lilliputians of the reptilian empire...

 

    Although only two more sphaerodactylid genera are found these islands (Gonatodes and Sphaerodactylus) there is a great number of species, most of them endemic to single insular banks, and often to small regions within an island. These small lizards depart from what is the norm in their kind, in that many species are diurnal or crepuscular, though still highly secretive and seldom seen by the merely casual observer. Another of their peculiarities is their general appearance. Instead of the wide and flattened bodies and heads, and the huge eyes of most nocturnal geckoes, Sphaerodactylus are rather elongated, their heads are slim and pointed, and have relatively small eyes.

 

    Sphaerodactylus (dwarf geckoes or "sphaeros") are tiny lizards that inhabit every terrestrial ecosystem in the Caribbean. Unlike other geckoes with series of adhesive lamellae on their toes, members of Sphaerodactylus possess a single, enlarged adhesive scale under the tip of each digit (notice such scales in several of the close-up photographs shown below). These scales are circular, a fact that gives the genus its name, "sphaira-dactylos": "round finger". The tiny adhesive pad points to the mainly terrestrial habits of most species. Indeed, sphaeros are not as agile at climbing as are many other geckoes and the majority of species in the genus is decidedly ground-based.



This organism is the second smallest amniote known on Earth: the Virgin Islands dwarf sphaero, Sphaerodactylus parthenopion.
At 0.14 grams in weight, Sphaerodactylus ariasae of Hispaniola is lighter by 0.01 grams.
First photograph: male. Next three photographs: females. Mahoe Bay, western Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands.
This fantastically tiny lizard can confortably perch on the tip of a vertically-held human finger.
The largest living reptile, a fully grown, bull marine crocodile (Crocodylus porosus), is approximately 6,046,666 times heavier.


    Among West Indian reptiles, they are second only to anoles in number of species and absolute abundance, with close to 100 species known to date, in the region. Unlike most anoles, however, they are mainly terrestrial, although some species will climb trees and cacti, and some, like Cuba's Sphaerodactylus bromeliarum and Jamaica's S. semasiops, are inhabitants of bromeliads growing on trees. Other species can be found under the peeling bark of standing trees. Those that live on the ground are frequently found under fallen logs and rocks, or while they stalk tiny invertebrates amidst the leaf litter of forests' floors. As with anoles, a number of species have arisen in small cays found near one or another of the larger islands, where the parent species from which they evolved still lives.

 

    Some groups of species seem to be aligned along ecomorphic lines (see the section on anoles for a description of the concept of "ecomorph"). Among Sphaerodactylus there seems to be, for example, a "xerophile dwarf" ecomorph. These tiny species are drab in color, have short, rounded snouts, and inhabit rather humid microhabitats in xeric forests and deserts in the Greater Antilles. Forms that may be included in this type are S. homoglaux and S. ariasae of the Hispaniolan insular bank, and S. townsendi, S. nicholsi, and S. parthenopion of the Puerto Rican bank. "Forest giants" are much larger species, some with bright patterns, and include S. roosevelti and S. klauberi of Puerto Rico, S. mariguanae of The Bahamas, and Sphaerodactylus vincenti of the Lesser Antilles. Generalists include S. argus of Cuba, Jamaica, and Mesoamerica, S. difficilis of Hispaniola, and S. macrolepis of Puerto Rico.

 

    The fact is that, aside from these generalizations, the lines dividing sphaerodactylid ecomorphs are presently very poorly understood, when compared to those dividing ecomorphs among anoles.

 

    Some species can be extremely abundant in some habitats, like the leaf-litter ground cover of littoral sea grape (Coccoloba uvifera) forests and of lowland xeric forests. Every acre of such places may harbor from hundreds to tens of thousands of individuals. However, in spite of being present in almost every terrestrial habitat in the Antilles and of being mostly diurnal, sphaeros are so small and secretive that months can go by without seeing one unless one looks for them on purpose.

 


Many sphaeros are abundant, yet difficult to see in their habitat.

This is a female Guantanamo Bay sphaero, Sphaerodactylus ruibali. Guantanamo Naval Base, Guantanamo, south-eastern Cuba.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

    Partly because sphaeros are so tiny, the different species are often difficult to tell apart. Some are divided into several subspecies, which themselves can be either very similar or strikingly different. Sphaerodactylus macrolepis is one of such taxa. It ranges widely in the Puerto Rican island bank, where it is found everywhere except in some xeric areas. Its biogeography is peculiar in that it is one of the few native Puerto Rican reptiles that is endemic to more than one insular bank, since it is also found in Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands (possibly as an unwitting man-made introduction).

 

Sphaeros are the smallest terrestrial vertebrates on Earth.

On the left is an adult male Sphaerodactylus nicholsi, photographed with a United States ten-cent coin for scale. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.
On the right is its even smaller sister species Sphaerodactylus parthenopion. Mahoe Bay, western Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands.

 

    With their elongated bodies and narrow, pointy heads, sphaeros are very picturesque. Some species are colored in drab, monochromatic grays or browns, while others exhibit gorgeous and complex patterns of bands, spots, or stripes. These can be on beige, yellow, orange, slate blue, or purplish background colors. In many species, one or both sexes have a dark patch above the shoulders or on the back. This patch often encloses two light ocelli, and the pattern might fulfill a color-disruptive function or might deviate the attention of a predator away from the lizard's head. The trait is shared by some of their Aristelliger cousins.


Many sphaeros have a patch of dark scales surrounding two white ocelli. This pattern may have a dissuading purpose, serving as false eyes to intimidate some predators.

This is a female Puerto Rican eyespot sphaero, (northern race, Sphaerodactylus macrolepis guarionex). Caguas, east-central Puerto Rico.

 

    Some species of Sphaerodactylus exhibit a very strong sexual dichromatism. Sometimes the dissimilarity is enough for the sexes to look like different species (see the photographs of Spharodactylus macrolepis spanius and Sphaerodactylus torrei, lower down on this page). In other species, sexes are alike and can only be distinguished by the presence, in males, of a patch of flattened scales before the vent. In some species, these extend into the ventral surface of the thighs.

 

Cuban broad-banded sphaeros, (Guantanamo Bay race, Sphaerodactylus torrei spielmani),  male and female, captive specimens.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

A male Sphaerodactylus macrolepis ateles, has a pre-anal patch of flattened and

un-pigmented scales, extending somewhat unto the ventral surface of its thighs.

This is a trait in the males of all species of the genus.

Mayaguez, western Puerto Rico.

 

    For all their tiny size, sphaeros seem to be pugnacious creatures. That, together with the fact that many other animals prey on them, makes it rare to find an individual without a regenerated tail and pieces of skin. In some species, complete tails can be told by their black and white tip.

 

    Female sphaeros lay single eggs with a calcareous shell, only a few millimeters in length, yet large for the size of the adult.

 

Haitises banded sphaeros, Sphaerodactylus samanensis, females. Los Haitises National Park, northern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

(First photograph courtesy of Mr. Eladio M. Fernandez).

 

Jamaican stippled sphaero, (Jamaican race, Sphaerodactylus argus argus).

First two photographs: males. Windsor, north-central Jamaica.

Third photograph, male. Point Morant, eastern Jamaica.

Last photograph, female. Sheffield, western Jamaica.



Ashy sphaeros (nominate race, Sphaerodactylus elegans elegans), male, female and juvenile.
First and third photographs: Sierra de los Organos, western Cuba.

Second photograph: Guanahacabibes Peninsula, western Cuba.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Montego banded sphaero, Sphaerodactylus richardsoni, female. Windsor, north-central Jamaica.



Southern Jamaican banded sphaero, Sphaerodactylus parkeri. Portland Ridge, south-central Jamaica.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Cockpit eyespot sphaero, Sphaerodactylus semasiops, female. Barbecue Bottom, north-central Jamaica.
This is an inhabitant of bromeliads, which are very abundant within its range.

 

Haitises striped sphaero, Sphaerodactylus cochranae. Los Haitises National Park, northern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Miguel Angel Landestoy).



Rough-banded sphaero, Sphaerodactylus callocricus. First photograph: juvenile. Santa Barbara de Samana, north-eastern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola. (Courtesy of Dr. Daniel Scantlebury).
Las two photgraphs: male and female. Near Las Galeras, north-eastern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.


Central Bahamian sphaero, Sphaerodactylus corticola, female. Bahamas Field Station, north-western San Salvador, The Bahamas.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Turks and Caicos banded sphaero, Sphaerodactylus caicosensis.

First photograph: male; Providenciales, Turks and Caicos.

Second photograph: female; White Cay, Turks and Caicos.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Turks Islands sphaeros, Sphaerodactylus underwoodi, male and female.

Big Sand Cay, Turks and Caicos.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 


Jamaican forest sphaero, Sphaerodactylus goniorhynchus, male.

Windsor, north-central Jamaica.


Guantanamo Bay sphaeros, Sphaerodactylus ruibali.
First two photographs: male and female. Guantanamo Naval Base, Guantanamo, south-eastern Cuba. (Courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).
Last two photographs: male and female, captive specimens. (Courtesy of Mr. Frank Jaeger).


And yet another giant: the Cuban three-banded sphaero, (Grand Bahama bank race, Sphaerodactylus nigropunctatus flavicauda), juvenile female.

Southern Andros Island, The Bahamas.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Brown-speckled sphaero, (central Bahamian race, Sphaerodactylus notatus amaurus), female.

Southern Andros Island, The Bahamas.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Alto Velo sphaero (Neiba Valley race, Sphaerodactylus altavelensis enriquilloensis). Puerto Escondido, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 


Martin Garcia sphaero, Sphaerodactylus perissodactylius, male. Near Cabral, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

    A number of sphaeros are ecological generalists, and are highly adaptable to diverse situations. Some of the next species of Sphaerodactylus are more or less widely distributed in their islands of origin. They are found almost anywhere their needs for a specific habitat are met.

 


Puerto Rican eye-spot sphaero (nominate race, Sphaerodactylus macrolepis macrolepis).

First two photographs: male. Gorda Peak National Park, central Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands.

Last photographs: female. Mahoe Bay, western Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands.

 


Puerto Rican eyespot sphaero, (northern race, Sphaerodactylus macrolepis guarionex), male and two females.
  Guajataca, north-western Puerto Rico


Puerto Rican eye-spot sphaeros, (eastern race, Sphaerodactylus macrolepis grandisquamis). This subspecies inhabits coastal areas around the eastern end of the island.

First photograph: male. Last two photographs: female.
San Juan, north-eastern Puerto Rico.


Puerto Rican eye-spot sphaeros (south-eastern race, Sphaerodactylus macrolepis ateles. First two photographs: male. Mayagüez, western Puerto Rico.

Next two photographs: female. Mayagüez, western Puerto Rico.

Last photograph: female. Susua State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.


Puerto Rican eye-spot sphaeros (highland race, Sphaerodactylus macrolepis spanius).
First two photographs: male. Toro Negro State Forest, central Puerto Rico.
Third photograph: female. Maricao State Forest, western Puerto Rico.


Puerto Rican eye-spot sphaero, (north-eastern race, Sphaerodactylus macrolepis phoberus),  female. Carolina, north-eastern Puerto Rico.



Puerto Rican eye-spot sphaeros (Vieques Island race, Sphaerodactylus macrolepis inigoi, male and female. Monte Pirata, western Vieques.
(First photograph courtesy of Mr. Mel Jose Rivera).

 

Monan sphaeros, Sphaerodactylus monensis, male and female. Mona Island. This species is sister to M. macrolepis (above).

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Anguillan bank sphaero, Sphaerodactylus parvus, male. Saint Bartholomew, Lesser Antilles.

Closely related to S. macrolepis, and perhaps evolved from it after an invasion from the Puerto Rican bank.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Karl Questel).

 

Puerto Rican highland sphaero, Sphaerodactylus klauberi,

First two photographs: males. El Yunque National Forest, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

Next two photographs: female. Guilarte State Forest, west-central Puerto Rico.

This is a large species, inhabitant of montane rain forests.

 

Chevronated sphaero, Sphaerodactylus gaigeae, male and female. Florida, central Puerto Rico.

This species, closely related S. klauberi (above), is its ecological equivalent in lowland mesic forests in the eastern half of the island.

The name makes allusion to the pair of dark chevrons on the nape of both sexes.



Hispaniolan eyespot sphaeros (nominate race, Sphaerodactylus difficilis difficilis), male and female.
Pico Diego de Ocampo Nature Reserve, north-central Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.


Hispaniolan eyespot sphaeros (southern Hispaniolan race, Sphaerodactylus difficilis diolenius), male and female.
Santo Domingo, southern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

A giant within its genus: the southern Bahamian sphaero, Sphaerodactylus mariguanae. Booby Cay, The Bahamas.
First photograph: male. Last two photographs: female.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 


Hispaniolan small-eared sphaero (nominate race, Sphaerodactylus streptophorus streptophorus), male.

Near Cabral, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

Sphaeroactylus leucaster, male.Valle de Neiba, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
(Photograph courtesy of Dr. Daniel Scantlebury).

 

    Other sphaeros are much more restricted in their distribution, or live only in a particular habitat, or even microhabitat. This is the case especially with some very small as well as "giant" species. The Hispaniolan Sphaerodactylus omoglaux lives only in the desert of the Valle de Neiba-Cul de Sac plain. The Puerto Rican S. roosevelti exists only in the xeric forests and cactus scrub of southwestern Puerto Rico. Similarly, S. beattyi is a xerophile that is found only in a small portion of an already small island: the xeric forests and savannas of eastern Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands.

 

    The next four species are examples of habitat specialists.

 

Roosevelt's khaki sphaero, Sphaerodactylus roosevelti, two adult males, two adult females, and a juvenile female. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.
With a maximum snout-vent length of four centimeters, this is another "giant" of its genus.

As it happens with a few other species, females of the genus are much more strikingly patterned than males.

This one of the rather few nocturnal members of the its kind. Seldom seen by day unless sought after under rocks,

fallen trunks, and other debris, it can be seen at night on grassy grounds or while it climbs on vegetation.


Puerto Rican crescent sphaeros, Sphaerodactylus nicholsi.

First photograph: male; Caja de Muerto Nature Reserve, off southern Puerto Rico.

Second photograph: female; Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.

The species is a tiny coastal xerophile that lives in the leaf litter of littoral dry forests.

 


Puerto Rican sandy sphaero, Sphaerodactylus townsendi. Camp Santiago, Salinas, south-eastern Puerto Rico.
First two photographs: male.
Last photograph: female.

Closely related S. nicholsi (above), it is but a little larger. It inhabits a very similar habitat.



Saint Croix's sphaero (south-eastern Saint Croix's race, Sphaerodactylus beattyi seamani) females.
Camp Arawak, southern Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands.


    Lesser Antillean sphaeros occupy similar habitats to those of the Greater Antilles. Most are related among themselves.

 


Leeward banded sphaero, Sphaerodactylus sputator,  male, close-up of male, and female. Oranjestad, western Saint Eustatius, Lesser Antilles.
This is a large species of xeric regions, ecologically similar to S. mariguanae and S. roosevelti elsewhere in the Antilles.


Windward sphaero, (Saint Vincent's race, Sphaerodactylus vincenti vincenti), male and female.

Vermont Nature Reserve, south-western Saint Vincent, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles.



Windward sphaero, Sphaerodactylus vincenti ronaldi, male. Eastern Martinique, Lesser Antilles.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Southern leeward sphaero (nominate race, Sphaerodactylus fantasticus fantasticus), male. Western Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, Lesser Antilles.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Sphaerodactylus fantasticus tartaropylorus. Eastern Basse Terre, Guadeloupe, Lesser Antilles.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Southern leeward sphaero (Dominican race, Sphaerodactylus fantasticus fuga), male and female. Cabrits National Park, north-western Dominica, Lesser Antilles.
(First photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Saint Lucian sphaeros, male and female. South-eastern race, Sphaerodactylus microlepis thomasi.
Maria Major Island, off south-eastern Saint Lucia, Lesser Antilles.


Northern Leeward sphaeros, Sphaerodactylus sabanus, male and female. Slopes of Mount Scenery, central Saba, Lesser Antilles.


Bequia spharos, Sphaerodactylus kirbyi.
First photograph: male. Union, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles
Second photograph: female. Bequia, north of Grenada, Lesser Antilles.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


    Gonatodes geckoes greatly resemble their Sphaerodactylus relatives. However, they can be immediately told apart from them by the total lack of adhesive pads on their toes, these simply ending in regular claws. In the West Indian region, they are only found in a few islands. One peculiar habit of these diurnal species is the way they often perch on lower tree trunks, facing down, and in that way resemble tiny anoles. Gonatodes might be the most primitive of sphaerodactylids, the ancestral stock from which other genera evolved. As it happens in Sphaerodactylus, males have a schuteon of flattened scales in front of the cloacal area.



Grenadines clawed gecko, Gonatodes daudini. Union, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles.
Unlike the related Sphaerodactylus, these lizards lack adhesive lamellae on their toes and these end in claws.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Mel Jose Rivera).



Grenadines clawed geckoes, Gonatodes daudini. Union, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Yellow-headed gecko, Gonatodes albogularis, male. Port Royal, south-eastern Jamaica.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


INFRAORDER IGUANIA


    The iguanians are those lizards named after iguanas and their kin. They are found in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres of Earth. However, only three families within the infraorder are represented in the West Indies: the iguanids, the tropidurids, and the polychrotids. Again, the latter will be treated in their own section.


Family Iguanidae: Iguanas and Their Kin

 

    Iguanids are mainly a New World family of lizards. Only a few, relict members of the group live outside the Americas, inhabiting the Galápagos Islands, Fiji, and Madagascar, all these being islands in the Indo-Pacific Ocean. Many iguanids are terrestrial although, especially in the Neotropics, many have adapted to a life on trees. In size, they range from tiny creatures measuring four centimeters in total length to the heavyweights among American lizards, namely the enormous and powerful cyclurid iguanas of the Greater Antilles and the The Bahamas.

 

    Iguanids are represented in the West Indies by three groups: the sister genera Cyclura and Iguana, and Ctenosaura. All these creatures are mainly herbivores, though they are as well facultative carnivores. Both Iguana and Cyclura may devour small mammals and birds when such are within their reach.


    Save for the ground sloths and some huge capromyd rodents - both groups are now extinct - the iguanas of the West Indies are the largest native terrestrial herbivores in these islands. They are important seed dispersers in the ecosystems where they belong, by eating certain fruits and then excreting the still viable seeds.

 

Southern Bahamiam rock iguanas, (nominate race, Cyclura carinata carinata), females feeding on turk's cap cacti fruits.

Their tough, scaly skins protect them from the plant's fierce thorns.

Big Ambergris Cay, Turks and Caicos.

(Photographs courtesy of My. Joseph Burgess).

 

    Some of these huge reptiles are good colonizers of new areas. The two Iguana species of the Lesser Antilles have been seen rafting on masses of vegetation, especially after storms, or swimming in the open sea among the islands, even in good weather. Whatever would entice a lizard to make such a journey through its own volition is not easily understood. It may be a consequence of occasional overpopulation and the subsequent depletion of resources. Whatever the case may be, it is evidence of the dispersal abilities of these fascinating organisms.

 

    At least as far as external morphology is concerned, the difference between the genera Cyclura and Iguana is not fully clear-cut. The very name of the first genus (from the Greek "cyclos" - "circle", and "urus" - "tail") makes reference to the whorls of enlarged spine-like scales surrounding their tails. This trait is absent in Iguana but, in fact, one member among the cyclurids, namely Cyclura pinguis of the Puerto Rican insular bank, lacks those, as well. Perhaps the species of the two groups are all Iguana, but the matter does not seem to be settled.

 

    Members of the genus Cyclura, the rock iguanas, are endemic to the Greater Antilles and The Bahamas. The genus formerly inhabited some of the northern Lesser Antilles, as well. Some of them, like the Anegadan, Cuban, Grand Cayman's, rhinoceros and Mona Island's rock iguanas, are the largest lizards of the Americas. In fact, among West Indian terrestrial reptiles, they are surpassed in size only by the two native crocodiles and by some of the Boa and Epicrates snakes.

 

    Cyclurids mainly inhabit arid lowland forests, and are among their most picturesque denizens. Ponderous beasts when they contentedly patrol their territories with an almost crocodilian gait, they can run as fast as a man when fleeing danger. Usually timid and flighty, their temper may change suddenly when they feel cornered. A large individual can turn into a reptilian chainsaw in the blink of an eye and its sharp teeth, claws, and serrated tail might leave an assortment of welts and gashes on the human who carelessly attempts to hold it against its will.

 

    Cyclura iguanas are mainly terrestrial, though the occasional individual will climb a tree. At night or when threatened they seek refuge in burrows excavated with their powerful legs. For such formidable creatures, some species can be very skittish, but they quickly become accustomed to human presence in places where they are not harassed or hunted. In a few places they concentrate in great numbers due to people who feed them table scraps.

 

    Sadly, almost all populations of this genus are threatened as a result of any combination of habitat destruction, introduced predators, and hunting by humans. In fact, one species is already extinct: the Navassa Island's rock iguana, Cyclura onchiopsis.

 

The largest American lizard: the Anegadan rock iguana, Cyclura pinguis. Guana Island, British Virgin Islands.

First two photographs: male. Last two photographs: females.

These images shows the usual habitat for this and similar species: arid lowland forests.

 

A female Anegadan rock iguana, Cyclura pinguis, stands high on its legs in a threat display to me. Guana Island, British Virgin Islands.

 

Northern Bahamian rock iguanas, (nominate race, Cyclura cychlura cychlura), male and female. Southern Andros Island, The Bahamas.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Josepgh Burgess).

 

Central Bahamian rock iguana, Cyclura rileyi, female. Green Cay, off San Salvador, The Bahamas.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Southern Bahamiam rock iguanas, (nominate race, Cyclura carinata carinata), two males and a female.

First two photographs: Big Ambergris Cay, Turks and Caicos. Second photograph: Six Hills Cay, Turks and Caicos.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


Southern Bahamiam rock iguana, (Booby Cay race, Cyclura carinata bartschi), male and female. Booby Cay, The Bahamas.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Rhinoceros iguanas, Cyclura cornuta. The species is endemic to Hispaniola.

Last photograph: female. All others: males.
Enriquillo National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

The first photograph shows clearly the horn-like scales that give the species its name.



Cyclura cornuta, male. Captive specimen for conservation purposes. Near Las Galeras, north-eastern Dominican Republic.

 

Monan rock iguanas, Cyclura stejnegeri. Two males and a female. Mona Island.

The species is very closely related to the rhinoceros rock iguana (above) as you can notice from its mere appearance.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 


Banded rock iguana, Cyclura ricordii, male. Enriquillo National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

This is an Hispaniolan endemic with a very limited distribution in the Neiba Valley and the Barahona Peninsula.
(Third photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Cuban rock iguanas, (mainland Cuban race, Cyclura nubila nubila), male and female. Guantanamo Naval Base, south-eastern Cuba.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Cuban rock iguanas, (mainland Cuban race, Cyclura nubila nubila). From a population introduced into Isla Magueyes, off southern Puerto Rico.

First photograph: male and female.

 Second photograph: female aggressively displaying to an invasive male.

Last photograph: male.

 

Blue rock iguanas Cyclura lewisi, males.

First photograph: Grand Cayman, Cayman Islands. (Courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

Second photograph: National Zoo, Washington, D.C., United States.

Males turn an astonishing electric blue during the mating season.

Closely related to the Cuban rock iguana, it has only recently being recognized as a separate species.



Jamaican rock iguanas, Cyclura collei, male and two females. Hellshire Hills, south-eastern Jamaica.

This species is being rescued from the brink of extinction by the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Group,
headed in the island by Dr. Byron Wilson, professor of Biology at the University of the West Indies, in Kingston.

It still remains one of the rarest lizards on Earth.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

    The genus Iguana has one species endemic to the Lesser Antilles, I. delicatissima. Another, the common iguana, I. iguana, is naturally present in the Lesser Antilles, north to and including the Puerto Rican bank (in the Virgin Islands) but also ranges far into South and Central America, north to Mexico.

 

    Both members of Iguana can attain more than two meters in length. However they are not as massive as the largest species of cyclurids. By comparison, they are slender and long-tailed, as well as far more partial to climbing trees. Common and Lesser Antillean iguanas are habitually docile animals. However, as happens with their Cyclura relatives, antagonizing a large adult frequently lends to unpleasant consequences. A frightened individual on a tree will think nothing of throwing itself down from amazing heights to the ground or water, and thus escape its attacker.

 

    Where they live in sympatry, the way to distinguish this two very similar lizards is by observing the spot right behind and under the angle of the jaws. There, Iguana iguana will have a single, very large and round scale. Iguana delicatissima lacks this trait, and that patch of skin is simply covered in small scales.

 

    Both species begin their lives being a bright emerald green color, the common iguana with more or less clearly pronounced brown bands. However, as the animals mature, the green color is gradually replaced by darker hues of gray, red, brown, or blue. Very large and old males may simply be a greenish gray or brown, especially in their heads and anterior half of the bodies. Adult Lesser Antillean iguanas are especially prone not to be green, while several populations of the common iguana are melanistic. The Saint Lucian population of Iguana iguana has two horns on its snout and seems to be genetically distinct enough to represent an endemic taxon.

 

    The common iguana is very abundant in some islands, like Saint Thomas, in the United States Virgin Islands. There, it can be found by the dozen even in residential areas, as it seems to have adapted marvelously to human presence. It has also been introduced by humans outside its native range, to places like Puerto Rico (where it would most probably have arrived on its own, eventually) and southern Florida, where it is now a veritable pest as it feeds voraciously on garden plants. Ironically, while in such places it flourishes to the point of being out of control, it is endangered in some of its natural range in Central America, where many people consider it a delicacy. (Indeed, their flesh is quite tasty).

 

Two male common iguanas bask in the sun during the morning. Enrique Marti Coll Park, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

An huge adult male common iguana displays to a possible mate. Enrique Marti Coll Park, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

 

Iguana iguana is an adept and powerful swimmer. That is one of the reasons why it so readily colonizes islands in the Caribbean.

Enrique Marti Coll Park, north-eastern Puerto Rico.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Alfredo Colon Archilla).

 

    The Lesser Antillean iguana is not as common as its sister, although it lives in reasonable numbers in some islands. This huge, magnificent lizard has suffered its share of hunting by humans and habitat degradation. This last is caused by direct deforestation caused by man, and by the negative impact caused by feral cattle, especially goats, on the native vegetation. Also, mongooses, cats and dogs prey on hatchlings and juveniles.

 

    In places where its habitat has been severely altered, Iguana delicatissima suffers a peculiar sort of extinction risk consisting in the dissolution of its gene pool. This happens when it hybridizes with the common iguana, the offspring belonging to none of the parent species.

 


Lesser Antillean iguanas, Iguana delicatissima.
First photograph: male. Near Soufriere, south-western Dominica, Lesser Antilles.
Next two photographs: female. Near Portsmouth, northwestern Dominica, Lesser Antilles.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Lesser Antillean iguana, Iguana delicatissima, female. Saline, Saint Bartholomew, Lesser Antilles.

This sister species of the common iguana can be immediately distinguished from it by the lack of a large subtympanic scale.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Karl Questel).

 

    The genus Ctenosaura, the spiny-tailed iguanas, is found in some extreme western Caribbean islands, being there invaders from Central America. Although not as large as some Cyclura, they are similar, and are likewise mainly herbivorous, as well as have tails with spiny scales.

 

Black spiny-tailed iguana, Ctenosaura similis, male. Utila Island, off eastern Honduras.

The species also inhabits some eastern Caribbean islands.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


Family Leiocephalidae: Curlytails

 

    Phylogenetically, this family is one of the sisters of the iguanids.

 

    Leiocephalus lizards - commonly known as "curlytails" for the way they often carry their tails about - have their closest relatives in Central and South America and in the Galapagos Islands (family Tropiduridae). Today they compose an endemic Antillean family presently restricted to Cuba, Hispaniola, the Cayman Islands, and The Bahamas. However, recent fossil species have been found in the other Greater Antilles and in a few of the Lesser Antilles.

 

    Although primarily insectivorous, these lizards will readily take plant matter as a food source.

 

Turks and Caicos curlytail, nominate race, Leiocephalus psammodromus psammodromus).

Big Sand Cay, Turks and Caicos.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

A female Turks and Caicos curlytail, (Big and Little Ambergris cays race, Leiocephalus psammodromus apocrinus), feeds on the fruit of a turk's cap cactus.

Big Ambergris Cay, Turks and Caicos.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Leiocephalus psammodromuscacodoxus, juvenile. Providenciales, Turks and Caicos.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 


Hispaniolan maskless curlytail, (eastern race, Leiocephalus lunatus arenicolor), male.
Parque Nacional del Este, eastern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Eladio M. Fernandez).



Hispaniolan maskless curtlytails (south-eastern race, Leiocephalus lunatus thomasi), male and female. Parque Nacional del Este, eastern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

Hispaniolan masked curlytails, Leiocephalus personatus trujilloensis.

First two photographs: male. Last two photographs: females.

National Botanical Garden, Santo Domingo, southern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

Hispaniolan pale-bellied curlytails, Leiocephalus semilineatus.

First three photographs: males. Last photograph: female.

Azua Province, southern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

This is a small species of xeric, rocky areas of the southern region of the island.

 

Orange-bellied curlytail (south-western race, Leiocephalus barahonensis aureus), male. Pedernales, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

Leiocephalus barahonensis oxygaster, juvenile. Jaragua National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

San Salvador curlytail, Leiocephalus loxogrammus, female. Bahamas Field Station, north-western San Salvador, The Bahamas.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Cuban brown curlytails, Leiocephalus cubensis male and female. Bayamo, south-eastern Cuba.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


Cuban striped curlytail (nominate race, Leiocephalus stictigaster stictigaster), female. Guanahacabibes Peninsula, western Cuba.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


Tiburon curlytail, Leiocephalus melanochlorus, male and female. Massif de la Hotte, south-western Haiti, Hispaniola.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Eladio M. Fernandez).

 

Saw-scaled curlytails, (south-eastern Cuban race,  Leiocephalus carinatus aquarius), male and female.

Santiago, south-eastern Cuba. (Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


Hispaniolan khaki curlytails (nominate race, Leiocephalus schreibersi schrebersi). Enriquillo National Park, south-western Dominican Republic.

First two photographs: male.

Third photograph: female.

This is one of the most colorful members of the genus.

 

Turks and Caicos curlytail, (Big and Little Ambergris cays race, Leiocephalus psammodromus apocrinus), male and female. Big Ambergris Cay, Turks and Caicos.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Alto Velo curlytail, Leiocephalus altavelensis, female. Alto Velo Island, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Eladio M. Fernandez).

 

Cuban side-blotched curlytails, Leiocephalus macropus immaculatus, male and female. Chivirico, south-eastern Cuba.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Pallid curlytail, (nominate race, Leiocephalus raviceps raviceps) female. Guantanamo Naval Base, Guantanamo, south-eastern Cuba.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


INFRAORDER SCINCOMORPHA


    These are the reptiles that come to the mind of most people when they think about "lizards". They are Cosmopolitan in distribution, and is the group with the largest number of species and morphological variations.

Family Anguidae: Galliswasps and Their Kin

 

    Anguids are widespread in both the eastern and western hemispheres of Earth. Many taxa have well-developed legs and, as such, are typical lizards. However, in a manner similar to their relatives the skinks, a number of species have greatly reduced limbs, or have lost them altogether, the animals being snake-like.

 

    Only the subfamily Diploglossinae is native to the region, but the two genera Celestus and Diploglossus are quite species-rich in the Antilles. Celestus has several species in both Hispaniola and Jamaica, and Diploglossus has a few species in Cuba, as well as a single species in Puerto Rico and another in the Lesser Antillean island of Montserrat (D. montiserrati, now possibly extinct). As is the case with West Indian skinks, the region's anguids are ovoviviparous. The young are born fully formed inside the eggs, from which they emerge shortly after the mother lays them. However, sometimes their colors are quite different from those of adults.

 

    Some West Indian anguids are very elongated lizards and tend to have proportionally tiny legs. When in a hurry to avoid capture, these species press their legs against their shiny bodies and move in a serpentine fashion. Their long and heavy tails are very fragile and are autotomized with ease, if held.

 


Afraid of the camera, a female Puerto Rican galliwasp, Diploglossus plei, folds its tiny legs against its flanks and hurriedly moves like a snake.

Florida, central Puerto Rico.

 

Hispaniolan smooth galliwasp, Celestus costatus, subspecies neiba. Enriquillo National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.



Hispaniolan smooth galliwasps (northern race, Celestus costatus melanchrous) female and juvenile. Los Haitises National Park, north-eastern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.



Hispaniolan smooth galliwasp (central Hispaniolan race, Celestus costatus psychonotes), juvenile. Salto Socoa, central Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.


Hispaniolan keeled galliwasp, (eastern race, Celestus stenurus rugosus)
First two photographs: male. National Botanical Garden, Santo Domingo, southern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
Last photograph: female. Pico Diego de Ocampo Nature Reserve, north-central Doninican Republic, Hispaniola.


Hispaniolan keeled galliwasps, (desert race, Celestus stenurus weinlandi).

First photograph: male: Bahoruco National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

Next two photographs: female. Puerto Escondido, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

Hispaniolan striped galliwasps, Celestus darlingtoni. Valle Nuevo, central Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Miguel Angel Landestoy).

 

Hispaniolan khaki galliswasp, Celestus curtissi. Near Gonaives, North-western Haiti, Hispaniola.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Eladio M. Fernandez).



Hispaniolan giant galliwasp, Celestus warreni, male. Isabel de Torres Nature Reserve, northern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
One of the largest West Indian anguids.



Hispaniolan four-toed galliwasps, Celestus sepsoides.
First two photographs: Isabel de Torres Nature Reserve, northern Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
Third photograph: Pico Diego de Ocampo Nature Reserve, north-central Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.
Last photograph: Salto Socoa, central Doninican Republic, Hispaniola.


Some West Indian anguids are very elongated and, with their tiny legs are taken for small snakes, at first glance.

This is an earless galliwasp, Celestus haetianus surdus. Bahoruco National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

Due to certain morphological characteristics - like having no external ears - this species was formerly placed in its own, monotypic genus: Wetmorena.

This is a specialized anguid that inhabits highland broadleaf and pine forests above 1500 meters of altitude.


Jamaican common galliwasp, Celestus crusculus. Windsor, north-central Jamaica.

 

Limestone forest galliwasps, Celestus barbouri. Windsor, north-central Jamaica.

First two photographs: male. Third photograph, juvenile.


Puerto Rican galliwasps, Diploglossus pleii. First photograph: male. Next three photographs: females. Last photograph: juvenile. Florida, central Puerto Rico.

This is another highly elongated species. It inhabits mesic lowland forests.

This is one of those Antillean reptiles that seems to be extremely rare when it really is not.

Although very common in some areas, its microhabitat of deep leaf litter, often lying on a rocky substrate

into which it flees if alarmed, makes it very difficult to observe even if it is searched for on purpose.

It is seldom seen abroad, and even then it only offers a fleeting glimpse as it crosses a trail.


Family Gymnophthalmidae: Worm Lizards

 

    Sometimes considered a subfamily of the family Teiidae (above) this group contains several small West Indian species. Gymnophthalmus pleii and G. underwoodi inhabit some of the Lesser Antillean islands (the second species is also found in the South American mainland). Aside from their much smaller size, they are superficially very similar to the skinks of the genus Mabuya that are found in the same islands. However, they are immediately distinguished from them by their tiny size, and for having only four toes on the anterior feet.

 


Rough-scaled worm lizard, Gymnophthalmus pleii. Cabrits National Park, north-western Dominica, Lesser Antilles.
Easily taken for a juvenile Mabuya skink at first sight (see below) yet it belongs to a different family.



Rough-scaled worm lizard (mainland Saint Lucian race, Gymnophthalmus pleii luetkeni), female. Troumassee Bay, south-eastern Saint Lucia, Lesser Antilles.



Smooth-scaled worm lizard, Gymnophthalmus underwoodi. Bequia, north of Grenada, Lesser Antilles.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


    A single lizard of the genus Bachia (B. heteropus) which also belongs to this family, is found in some of the Lesser Antilles and is shared with South America. It is an elongated and cryptozoic creature seldom found above ground.



Earless worm lizard (Antillean race Bachia heteropus alleni), adults and egg. Union, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles.
(First photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess; last two photographs courtesy of Mr. Mel Jose Rivera).


Family Mabuyidae: Mabuyid Skinks


    This group is closely allied to typical skinks (family Scincidae), and is found in both the Old and New Worlds. Indeed, the ancestors of the American species invaded from Africa several millions of years ago. Many mabuyids are peculiar among reptiles in the similarity between their reproductive systems and those of higher mammals: they develop from embryos attached to their mother by means of a primitive placenta.

    Those that inhabit the West Indian islands belong to the subfamily Mabuyinae: the Neotropical skinks, found from Mexico through much of Central America and in the West Indies. Perhaps like no other group of reptiles in the Caribbean Basin, these lizards have suffered heavily due to predation from the exotic Indian mongoose. Many of the tens of species that are endemic to the islands are now extinct, while most of the remaining populations run that risk even now, and for the same reason. Altogether six genera are found in the region, and Alinea, Capitellum, Mabuya and Spondylurus are endemic to the West Indies.


    Antillean species are terrestrial or arboreal, and establish territories on and among piles of rocks and near downed tree trunks. However, some can easily climb trees. Although of a more phlegmatic disposition than the ameivas which they superficially resemble, and easier to approach, they seldom stray far from cover, and will dart for their hiding places if molested. Many species have ill-defined necks which, together with their sinuous movements, give them the appearance of fat little snakes.



 
Greater Windward skink, Copeoglossum aurae. Union, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles.

(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Mel Jose Rivera).



Dominican skink, Mabuya dominicana, male. Cabrits National Park, north-western Dominica, Lesser Antilles.
The generic name derives from that of the evil spirit "Maybouya" of the Carib Indians' mythology.



Anguillan Bank skink, Spondylurus powelli. Grand Colombier, Saint Bartholomew, Lesser Antilles.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Karl Questel).

 


  Lesser Virgin Islands skink, Spondylurus semitaeniatus. Gorda Peak National Park, Virgin Gorda, British Virgin Islands.



Jamaican skinks, Spondylurus fulgidus, male and female. Hellshire Hills, south-eastern Jamaica.

This species is on the verge of extinction, and but a few populations remain in southern Jamaica.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph, Burgess).


Carrot Rock skink, Spondylurus macleani, female. Carrot Rock, British Virgin Islands.



 Puerto Rican skinks, Spondylurus nitidus, two males and a female. Isabela, north-western Puerto Rico.


Family Teiidae: Ameivas, Whiptails, and Their Kin

 

    Teiids are small to large lizards of the Americas, collectively called "whiptails" because of the long tails of many species. They are the New World counterparts of the lacertids of Eurasia and Africa, and their range extends from temperate North America to temperate South America. While most members are small to medium-sized, the South American tegus of the genus Tupinambis can be quite large. Indeed, they are the ecological equivalents there of some of the Varanus monitors of the Old World.

 

    Many Caribbean islands are inhabited by teiids. Those of the genus Ameiva are the most frequently seen, and many of the roughly 34 described species are restricted to the Antilles.

 

    Ameivas (and many other teiids) are omnivores that will eat anything that is edible and small enough to swallow, animal or plant. Nervous and jittery, some ameivas are among the fastest lizards in the World. An attempt to chase and capture in the open an individual of the larger species is usually an exercise in futility. Some species of Hispaniola and Puerto Rico are able to run on their hind legs for short distances.

 

Ameivas are opportunistic omnivores that will eat almost anything edible.

These male and female Neotropical ameivas, (Lesser Antillean race, Ameiva ameiva tobagana), gorge themselves on discarded food at a campsite.

Grand Anse, south-western Grenada, Lesser Antilles.

 

Neotropical ameiva, (Lesser Antillean race, Ameiva ameiva tobagana), male. Grand Anse, south-western Grenada, Lesser Antilles.

This photograph shows the horizontally elongated pupil of many teiids, which grants them excellent vision cued on movement.

 

    Most Caribbean ameivas are xerophilic denizens of beaches, savannas, dry forests, and deserts. However, a few Lesser Antillean forms inhabit even rain forests as long as there are open sites for them to sunbathe.

 

    Forms that live in sympatry have speciated and segregated ecomorphically according to differences in size, morphology, and the niche they occupy. Thus, they end up differing from sister species within the same island bank, and resembling unrelated species in other island banks. Such is the case especially in Hispaniola and Puerto Rico, each with a large species unrelated to the other (A. chrysolaema and A. exsul, respectively) that is basically brown or gray in color and occupy shadier, more humid areas. Another two species (A. lineolata in Hispaniola and A. wetmorei in Puerto Rico) are dwarves with striped color patterns and metallic blue tails, and live only in the driest, most sunlit areas. Again, and in true ecomorph fashion, these two are unrelated, but are sisters to the previously mentioned, larger species in their same islands.

 

    The stripes and vividly-hued tails of some ameivas partial to dry regions is a color pattern common in many xerophilic lizard species all over the World. In regions far away from the Caribbean, desert-dwelling teiids, scincids, and lacertids rely on this same sort of disruptive color pattern to avoid easy detection by predators and to attract their enemies' attention to their tails, instead of the more important head and body. (Even some mammals, like zebras, possess shape-disrupting, striped patterns).

 

Ameiva wetmorei, female. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.

The striking colors of this and similar species (like A. polopsA. taeniura and A. lineolata) are actually a disruptive pattern.

When one searches for them, it is quite difficult to distinguish them from the sunlight-mottled

leaf litter and rocky ground on which they are usually found. A bird of prey and other such predators

will tend to focus on and attack the bright tail, often allowing the lizard to escape to safety.

 


Puerto Rican blue-tailed ameivas, Ameiva wetmorei, two males and a female. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.

The second individual has a regenerated tail.



Ameiva wetmorei, juvenile. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.


Close-up of Ameiva wetmorei, male. Guanica State Forest, south-western Puerto Rico.

 

Only distantly related to the species shown above, yet strikingly similar to it in color and niche in its own region,

this is a pigmy blue-tailed ameiva (nominate race Ameiva lineolata lineolata) male.

Near Cabral, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

A male Ameiva lineolata lineolata rests under a rock at dawn. Azua, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.



Inaguan ameivas, (nominate race, Ameiva maynardi maynardi). Northern Great Inagua, The Bahamas.
(Photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Inaguan ameiva, (southrn race, Ameiva maynardi uniformus). Southern Great Inagua, The Bahamas.
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).



Hispaniolan blue-tailed ameivas, Ameiva taeniura, subspecies vulcanalis, male and female in courtship.

Jaragua National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

Saint Croix's ameiva, Ameiva polops, male, female, and juvenile. Protestant Cay, off northern Saint Croix, United States Virgin Islands.

This species is one of the most endangered reptiles in the Caribbean. It presently inhabits two small cays

off the northern coast of Saint Croix. It has been totally wiped out from the main island by the exotic mongoose.

Its closest relative is found on the nearby Puerto Rican bank: Ameiva exsul.

 


Puerto Rican giant ameivas, Ameiva exsul, males.

First photograph: Charlotte Amalie, Saint Thomas, United States Virgin Islands.

Second photograph: Guana Island, British Virgin Islands.
This is the second largest member of its genus. Adult males in eastern Puerto Rico and its satellite islands may attain more than 20 centimeters in snout-vent length.

Those muscular legs make this animal very difficult to capture.

 

Mating pair of Puerto Rican giant ameivas, Ameiva exsul. The male bites the female to help position itself and introduce an hemipenis.

Road Town Botanical Garden, Road Town, southern Tortola, British Virgin Islands.

 

Ameiva exsul, females.
First two photographs: Fort Buchanan, Guaynabo, north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Third photograph: Florida, central Puerto Rico.


Monan ameiva, Ameiva alboguttata, female. Mona Island.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

 

Cuban ameivas (south-eastern Cuban race, Ameiva auberi sabulicolor).

First photograph: juvenile. Guantanamo, south-eastern Cuba. (Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).

Second photograph: adult male. El Yunque de Baracoa, eastern Cuba. (Photograph courtesy of Dr. David Ortiz Martinez).

 

Cuban ameiva (Andros Island race, Ameiva auberi vulturnus), female. Southern Andros Island, The Bahamas.

(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Joseph, Burgess).

 

Hispaniolan giant ameivas, (nominate race, Ameiva chrysolaema umbratilis) male and female. Enriquillo National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.

 

Hispaniolan giant ameivas, (south-western race, Ameiva chrysolaema ficta), male and pair in courtship. Jaragua National Park, south-western Dominican Republic, Hispaniola.


Jamaican ameivas, Ameiva dorsalis, two males and a female.
First photograph: Port Royal, south-eastern Jamaica. (Courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).
Last two photographs:
Treasure Beach, south-western Jamaica.

 

    Lesser Antillean and Bahamian ameivas are not segregated into ecomorphs. In fact, few island banks among them is inhabited by more than one species and, even, in such cases, the species are always allopatric. All of them are medium to large species which tend to be more ecologically versatile than their Greater Antillean counterparts. Some, like the males of Ameiva fuscata of Dominica, are vividly colored in bright blue. Others, like A. corvina of tiny Sombrero Island, and Ameiva corax, of some outlying cays of the Anguillan bank, are melanistic, their drab colors blending well with the dark and sun-burnt substrate on which they live.

 

Antigua Bank ameiva, Ameiva griswoldi, male. Great Bird Island, off the north-eastern coast of Antigua, Lesser Antilles.

(Photograph courtesy of Dr. Jenny Daltry - Flora and Fauna International).

 

Dominican ameivas, Ameiva fuscata, male and female. Cabrits National Park, north-western Dominica, Lesser Antilles.



Anguilla Bank ameivas (Saint Martin's race, Ameiva plei analifera) male, female and juvenile.

First two photographs: near Marigot, north-western Saint Martin.
Third photograph: Philisburg, southern Sint Maartin. (Courtesy of Mr. Karl Questel).



Orange-faced ameivas, Ameiva erythrocephala, male, female and juvenile. Oranjestad, western Saint Eustatius, Lesser Antilles.



Orange-faced ameiva, Ameiva erythrocephala, female. Near Sandy Point Town, south-western Saint Christopher, Lesser Antilles.

 

Neotropical ameivas, (Lesser Antillean race, Ameiva ameiva tobagana), two males and two females. Grand Anse, south-western Grenada, Lesser Antilles.



Two female Ameiva ameiva tobagana face off for territory. Union, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Lesser Antilles
(Photograph courtesy of Mr. Mel Jose Rivera).

 

    As happens with some anoles and other reptiles in the Caribbean, some ameivas are seriously endangered because of human encroachment and exotic predators. For all their speed and quick reflexes, a number of ameivas are easy prey to mongooses. Ameiva polops of Saint Croix, Virgin Islands, and A. griswoldi of Antigua, Lesser Antilles, are extinct, or almost so, in some or most of their natural ranges, due to mongoose predation.

 

    The genus Ameiva is related to the Cnemidophorus whiptails that are so common in some regions of North and Central America. In fact, one of these last, Cnemidophorus vanzoi, is endemic to Saint Lucia, Lesser Antilles, and is the only Antillean representative of the genus. It is now restricted to the Maria Islands, off the southwestern coast of Saint Lucia, after being extirpated from the main island by exotic predators. Like ameivas, whiptails are high-strung lizards with the propensity to dart away at the least sign of danger. But equally, they can become quite tame where the grow accustomed to take food handouts from humans.


Maria Islands' whiptail, Cnemidophorus vanzoi, male (first two photographs), and female. Maria Major Island, Saint Lucia, Lesser Antilles.

This is the only member of its genus in the West Indies. Due to predation by exotic animals, it is now restricted

to the tiny Maria Islands, off southern Saint Lucia. It is a rather tame lizard, even willing to eat scraps of food straight from human hands.

(Last two photographs courtesy of Mr. Joseph Burgess).


Family Xantusiidae: Night Lizards

 

    Xantusiids are small lizards of the Americas mostly confined to continental areas. They somewhat resemble small skinks but, unlike them, are mainly nocturnal.

 

    The single Antillean species is the Cuban night lizard, Cricosaura typica. It is a small species confined in its distribution to the eastern end of the island, where it is habitually found under rocks and crevices of arid coastal regions.

 

Cuban night lizard, Cricosaura typica, female. Cabo Cruz, Granma Province, south-eastern Cuba.

(Photograph courtesy of Dr. Richard C. West).