Blue Iguana Recovery Program

The ‘discovery’ of the Blue Iguana

Jun 12th, 2009 | By | Category: Blues in the Local Press

Cayman Net News
Published on Wednesday, June 10, 2009
By Steven Knipp


Today, virtually everyone in the Cayman Islands who walks and talks, and a lot of people beyond these shores, know of the fabled Blue Iguana, the uniquely-hued reptile found only on these sunny islands.

But it was not always so. The fame of one of the most beloved wild creatures in Cayman, the Blue Iguana, and indeed its very existence today probably rests on the efforts and forethought of one man, more than any other, Bernard C. Lewis. For he is the scientist who first described this species, and was convinced that it was a unique species more than 70 years ago

And that is why the official Latin name of this shy star-crossed creature is actually named after him – Cycluria lewisi. [The word ‘cycluria’ is derived from an ancient Greek term meaning “circular” and “tail.”]

His daughter, Mary Lewis was recently visiting Cayman from her home in Tampa, Florida. and she kindly took time out from her first visit to the island since 1975, to talk to the Cayman Net News about her famous scientist father.

“My father was born in Massachusetts, and when was a young man he won a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford.”

And it was while he was attending that prestigious university that he got the opportunity in 1938 to join the ‘Oxford University Cayman Islands Biological Expedition’ to study the plant and animal life there. While on Grand Cayman, Mary Lewis’s father was able to obtain two Blue Iguanas, a male and a female. And he was able to determine that the species here were different from similar creatures, such as the Cuban Iguana and the Northern Bahamian Rock Iguana.

And in an historic monograph “The Herpetology of the Cayman Islands” published in 1940 by the Institute of Jamaica, the creature which young Bernard Lewis had studied so carefully in Cayman as the Blue Iguana was formally, and for the first time, called Cyclura macleayi lewisi. In his groundbreaking report, Mr Lewis wrote, “the species is nearly extinct and [local] people say since 1925 the ‘guanas’ have become so scarce that it is no longer worth their while to hunt them.”

Unfortunately, as his daughter Mary told the Net News, Mr Lewis was never able to complete his education at Oxford because the Second World War broke out and after returning from Cayman to England he, along with most other American civilians there were asked to leave the UK and return to the United States.

However, soon after coming home to the US, Mr Lewis was offered a job in Jamaica, to work for the Institute of Jamaica, in Kingston. And it was while in Jamaica that he met and married his wife, a young Caymanian woman whom he had previously met in Cayman while he was with the Oxford Biological Expedition.

“Once he met and married my mother in October 1940, he was very busy with his work at the Institution and so was never able take time out to finish his degree,” said Mary with a smile. Aside from Mary, the couple had three other children, Bill, David and Richard.

Mary and her siblings had an idyllic childhood growing up in Jamaica in the 1940s and 1950s. As the children of the Director of the Institute of Jamaica, they were sometimes able to visit special places on the island.

“My father would invite us to come along if we wanted, to go with him as he searched for butterflies on one trip, or go to a dig to search for historical relics, or important bones on another trip. At that time a lot of people knew my father as the Director of the Institute, but very few knew that he had already had a species named after him. He was a very intelligent man, soft-spoken and quiet, and so he never sought the limelight,” Mary said.

Eventually Bernard Lewis won an OBE for his service to science. The Lewis family lived happily in Jamaica until the 1970s, when he retired. He was only in his 60s, says Mary, but this was the period when Jamaica was undergoing tremendous political problems, the economy was falling and violence was on the rise. Mr Lewis had a fatal stroke in 1973, and Mary moved to Tampa in 1978.

On her first visit to Cayman in more than 30 years, Mary Lewis stopped in at the National Trust to ask if they had any information on Cayman’s Blue Iguanas. The young clerk said that they did have some, but not a lot. As she was also buying a t-shirt with a stunning blue iguana on the front, Mary Lewis mentioned that she was the daughter of Bernard Lewis, the man who first confirmed that this species was found nowhere else on the planet.

“Oh, my goodness,” said that startled National Trust staffer. “I was just giving a lecture to some students about your father!”

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