Author: Mark Yokoyama

Selective Recovery

A wild explosion of green broadcasted a message of recovery from the hilltops of St. Martin this winter. Hurricane Irma battered and bruised, but the tropical sun and wet season rains were like a green machine. The island was still alive.

Six months later, a closer look reveals a more complicated situation. Not all parts of the island have recovered equally and some remain devastated. Ecosystems are complex, and each type of habitat on St. Martin has its own vulnerabilities.

One thing we do know is that we desperately need a recovery. Mangrove wetlands offer key protection from storm surge and erosion. They can save lives and property in a Hurricane, but they also protect the island from slowly washing into the sea. It’s one ecosystem we literally can’t live without.

A barren and desolate wetland in French Cul-de-sac.

Some areas were on the edge of health—or even in the process of collapsing—even before Irma. Mangrove trees around many ponds have been dying for five years, a process that seemed to speed up during the drought a few years ago. Like a house that was already crumbling and termite-ridden, Irma tore up these wetlands and they are not yet recovering.

Étang de la Barrière in French Cul-de-sac was a magical spot for birdwatching just a few years ago. A gorgeous boardwalk was built through the mangroves so people could watch egrets, stilts and whimbrels catch fish and fiddler crabs. Today the boardwalk is damaged, but the ecosystem that it showcased is almost totally destroyed.

This sea of dead trees was once rich with life.

What will happen to this spot? What will happen to the many other places where bare, dead trees line the banks of St. Martin’s ponds? I think it is hard to say, especially because we don’t know exactly why they are in such desperate shape.

Human activity probably harmed them: pollution and simply cutting back mangroves until only a thin thread remained. The drought of 2015 seems to have made things worse. Irma’s winds and waves were perhaps just the final push over the cliff. With the possibility of drought forecast for the region this year, who knows when a recovery might begin.

We’re Relaunching Amuseum Naturalis

Amuseum Naturalis at The Old House is being prepared for a 2018 launch.

After delighting over 10,000 visitors in its first two years, Amuseum Naturalis is coming back in a new location in 2018. St. Martin’s first natural history museum will be expanding to highlight island heritage and culture as well as nature. At the new location, formerly The Old House museum, there will also be community projects including gardens, a composting center and a native plants nursery.

“We are thrilled to create a space to tell all the stories of St. Martin!” announced Les Fruits de Mer President Jenn Yerkes. “We’re working with the local community to find and tell stories. We especially want to shine a light on heritage that’s been ignored or suppressed, and show how the island’s history and culture is fascinating and meaningful.”

Amuseum Naturalis is developed and operated by the Les Fruits de Mer association. The group believes this project is important for many reasons. Local school systems are already under stress after Hurricane Irma. School materials on the island come from Europe or North America, and don’t teach enough about local nature or heritage. The Amuseum has been, and will be, free for all. It is a place where young people can discover science and history, and develop valuable skills.

Amuseum Naturalis had over 10,000 visitors in the last two years.

“We’re really happy to see the amount of support the Amuseum is getting,” commented Amuseum curator Mark Yokoyama. “Volunteers have been coming to help clear the property and prepare the site. Everyone who comes falls in love with this place. People from around the world have been supporting with donations. It’s a big project, but together we can make it happen for the island!”

Amuseum volunteers pause for a photo after a recent clean-up session.

Les Fruits de Mer are currently working with volunteers to prepare the new location every weekend, and more volunteers are always welcome. The next volunteer day is Saturday, March 17th, and more information is available at and on the Les Fruits de Mer Facebook page. There is also a crowdfunding campaign raising funds until March 30th. St. Martiners interested in sharing stories or ideas about topics to feature in the museum should contact

Relaunching Amuseum Naturalis

We’re super excited to be relaunching Amuseum Naturalis at an amazing new location: The Old House! In addition to nature, we will also be highlighting local heritage and culture. The new Amuseum will also be a space for community projects. We’ve already started a native plants nursery for reforestation and bird-friendly backyards. Community gardens and a composting center are on our to-do list!

To learn more about the project and donate to support it, visit our crowdfunding page.

We will be posting regular updates about our progress here, in our newsletter and on Facebook, so please follow along. Our next volunteer get-together is Saturday, March 17th. Event info is here.

Cactus Comeback

Cactus may make many people think of the desert, but these prickly plants are also key Caribbean species. The things that help them survive in the desert can help them in a place like St. Martin. Their survival strategies can also help them bounce back after a hurricane.

The Doodle Doo Cactus grows in long columns. It’s also known as a columnar cactus, pipe organ cactus or dildo cactus. Although the tall branches are strong, they are often broken by hurricane winds. The trunk of this tree-sized cactus can survive even when its branches are blown off.

Doodle Doo Cactus sprouts back from fallen branches.

The broken branches of the Doodle Doo can regenerate new cacti. This is actually a common way that cacti reproduce and spread. The small Prickly Pear Cactus on St. Martin is even known in French as the Raquette Volante or “flying racket” because the cactus pads seem to jump out and attach them to unlucky people walking by.

Hurricanes may help cacti spread by blowing pieces of cactus to new locations where they can grow. They may also give cacti a head start by clearing leaves. Cacti grow slowly, so they have trouble competing with other plants for light. That’s one reason why we often see cacti in difficult places—like rocky cliffs—where other plants can’t grow.

Turk’s Head Cactus managed to cling to the cliffs during Irma.

The ability to live in spaces where almost nothing else can grow may also help cacti survive hurricanes. The Turk’s Head cactus often lives on rocky seaside cliffs. To live there at all requires the strength to cling to bare rock and the ability to withstand wind and waves. These cacti are low to the ground and have roots that wind into cracks in the rock. For them, a hurricane is simply a much worse version of the difficult conditions they already face.

The fact that cacti can survive hurricanes is a big benefit to a hurricane-struck island. When all fruit and leaves have been stripped from trees, pieces of cactus can provide food and water to many animals. In between hurricanes, it is important to protect cacti. Some are stolen to plant in backyards, many are trampled by goats and other livestock. Let’s keep our prickly pals happy so they can help us during times of need.

Time Out

When bare hillsides exploded into green after Hurricane Irma, it was a welcome inspiration. Today, those same hills are looking very different. As the island shifts into the dry season, the vibrant greens are fading. Will it put nature’s recovery on hold?

For anyone still living under a tarp, the dry season surely comes as a relief. It’s also a natural cycle that happens each year. Plants and birds and lizards and bugs that evolved here are adapted to it.

Dry seed pods rattle in the wind.

While our native species will survive the dry season, it may slow the recovery for some. All those green leaves that sprouted during the wet season feed life on the island. During the dry season, many plants lose their leaves to retain water.

Fast growing tan-tan, that covers many hills here, is nothing but brown branches and seed pods right now. Grasses that were quick to grow are yellow and dry, conserving their water in their roots. Other trees and plants fare better, especially native ones that are adapted to the dry season.

When plants retreat in the dry season, the rest of nature changes, too. Fewer leaves mean fewer insects. Fewer insects mean less food for insect-eating birds, bats and lizards. Less food often means fewer babies.

A few trees stay green in a sea of yellow grass and bare tan-tan.

Because it doesn’t get cold here, many animals can breed throughout the year. And many of them do. But because there is less food during the dry season, most reproduce less during this time. In a normal year, animals will build up their population during the wet season and it will decline during the dry season. Overall, the population remains stable.

This year, the dry season arrives when many species are still recovering from the hurricane. Chances are, it will pause their recovery as many species focus on survival rather than reproduction. For nature’s sake, we should hope this year’s dry season isn’t too dry or too long. A drought like the one we experienced a few years ago could be a big problem.

Strength Through Diversity

For a tiny island, St. Martin is remarkably diverse. Some say it is home to people from over 100 countries who speak almost that many different languages. Whatever the exact number, St. Martin is undeniably a great melting pot of peoples and cultures. In turn, these people bring a wide variety of skills and traditions to the island.

Green hillsides are the fruit of diversity.

Diversity is an important part of rebuilding. Construction techniques from the Caribbean and far beyond can be found on St. Martin, from woodworking to rubble stone masonry. Personal connections reaching out from the island in all directions bring the necessary aid and trade. Great diversity harnessed towards a common goal of rebuilding has made St. Martin strong.

Diversity works similarly in the natural world. Bees, butterflies and hummingbirds survive when there are hundreds of different plants flowering throughout the year. Hundreds of different plants survive when there are hundreds of different insects spreading their pollen from one flower to the next so they can fruit.

In nature’s post-hurricane rebuilding, every species has a role. Fruit-eating birds like pigeons and thrashers bring new seeds to areas were trees were felled. Fast growing plants, like the beach morning glory hold the beach together while cocoplums and sea grapes grow back. Flies consume carrion left by the storm and while providing food to hungry lizards and birds.

Fast-growing plants step in to save the beach.

Much like our human community on St. Martin, a strong and resilient natural community requires diversity. For millions of years, this was not a problem. The Caribbean is considered a biodiversity hotspot because so many unique species have developed here through time. Over the last few hundred years, however, this diversity has come under threat.

St. Martin’s nature remains surprisingly diverse despite widespread deforestation for agriculture in previous centuries and widespread development during the current tourism era. More than 100 kinds of birds can be found here. Probably more than 1,000 different insects live here, as do hundreds of different plants.

After Irma, it was a joy and an inspiration to watch the hillsides explode into green again. We enjoyed the birds as they sang and entertained us. We enjoyed the flowers as they bloomed and the butterflies that swarmed around them.

In addition to enjoying the magic of St. Martin’s biodiversity, we should work to ensure it remains vibrant: protecting wild spaces where they still exist, sharing our backyards and neighborhoods with native plants and animals and managing our own waste in a responsible way. Likewise, we should embrace diversity in all its forms, respecting and nurturing it so it can continue to give us strength.

Rebalancing Act

The aftermath of Hurricane Irma has been a rollercoaster. We have bounced through feelings of fear, relief, uncertainty, hope and joy. We’re not alone. Some parts of nature have also experienced ups and downs on the road back to normal.

The first new leaves bring hope.

Some of these bumpy roads have been easy to notice. The time of many flies arrived a few weeks after Irma and then ended gradually. The explosion of new vegetation began right after the storm, but has started to slow as rainfall becomes less frequent.

Today, you may see trees that recovered from Irma are bare again. Flamboyants, Gaïacs and Jamaican Capers are being devoured by caterpillars. After being inspired by the recovery of the island’s plants, this can be sad for us to see. But it is also part of the recovery process.

Caterpillars arrive to feast.

Our local natural systems move towards balance. Hundreds of plants and animals each have their place in the landscape. But that balance isn’t constant, only the movement towards it. It happens every year as wet season passes into dry season and in a thousand smaller ways.

After a major event like a hurricane, the balance is disrupted. Suddenly stripped of all their leaves but well watered by the rain, plants grew back like crazy. It is no surprise that an explosion of leaves would be followed by an explosion of caterpillars.

New growth is eaten completely, but it will come back.

As much as we are trained to see caterpillars as pests, they are important, too. They keep vegetation in check by eating it. They provide food for birds, lizards, insects and spiders. For a moment, it may seem like we have too many, but today’s caterpillar boom is just another bump on the road back to balance.

Gradually a balance is struck.

Planting Ahead

In the aftermath of a major hurricane like Irma, we all pause to take stock of our own preparedness. Who hasn’t bought an extra flashlight over the last few months? Generators, camp stoves and tarps: we’ve probably bought many things that will hopefully gather dust for many years before they are needed.

The key to our survival?

Local government and other organizations are also thinking towards the future, even if it is not always as much as we might hope. In Grand Case, power lines are being buried. The safety of coastal areas on the French side is being assessed to determine how and where we rebuild.

Will the island recover stronger than ever? Will we rebuild smarter and safer? Will governments and companies make decisions that will reduce the impact of future hurricanes? History will be the judge of that. In the meantime, there’s at least one important thing we can do.

Mangrove sprouts, called propagules, can be gathered on the beach for planting.

Native trees benefit both wildlife and humans. They provide food and shelter for birds and other animals. They also protect the island—and those who live on it—from some of the dangers of hurricanes. Planting them now can help us prepare for future storms.

On our hillsides, native trees help retain soil. When a brushfire sweeps across a grassy hill, we can see the state of the land without trees. It is a mosaic of stones with just the slimmest veins of soil between them. Reforesting these areas can help to bring them back to life. It can also reduce the chance of landslides or loose stones causing damage during or after a storm.

On our ponds and coastlines, mangroves and trees like the sea grape can help form a barrier against storm surge. These trees can absorb some of the energy of the waves, protecting homes further inland. They can also help save beaches and coastlines from erosion.

A freshly-planted mangrove propagule.

We need to replace many trees that were lost during Irma. If we are being honest with ourselves, we also need to replace many trees that were lost before Irma as we cleared and developed the island. There are few other tasks so simple and so necessary.

With some luck, our next major hurricane will be years away. The emergency radio you just bought will be so old you’ll have trouble finding it, and maybe it won’t even work anymore. But the trees you plant today will be standing tall and protecting us.

Changing Landscapes

St. Martiners know all about changing landscapes. Ponds are filled, bush is cleared, roads are cut into the hills. But people aren’t the only ones changing the landscape. As the Christmas winds push the swell in different directions, the beach in Grand Case fills up and disappears. Ponds expand and contract between the wet and dry seasons.

A new channel connects pond to sea at Le Galion.

Hurricane Irma made changes in the landscape. There’s a big one down on the beach at Le Galion. A channel was opened through the beach that links the bay to the salt pond behind it. The pond, Salines d’Orient, has been transformed by the clear seawater that can now flow in more freely. The point that once connected Orient Bay and Le Galion is now an odd-shaped peninsula at the end of Orient Beach.

How will this impact the plants and animals living there? Salines d’Orient may benefit from its connection to the sea. In the past, this pond has suffered from massive die-off events that left piles of dead fish and crabs along the shore. Usually these happen when extra nutrients—like those in wastewater—cause rapid growth of algae and bacteria that use up all the oxygen in the water. Fish and other animals then suffocate and die.

Why not create a new island? Dig a channel at the very end of Orient Beach and leave a crescent moon of land just slightly offshore. Fewer people would visit, perhaps measures could even be taken to reduce rats and make it mongoose-free. Would seabirds nest there? Could we restore a diverse coastal forest? It is an idea worth considering.

The roots that hold our coastlines together.

If you stop by Le Galion, take a moment to look across the new channel. Imagine a tiny new island across from you. Also take a look at the sea grape tree across the channel from you. Its great nest of roots is exposed where the sand was washed away, but it still hangs on. Without this tree, the channel could have been much larger. Sand and stone and concrete was washed out by the raging waves, but that single tree would not be moved.

Island on Fire

Sometimes it seems like the whole island is on fire these days: a warehouse in Cole Bay, the hillside above French Cul-de-Sac, piles of yard waste, and St. Martin’s Olympic torch, the Philipsburg landfill. Fire is part of nature—we certainly didn’t invent it. It has also been part of land management in the Caribbean for hundreds of years.

A brushfire sweeps through the hills.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, there is plenty to burn. The island has been working do dispose of years worth of debris generated in a few short hours. The island’s struggle to handle its own waste has been known for years. The current situation merely brings it to light once again. Seeing our garbage in flames is inevitable, but still unacceptable.

Firefighters protect nearby homes.

Our role in brushfires is more complex. Human activity can trigger them, like when a burning pile of yard waste gets out of control. We may also contribute to the conditions that make them more likely. Healthy forests help retain rainwater. Cleared hillsides grow back with grass and wild tamarind seedlings that turn into tinder during the dry season.

In the aftermath of a hurricane, dead trees and shrubs have the potential to make brushfires more severe. The areas that burn may also be more critical to native animals that have already suffered loss of life and habitat.

Fire may also rob the island of valuable resources. Dead trees are an important part of the ecosystem. They are food for mushrooms, termites and the larvae of longhorn beetles. A rotting log can be as full of life as a living tree.

The larvae of longhorn beetles eat dead wood.

The termite feeds the lizard and the lizard feeds the Killy-killy. The rebirth of the island will spring from a fallen tree if we let it. On this busy, crowded rock, perhaps we don’t have the time and space to let nature take her course with every trunk and branch. But we should take care when playing with fire, and spare a few logs from the flame.

A slave wall stopped the fire from spreading across the hill.

Here for Now

Each island in the Caribbean is both unique and connected to its neighbors. The sea between islands forms a barrier between them that limits movement from island to island, but it isn’t an absolute barrier. The balance between separation and connection keeps our wild spaces in constant change. Major events, like hurricanes, can break down these barriers and cause sudden changes.

Birds can fly from island to island, but that doesn’t mean they will do it on their own. Many species are perfectly content to stay where they are. Seabirds travel great distances, and migratory birds fly thousands of miles each year. In both cases, they are moving to find food. Other birds, like sugar birds and doves, find the flowers, fruits and seeds they need right here. Few will ever leave St. Martin.

Year of the pigeon or the beginning of a new era?

Hurricane Irma brought White-crowned Pigeons, which aren’t usually seen here. They do live on Antigua and Barbuda. These birds are capable of flying here, but it took an exceptional event to actually bring them. In this case, Hurricane Irma took the perfect path to carry them from there to here.

Since Irma, White-crowned Pigeons have been seen in many places on the island. There are definitely enough to find mates and start raising chicks here. Will they become a permanent part of our local birdlife?

There are some reasons to predict they won’t survive here. Hunting is one of the main threats to White-crowned Pigeons. At some point in the past St. Martin probably did have White-crowned Pigeons. Hunting is probably one of the reasons why they disappeared. Along with the Scaly-naped Pigeon, it is one of the most popular birds to hunt in the region.

The White-crowned Pigeon also has pretty specific habitat needs. They prefer nesting in mangroves and coastal areas, but they usually feed up in forested hills. If they don’t have enough of one or both of these habitats, they may not be able to survive. They also tend to be afraid of humans. They are known to abandon their nests if there is too much human activity nearby. With so many people on St. Martin, it could be a real challenge to find places to nest.

It is also possible that they will stick around and prosper. There’s really no way of knowing, except to watch and find out. They broke through a barrier by crossing the sea, but there’s no guarantee they will find what they need now that they are here. Will we remember this as the one year St. Martin had White-crowned Pigeons? Or will it be the year they came back for good?

The Tree of Life Goes On

Gaïac, Lignum Vitae, Guayacán—there are many names for the tree of life. This tree is a Caribbean original, found only the islands of the West Indies and the Caribbean coast of South America. It is one of the most beautiful and precious trees on the island. It has survived Irma and many trials before.

Before Irma, a series of trunks joined to form a dense crown.

The Gaïac evolved here, and the climate of the Caribbean helped determine its form. These trees have deep roots so they can keep their green leaves during the driest of dry seasons. They have the hardest wood in the world, thick with resin to discourage insects that might try to eat it. Deep roots and a strong trunk also help ensure that the heart of the tree can survive a hurricane and be reborn.

Today, leaves are returning to a skeleton of bare branches.

Historically, we have been the greater threat to this wondrous tree. They were cut down for their strong wood, which was used in boats, mortars, billy clubs and even billiard balls. The bark of the Gaïac was known—incorrectly it seems—as a cure for syphilis. Today the tree is endangered. People often think of it as a small tree because all the huge old ones are gone.

Luckily, the Gaïac has many fans. It is a beautiful tree, bursting out into blue flowers once or twice a year. They have been planted in yards around the island and a few wild ones can still be seen in the hills. The storm has given us a chance to watch their recovery up close.

New growth came quickly after Irma.

In Grand Case, a tree near the sea lost almost every branch, but new leaves were growing right away. After a few weeks of growth, all the new leaves were eaten by caterpillars of the Bewitching Melipotis moth. Today, a balance has been reached and the tree continues to recover while also providing food for some caterpillars.

Caterpillars eat new growth down to the last leaf.

In Cay Bay, a number of twisting trunks reach up together. Bare patches reveal their form, new leaves point to the life returning. Previously, they formed a thick, shady crown together. Eventually, they will again.

This Is a Test

As we begin a new year, memories of Hurricane Irma are still fresh. On the island, there are still a million reminders of the destruction, big and small. But we’re also moving on. As we turn toward the future, we should try to make it a better one.

St. Martin faces many challenges, but at the heart there’s really just one question: How do the people of St. Martin prosper in the long term?

Where will we go in 2018?

Of course, the island is prosperous in many ways. Over the last 50 years, it has built up a huge tourism industry for such a tiny island. But, like many places, the prosperity has been unequal and unsustainable. Poverty and unemployment are too high, and issues like pollution and waste management are threats to both health and the local economy.

Unlocking the value in St. Martin’s nature and heritage could make a big positive impact. Irma reminded us we live here at the grace of mother nature, but we need to take that to heart. Our health and survival depend are tied to the health of the island. Air we can’t breathe and seas we can’t swim in are bad today. If they continue, these environmental issues will eventually bring down the entire economy.

Nature and heritage are also undervalued as assets. St. Martin makes money from the beach and the sea, but other things are mostly ignored. History, architecture, birds, archaeology, wetlands and lizards that live nowhere else on earth all have unused potential. There are efforts to highlight and share these things, but they have yet to get the attention they deserve.

Nature and heritage can be part of a tourism offering that is unique and sustainable. Education on these topics should be available to everyone. Today’s schoolchildren should be tomorrow’s experts on everything that makes the island unique. They should enter the workforce with the skills to take on rewarding jobs or start their own businesses.

Understanding and valuing nature and heritage also gives us the incentive to protect them. Many on the island are frustrated with the lack of progress on environmental issues, or the failure to preserve historic sites. When it is strong and widespread, the will of the people will ultimately bring change.

In Irma’s shadow, we have choices about how to rebuild, what to protect and how to tell the story of the island. It’s a chance to build a better future. This is a test.

Year in Review: 2017

2017 was a pretty amazing year for Les Fruits de Mer. Here are a few of the highlights.

Our year started strong, with the relaunch of our pop-up natural history museum, Amuseum Naturalis. We remade all our exhibits with big, bright signage and added many new attractions. Special exhibits, including original whale paintings and the unsung heroes of Caribbean science took the Amuseum in interesting new directions. Over the course of the season we welcomed almost 9,000 visitors. The all-volunteer team ran the Amuseum during busy Mardis de Grand Case street fair nights and daytime classroom visits.

In April Les Fruits de Mer held the 4th annual Endemic Animal Festival at the Amuseum. It was a chance to see the unique animals that live only on St. Martin. The event also featured nature-themed art activities and giveaways of Gaïac seedlings as part of our Club Gaïac project. The next weekend members of the team also hopped over to Anguilla to volunteer at the 2nd Anguilla Iguana Day festivities.

The team traveled quite a bit during the summer. Members visited Statia to film and research and Amsterdam to attend a conference about Maria Sibylla Merian, a groundbreaking scientist who did key work in the Caribbean. Jenn Yerkes and Mark Yokoyama gave presentations and led workshops at the BirdsCaribbean International Conference in Cuba and Jenn presented at the International Association of Caribbean Archaeologists meeting in St. Croix.

Hurricane Irma hit St. Martin in early fall, delaying most plans. The Fruits team worked to document the hurricane’s impact on nature and the subsequent recovery. Since the storm, Mark Yokoyama has been writing weekly columns in The Daily Herald about nature after Irma. The team has also produced a number of short films highlighting different aspects of the recovery. Our videos were viewed over 100,000 times in the last three months. In October, Marc AuMarc released the second album of Les Fruits de Mer theme songs, Fruits Around the World.

Les Fruits de Mer restarted public outreach with a bird feeder giveaway at Sky’s the Limit restaurant in October. The 5th annual Migratory Bird Festival was held in late November at Friar’s Bay. It was a fun event, with great activities and a super team of volunteers. The 2017 theme was Welcome Back! to both the migratory birds and the recovering habitats that they depend on. The 4th Heritage Photo Contest was also launched in November, with the theme Rebirth. Entries were accepted through the end of the year, with an exhibition to follow in early 2018.

The association is also very thankful for the generous support of friends and members in the final months of the year. Sarah Allen and Maël Renault collected donations. William Moore and Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soap also made donations. Jarrad Nunes included Les Fruits de Mer in his Cheer Project fundraising which drew support from many fine people. We were also incredibly grateful to have sponsorship support from local businesses for the Migratory Bird Festival despite the challenges that they are facing right now. This timely support made it possible for us to continue our work celebrating local nature and heritage at a time when it is truly important.

Thanks to everyone who helped make 2017 such a great year for Les Fruits de Mer, and we’re looking forward to an even better 2018!

Rebirth: Alita Singh

Nature’s Footsteps – Humans can plan and build, but Mother Nature every so often reclaims what’s hers. This is a section of Orient Bay Beach that once housed restaurants and bars. Now, nature has reclaimed it … until humans again decide to take a claim. But, as the saying goes – “Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret” (You can drive nature out with a pitchfork, but she always comes back!).

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Eye on the Invaders

It is a sad and common story in island ecology: humans bring new species that eat or outcompete native species. Usually we bring them by accident. Hitchhiking animals are the unintended consequence of global trade.

While their arrival may be accidental, there are a number of factors that contribute to the success of these invaders. Animals and plants from large islands or continents are adapted to more complex, more competitive ecosystems. Arriving on a small island they find it easy to excel—imagine Rihanna showing up to karaoke night at your neighborhood bar.

House Sparrows make a home in some of the least natural places on earth.

Often, successful invaders are also well-adapted to life in degraded habitats. House Sparrows are a good example. We find them living in airports, train stations and other places that would be unthinkable for most species. It’s no surprise many invaders can live in landscapes that have been changed by humans. Living around humans makes them more likely to be transported and more likely to find success in a new home.

A devastating hurricane is a big opportunity for species skilled at living in marginal spaces. Post-hurricane conditions have a lot in common with human-altered landscapes. Vegetation is cleared and new growth may be at least temporarily dominated by a handful of fast-growing species. That’s a lot like land cleared for development or agriculture—a forest replaced with a handful of plants.

On St. Martin, a couple of introduced species have been living on the edge for years. These two tree lizards have established populations, but each has been stuck in a little corner of the island. The Puerto Rican Crested Anole has lived at Port de Plaisance, and the Cuban Brown Anole has lived at the cruise ship terminal.

The Puerto Rican Crested Anole is still here.

Each of these lizards has found limited success in a very unnatural habitat. Neither has made it into wild scrub or forest areas. In those areas, our two native tree lizards—the Anguilla Bank Anole and Bearded Anole—still rule the roost. All four species occupy very similar spaces in the local ecosystem, which may be on reason the introduced species have had trouble spreading.

Hurricane Irma posed a challenge to our invaders: either small colony could have been wiped out. It also may have opened an opportunity. Widespread destruction may have given them a chance to spread.

The Cuban Brown Anole, living on the edge in St. Martin.

Like so many other things, the status of these invaders on post-Irma St. Martin deserves some attention. Do natural disasters and human activity work together to speed the invasion of non-native species? For now, we know that the colony of Puerto Rican Crested Anoles has survived. To see if it spreads, we will have to keep an eye on these invaders.

The Case of the Missing Wasp

If you’ve ever wandered the hills of St. Martin, you’re sure to be familiar with the Jack Spaniard. It is a red, yellow and black wasp that builds nests of paper and defends them fiercely. Too often, the first sign of a nearby nest is a piercing, electric sting. A couple days of itching and swelling follow. Any dry spot is a likely nest location: a big branch, a wide leaf, an awning or a rocky overhang.

But where are they now? In the days immediately after the hurricane, Jack Spaniards came to our hummingbird feeders, but then they stopped. They’ve been conspicuously absent in the months since. We have bees and we have butterflies. We have had plenty of flies and mosquitoes. But the Jack Spaniard seems to be gone.

From the “where are they now?” files…the Jack Spaniard.

Hurricanes seem like the perfect tool to get rid of these wasps. The winds were strong enough to rip their paper nests down to be soaked and destroyed. Adult wasps feed on nectar—which is why they were at our hummingbird feeders—and most of them may have starved in the aftermath of the storm. These wasps feed their young on caterpillars, another resource that would have been absent immediately after Irma.

This triple threat may help explain why Jack Spaniards vary so much from island to island. Pre-Irma they were extremely common here. On St. Kitts, I only saw them a couple times during weeks of field research. If recovery after a major storm takes years, perhaps differences between islands can be connected to hurricanes.

I imagine many would say “Good riddance!” to the Jack Spaniard. Personally, I don’t mind being able to walk down a trail without being stung. But they do play a role in the local ecosystem—a few, in fact. They pollinate flowers when they are feeding on nectar, and they kill a lot of caterpillars to feed their larvae. They’re also a popular food for the Gray Kingbird.

Dedicated parents, Jack Spaniards hunt caterpillars for their young.

What will happen next? Chances are, they’re only mostly gone. I would guess that some nests survived in very protected areas, like caves or abandoned buildings. If there are some still here, we will start to see them as the population grows. This could be a very fascinating chance to watch and learn as a unique phenomenon happens.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we have any Jack Spaniard specialists working on the island right now. I guess it is up to all of us. If you see Jack Spaniards or their nests, contact Les Fruits de Mer on Facebook or at Let us know where and when you saw them, and take a photo if you can. Perhaps together we can make a new discovery about how an animal population recovers after a hurricane. That’s gotta be worth a sting or two!

Rebirth: Alita Singh

From roots to hilltop – It’s green from the old trees in the valley to the top of Sentry Hill, the highest point on the Dutch side of the island. The revitalization of what was the crumbling boiler house into a restaurant has added to the feeling of hope following Hurricanes Irma and Maria. The inaccessible is now accessible and that made bare thrives again.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Thank You Cheer Project

We want to give a big thank you to The Cheer Project—Jarrad for doing it, Andy for helping and everyone for donating and sharing! Yesterday we raised $732 for Les Fruits de Mer, which we will be using to fund a really exciting set of projects for 2018. We will be rebuilding the Amuseum, printing new books about wildlife, making films about wildlife and how Hurricane Irma impacted the island. If you missed the video, here it is. If you want to make a donation, you still can.

Rebirth: Alice Claeyssens

Houses and buildings may be down, but seascapes and shorelines are proud to rise up from devastation. Islanders should be thankful for this gift. Cleaning and rebuilding will take a while but st martiners will succeed to honor what opportunity nature keeps offering them.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Rebirth: Mason Chadwick

A gentle shower painting its hues across St Martin Lagoon this morning.
The haze of colour both hides and reveals the torn architecture.
Yet our eyes track the rainbow, and feel it in our senses of hope, renewal and rebirth.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.

Rebirth: Alita Singh

Rebirth: Return of Velvet
The breeze caressing the velvety-looking grass is an inspiring sight. It’s nature’s own ballet. Every December, this grass blankets the hillsides and to see it return after Irma’s wrath is both overwhelmingly emotional and hearteningly strengthening.

This is an entry in the 2017 Heritage Photo Contest. Our theme this year is Rebirth. View all the entries in the online gallery, learn more and find out how to enter here.