Blue Iguana Recovery Program

Zoo is home to many rare and exotic iguanas

Feb 1st, 2003 | By | Category: Blues in the International Press

By Amy May
Hoosier Times

Squatting on a rock in his special aquarium at the Indianapolis Zoo, Baby Blue looks like an ordinary lizard. Nothing special, just a little greenish-brown lizard with a prehistoric head swiveling around to stare balefully at passers-by.

What the lizard represents is monumental, however. Baby Blue, which is not the creature’s real name but only a designation, is one of the rarest lizards in the world — a baby Grand Cayman Island blue iguana born at the zoo as part of “Project Iguana. “The purpose of the program is to breed six species of endangered rock iguanas from the Caribbean and West Indies. When the baby grows up, he will develop brilliant blue pigmentation unique to his species.

Only about 15 to 20 blue iguanas remain in the wild, said Lynne Villers, curator of forests and deserts at the Indy Zoo. About 120 live in the world when counting the captive population. Indianapolis is the only zoo with babies, however. Their two breeding pairs produced two clutches of eggs. Two hatched in April and five hatched in July.

“They did a population census for the species and really had some depressing news,” said Villers. In the wild, the species is restricted to Grand Cayman Island and is endangered because of the expansion of resorts and habitat degradation, as well as being hit by cars and caught by feral dogs and cats, said Villers. She said researchers at Grand Cayman are considering catching all the wild specimens before they are killed.

“One hurricane could wipe them all out,” she said.

“We wanted to focus on their breeding efforts and eliminate as many variables as possible,” she said.

Baby Blue will go to another facility and get a real name later. He will not be a Hoosier when he grows up because of the “SSP,” said Villers.

The Species Survival Plan is a national program where zoos and preservation facilities try to manage the captive species as a whole instead of each zoo breeding and keeping its own animals. The animals are bred and moved to ensure good demographics and genetics. The Indy zoo currently has 16 species that are endangered enough to need an SSP and are the most heavily managed, said Villers.

This is all “behind the scenes” work at the zoo — something the public rarely sees. For example, curators at the zoo hold four “stud books” on various animals, such as the brown lemur and African elephant. The stud book contains the records and lineage of all the captive animals and helps researchers devise a species’ SSP. Villers has a longtime interest in ring-tailed lemurs and holds their stud book.

She said a former Indianapolis Zoo curator visited the Dominican Republic and developed an interest in the rare rock iguanas. The programs to breed and preserve the lizards have taken roots, making the Indy Zoo one of the premiere researchers and breeders.

The baby blue lizards remain on display in the Desert Dome at the Indianapolis Zoo in a special, informational display. Other endangered rock iguanas can be seen throughout the open deserts habitat, including “Pharaoh,” a spectacular, full-grown Grand Cayman Island Blue Iguana.

This article was published in, on January 5, 2003

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