Amuseum Naturalis Celebrates 5,000 Visitors with Free Ebook

The ebook Caribbean Curiosities: Island of Change is now available for free download.

It’s only been two months since Amuseum Naturalis officially launched its 2017 season in January, but the free natural history museum has already had over 5,000 visitors this year. To celebrate, Amuseum Naturalis creators Les Fruits de Mer are sharing a free ebook, Caribbean Curiosities: Island of Change.

This ebook is the second volume in a series highlighting the plants and animals featured in the museum. Both volumes are available for free from the resources section of the association’s website. This volume highlights some of the many species that were introduced to the island by humans, and how they are changing St. Martin’s local ecology.

“The Caribbean Curiosities ebooks are a chance to build on the stories we are sharing at the Amuseum,” explained Amuseum curator Mark Yokoyama. “They’re also a chance to share some of the magic of the Amuseum with people who haven’t had a chance to visit yet.”

Amuseum Naturalis is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-8pm and admission is free. Group visits—for school classes, youth groups, or any kind of group—can be scheduled during March and April by email at info@lesfruitsdemer.org or on the Amuseum’s website.

“We’re surprised and excited to have welcomed 5,000 visitors in just two months,” commented Les Fruits de Mer President Jenn Yerkes. “It’s so fun to share the island’s natural history with a diverse group of locals and tourists each week. We also hope to host more school classes and other group visits, so please get in touch!”

Amuseum Naturalis is a free, public pop-up museum of the natural history of St. Martin and the Caribbean, created by Les Fruits de Mer and made possible by the generous sponsorship of Delta Petroleum and the support of the Friends of the Amuseum. Amuseum Naturalis is located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case in Grand Case and on the web at http://amuseumnaturalis.com.

Caribbean Curiosities: Land of the Blind

St. Martin was once home to a rather beautiful snake, the Leeward Island Racer. It was given the scientific name Alsophis rijgersmaei in honor of St. Martin’s 19th century physician and naturalist Dr. Hendrik Elingsz van Rijgersma. If you’re lucky, you might still see it on Anguilla or St. Barts. On this island, it seems the mongoose has hunted it to extinction. But that doesn’t mean that there are no snakes on St. Martin…

A scale covers the blind snake’s eye.

The one snake that is definitely living on St. Martin is odd, but it’s not surprising to find it here. It is known by many names: Brahminy Blind Snake because it is though to come from India, Flowerpot Blind Snake because it often travels in potted plants, and Island Blind Snake because it has been so successful in colonizing islands.

As you may have guessed, this snake is blind. It has eyes, but they are feeble and covered in scales. They can sense light and dark, but probably not much more than that. This is not a problem for them because they live underground, eating ants in all their life stages: eggs, larvae, pupae and adults.

If you’ve never seen one, that’s probably because they’re rarely out and about. They’re also very small—just a few inches long and thinner than a chopstick. There’s no need to fear the blind snake because their mouth is far too small to bite you.

A soil-dwelling snake.

How did this strange snake get here? Probably in potted plants or trees, the same way it has hitchhiked its way around the globe. This species is also parthenogenetic. They are all female and can reproduce entirely on their own, giving birth to genetically identical offspring. This is a serious advantage when colonizing an island, and surely a big part of their success in establishing themselves around the world.

Could there be more to St. Martin than a tale of two snakes? It is possible. Native blind snakes are now known from many nearby islands. If there’s one on St. Martin, it could have gone unnoticed. Today, it could be mistaken for the introduced Brahminy Blind Snake. If one is found—and several have been found in the Caribbean in recent years—it would likely be a species new to science.

You can learn more about the Brahminy Blind Snake and other invasive species at Amuseum Naturalis, located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case. The museum is free and open 4-8pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Get more info at http://amuseumnaturalis.com.

Caribbean Curiosities: A Giant Problem?

Giant can be a relative term. The Giant African Land Snail is definitely a giant among land snails, even if it is only a few inches long. It also manages to be one of the world’s worst invasive species, but it is it a giant problem on St. Martin?

This snail has been quick to colonize the tropics.

What’s the big deal about this giant snail? Originally from Africa, it has been spread by humans throughout much of the world’s tropics. Once it becomes established, it can transform its new home in a variety of ways, endangering local ecosystems, agriculture and even human health.

The Giant African Land Snail is hermaphroditic, so every one is able to lay eggs. They do so 100-400 eggs at a time, up to 1200 eggs per year. Once they are introduced, they are quick to take over. Getting rid of them is hard. In Florida, an infestation was eradicated in the early 1970s. The effort involved killing 18,000 snails and cost over $4 million in today’s dollars.

These snails are known to eat over 500 different kinds of plants, including many agricultural crops. They eat leaves, fruits and roots, scraping away at them with 80,000 tiny teeth on their file-like radula. They can also transmit diseases to plants, including diseases impacting cocoa, tangerines and eggplants.

In some parts of the world, these snails are also responsible for spreading certain diseases, including some caused by nematode worms that live in the snails. Luckily, humans usually catch these diseases by eating raw or undercooked Giant African Land Snails, something that most of us will have no problem avoiding.

In the Caribbean, this snail was first found in Guadeloupe in 1984. By some accounts, it arrived in St. Martin along with supplies imported when the island was rebuilding after hurricane Luis. Whether that’s true or not, Guadeloupe does seem like a likely source for our snails. Today, these snails can be found all over the island.

Since St. Martin’s major industry is tourism, this snail probably has a bigger impact on local ecology than it does on the local economy. It may harm native plants and outcompete local snails. Like many other invasive species, understanding the extent of its impact would require extensive research that has not yet been done here. On St. Martin, it may not be the giant problem it is in some places.

You can learn more about invasive species and their impact on St. Martin at Amuseum Naturalis, located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case. The museum is free and open 4-8pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Get more info at http://amuseumnaturalis.com.

Caribbean Curiosities: An Early Introduction

One of the challenges of studying the ecology of an island is uncertainty about past events. Be it twenty years, two hundred years, or two million years ago, it is impossible to go back in time to witness the first arrival of a plant or animal species. Instead, our understanding is informed by whatever historical and biological data is available.

The first addition humans made to St. Martin’s wildlife?

When it comes to the Red-footed Tortoise in the Lesser Antilles, there are a few possibilities. It could have arrived on its own, floating on a raft of vegetation to each island. It could have been brought by Amerindians from South America and introduced to the islands they visited. It even could have been introduced during the colonial era or the modern era.

On St. Martin, we can probably rule out the last possibility. In 1658, Charles de Rochefort published an account of his time in the Caribbean which mentioned the presence of tortoises in the forest on St. Martin. Only settled in the 1620s, it seems likely that tortoises were living on the island before it was colonized by Europeans.

Was the Red-footed Tortoise brought to these islands by Amerindian people? Many believe this is the most likely scenario. The Arawak and Carib people migrated from northern South America—where the Red-footed Tortoise is a native species—to the Lesser Antilles. It would have been very practical to bring the tortoises with them and release them, creating a renewable food supply.

There are also reasons to believe the tortoise did not arrive on its own. Most of the reptiles that colonized the Lesser Antilles by their own means diverged into different species on each island or group of islands. The Red-footed Tortoise seems essentially the same throughout the Caribbean. This suggests it arrived recently.

Also, we know what can happen when tortoises on islands: they become giants, like the tortoises of the Seychelles and Galápagos. It would be reasonable to guess that tortoises colonizing Caribbean islands millions of years ago would have ample time to become giants.

As it turns out, we don’t need to guess that giant tortoises could exist in the Caribbean. About 40 miles from St. Martin, Sombrero Island was once home to the Sombrero Giant Tortoise. Remains of this tortoise were found in guano extracted from the island. Several other extinct species of giant tortoise are known from other parts of the Caribbean. It is possible that existing populations of giant tortoises were hunted to extinction by the earliest humans who arrived here and then replaced by the tortoises we see here today.

You can learn more about the Red-footed Tortoise and other species introduced to St. Martin at Amuseum Naturalis, located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case. The museum is free and open 4-8pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Get more info at http://amuseumnaturalis.com.

Caribbean Curiosities: Love Songs

A Snowy Cricket plays softly.

Love is always in the air on steamy Caribbean nights, and you can hear the songs that prove it. A gentle hum, a sawing drone, or a piercing chirp, these calls broadcast into the darkness, pleading for partnership.

A nocturnal lifestyle has certain advantages here on St. Martin, especially if you are very small. Birds and lizards are dangerous predators to the insects and tiny frogs living on the island. One way to escape their prying eyes and hungry mouths is to hide during the day. Many of the nocturnal critters on St. Martin do just that. Johnstone’s Whistling Frog often waits out the daylight in the dampness beneath stones or under dead leaves. Many crickets and katydids hide in plain sight, camouflaged to look like the plants they live on.

Conducting all of one’s business at night does pose certain difficulties when it comes to the business of love. When predators can’t see you, neither can your prospective mate. Although there are numerous ways to find a partner in the dark, sound is one of the most common methods.

In most cases, the males do the calling. There is a fairly simple reason for this. Producing eggs requires more effort than producing sperm, so female frogs and insects are selective about who will get to fertilize them. Males are the ones that need to prove their worth, so they do the calling. The calls they make advertise both their location and their fitness.

A nighttime stroll in garden, field or forest will be filled with song. The Snowy Cricket—a tiny, delicate insect—rubs its transparent wings together to produce an airy buzz. The song from a single cricket is slight, but in a field of Bellyache Bush the chorus of hundreds can be enveloping.

The Money Bug prefers to call from tall grasses. It has a file on one forewing and and a scraper on the other. Its song is determined by the shape of these sound-making features and how it plays them. It chooses loud and grating, in a near-continuous drone broken by occasional momentary silences.

A Whistling Frog in mid-song.

The island’s most famous nighttime singer is Johnstone’s Whistling Frog. This tiny frog fills up a huge air sac in its throat to create its trademark whistle. It is surprisingly loud, and many sleepless people have discovered how hard it is to find its source. A chorus of whistling frogs on a rainy night may be the most identifiable sound of Caribbean.

You can learn more about St. Martin’s nocturnal creatures—and listen to the sounds they make—at Amuseum Naturalis, located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case. The museum is free and open 4-8pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Get more info at http://amuseumnaturalis.com.

Fifth Dream Opening

Thanks to everyone who came out to the opening of THE 5TH DREAM art exhibition at Amuseum Naturalis. 350 guests visited the Amuseum and the opening. THE 5TH DREAM is a new series of paintings by Sélénia Sanner, inspired by the infinite ocean and the profound connection between humans and nature. If you didn’t make it to the opening, the exhibition runs February 14th to March 16th, and can be visited during the museum’s regular opening hours. See you there!

Caribbean Curiosities: Monkey Business

Invasive species have a long track record of disrupting native plants and animals, particularly on islands. As Vervet Monkey populations increase, what can we expect on St. Martin?

Will monkeys take over our island?

Although they are resilient enough to survive hurricanes and droughts, island ecosystems are delicate in some ways. Invasive species, in particular, have the potential to cause destruction and disaster when they encounter islands where they have no predators and little competition. Since the year 1500, 80% of all animal extinctions have happened on islands.

St. Martin is not immune to this phenomenon. It lost three species due to the introduction of the mongoose: two lizards and one snake. Rats and mongoose are perhaps our most destructive invasive species. Both are omnivorous mammals—smart, fast and voracious. The raccoon is another, but we know less about its possible impact because it has been introduced to fewer places.

In recent years, the Vervet Monkey has been increasing its population on St. Martin. Agile and intelligent, it undoubtedly eats a wide variety of native plants and animals. Originally from Africa, this monkey was brought to St. Kitts and Barbados in the 1600s. The wild population of Vervets on St. Martin is much more recent, perhaps only a few decades old.

A look at St. Kitts may tell us a bit about one possible future on St. Martin. Monkeys are very common on the island in both the mountain forest and the dry coastal scrub. Until recently large areas of sugarcane cultivation created a buffer between mountain-dwelling monkeys and urban areas. With the end of that industry, emboldened monkeys have spread nearly throughout the island.

In the lush, beautiful forests of St. Kitts, many animals are strangely absent. Snails, so abundant on the wet slopes of Saba and even the dry forest of St. Martin are almost entirely absent. One might see a few lizards per day on Mount Liamuiga compared to a few lizards per tree on Pic Paradis. There isn’t enough research to prove that monkeys are responsible, but they are one of the few major differences between St. Kitts and other islands in the Lesser Antilles.

Once a rarely seen novelty, Vervet Monkeys are more common every year, and seem to be on the verge of becoming an island-wide menace. Will lizards found only on St. Martin be driven to extinction? Will the forest and scrub of St. Martin fill with monkeys and empty of everything else? Without action, we will find out very soon.

You can learn more about Vervet Monkeys and other invasive species on St. Martin at Amuseum Naturalis, located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case. The museum is free and open 4-8pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Get more info at http://amuseumnaturalis.com.

Caribbean Curiosities: Mini Maestro of the Mangroves

Our salt ponds and mangrove wetlands are a complex ecosystem. Many kinds of plants and animals interact in harmony to keep St. Martin’s shores from eroding and preserve our clear waters and coral reefs. One tiny animal in particular plays a big role in holding it all together.

The big claw can be used for protection.

Fiddler crabs are small, a couple inches wide at most. On St. Martin, they are most common on the edges of our salt ponds, on sandy flats and beneath mangrove trees. Male fiddler crabs are easy to recognize because they have one enormous claw, sometimes almost as big as the rest of their body.

Why are these little crabs so important? Consider one role of our ponds and mangroves: they trap organic material and soil before it gets swept out to sea. This process counteracts erosion and also keeps the sea clean and clear, something that corals need to survive. Fiddler crabs help, bite by bite. They use their small claw to put sand in their mouth and filter out tiny bits of food from it.

Fiddler crabs also help maintain healthy mangroves by digging tunnels in the sand. The crabs dig the holes so they have a place to hide from hungry birds, but the holes also loosen and aerate the sandy ground where they live, helping the mangroves. The crabs also bring buried organic matter to the surface when tunneling, so it can be eaten. In some cases, other animals use the tunnels as hiding places, too.

Fiddler crabs are also an important source of food for many wetland animals, particularly wading birds and herons. These crabs sustain our year-round resident birds as well as migratory species that travel thousands of miles to winter here. The energy the crabs locked from filtering wet sand is provided to these birds in bite-sized packages.

Strength in numbers: tiny crabs can have a big impact.

It is hard to imagine what our island would be like without the fiddler crab. Our wetlands would be quite different. Familiar birds would probably be less common or gone altogether. The island could be smaller, our shorelines eroded with less protection from mangroves. Our coral reefs could be overwhelmed by algae. Rotting material trapped in the sand could even make the island smell worse. Thank goodness for our fiddler friends!

You can learn more about fiddler crabs and see them in The Crabitat at Amuseum Naturalis, located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case. The museum is free and open 4-8pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Get more info at http://amuseumnaturalis.com.

Amuseum Naturalis Launches THE 5TH DREAM Art Exhibition Feb. 14th

“La Rêveuse” will be on display at Sélénia Sanner’s THE 5TH DREAM exhibition, launching February 14th at Amuseum Naturalis.

Amuseum Naturalis invites the public to the free gala opening of the museum’s first fine art exhibition, THE 5TH DREAM, from 4-8pm on Tuesday, February 14th. THE 5TH DREAM is a new series of paintings by Sélénia Sanner, inspired by the infinite ocean and the profound connection between humans and nature. The theme is explored through imagery of whales, with magical portrayals on large and small scale canvases that illuminate a dreamy alternate universe where these seemingly weightless giants can be seen swimming through boundless starry skies, or as epic shadows beneath tiny boats.

“This is the season when whales are especially visible in the Caribbean,” explains Amuseum Naturalis co-curator and island wildlife expert Mark Yokoyama, “so this exhibition really connects with what’s going on in nature right now.”

“We’re so excited for people to experience this breathtaking painting series and think about these majestic leviathans of the deep,” adds Jenn Yerkes, President of Les Fruits de Mer, the association behind Amuseum Naturalis. “We hope everyone will come out to celebrate the exhibition launch, meet the artist, and enjoy wine and cheese at the opening reception!”

“Crise Arctique” will be on display at Sélénia Sanner’s THE 5TH DREAM exhibition, launching February 14th at Amuseum Naturalis.

The launch of the exhibition also serves as the official launch of the unique painted wooden panels which were created by Sanner to accompany displays in the main exhibit hall of Amuseum Naturalis. The large-scale panels, each featuring nature scenes which bring its related exhibit to life, are mounted at the eye level of toddlers and children in strollers–giving even the smallest a special way to discover St. Martin’s natural heritage.

The free opening reception and the exhibition will be held in the Special Exhibition Room at Amuseum Naturalis. The exhibition will run February 14th to March 16th, and can be visited during the museum’s regular opening hours.

Amuseum Naturalis is a free pop-up museum that highlights the natural history of St. Martin and the Caribbean. The museum is open to the public on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-8pm. It is also open for school and other group visits during the day by appointment, which can be made via email at info@lesfruitsdemer.com or on the web at www.amuseumnaturalis.com. Amuseum Naturalis is located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case in Grand Case. It is made possible by the generous support of Delta Petroleum and over a dozen businesses and individual donors who have become Friends of the Amuseum. For more information, visit amuseumnaturalis.com.

Free Ebook Marks Start of Amuseum Naturalis Group Visits

Caribbean Curiosities is available as a free download in the Resources section of lesfruitsdemer.com.

Amuseum Naturalis has released a free new ebook, Caribbean Curiosities, to announce the opening of the museum for group visits by appointment. Caribbean Curiosities takes a closer look at some of the fascinating animals and plants featured at the free museum, which showcases the natural history of St. Martin and the Caribbean.

“The new ebook is another way of sharing all the cool stuff we’re doing at the museum,” explained Amuseum Naturalis co-curator and ebook author Mark Yokoyama. “And so are our group visits, which we are excited to kick off for the season!”

“We’re thrilled to invite schools and groups of all kinds to take advantage of this unique opportunity to discover and learn more about the incredible natural heritage of this island,” said Jenn Yerkes, President of Les Fruits de Mer, the association which created the museum.

Amuseum Naturalis 2017 group visits are now open for school classes as well as groups for youth, senior citizens, and other organizations.

Amuseum Naturalis group visits are open to school classes as well as any kind of groups including youth, senior citizens, and other organizations. The suggested time for a group visit is one hour. The museum will be opened specifically for the scheduled group, and the visits will include time to explore the museum, watch short films about the wildlife of St. Martin, and do a short activity like planting Gaïac seedlings to take home. There is a recommended donation of 100€ or $100 per group visit to cover the cost of visit materials and support the museum, but other solutions can be found if the group is not able to cover the visit donation.

Amuseum Naturalis group visits are available by appointment during the day in March and April 2017. Schools, youth organizations, and other groups are encouraged to reserve their dates now. There are two ways to schedule group visits: via email at info@lesfruitsdemer.com or on the web at amuseumnaturalis.com.

People and local businesses who wish to help fund group visits and support the museum can do so by becoming a Friend of the Amuseum. The Amuseum is open to the public Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-8pm, and admission is free. Amuseum Naturalis is located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case in Grand Case.

Caribbean Curiosities is available as a free download in the Resources section of lesfruitsdemer.com.

Amuseum Naturalis Launches Crabitat for World Wetlands Day

St. Martin’s fiddler crabs help keep our seas clean and provide food for many wetland birds.
In celebration of World Wetlands Day, Amuseum Naturalis is launching the Crabitat, a fascinating new exhibit showcasing the fiddler crabs that can be found in great numbers around virtually all of St. Martin’s ponds. The Crabitat will be a special attraction on Tuesday, January 31st during the Mardis de Grand Case street fair.

World Wetlands Day is a global program that raises awareness about the importance of wetlands. On St. Martin, salt ponds and other wetlands are one of the richest ecosystems, hosting a wide diversity of life. They also provide the valuable service of processing organic material, keeping our seas crystal clear and our coral reefs vibrant. Fiddler crabs, which are the featured stars of the Crabitat, are key players in this system, sifting organic matter from the sand.

“The Crabitat is a great way to get an up-close view of these adorable and ecologically important critters,” explains Mark Yokoyama, co-curator of Amuseum Naturalis. “World Wetlands Day is the perfect opportunity to give them a turn in the spotlight.”

Amuseum Naturalis, a free nature museum in Grand Case created by the Les Fruits de Mer association, also showcases wetlands in Gut Life, an ongoing exhibit about freshwater wildlife. In the Amuseum Naturalis theater, short films about the freshwater animals of St. Martin and fiddler crabs will also be in rotation. The Amuseum’s special exhibit room will be featuring displays about wetland birds and the impact of drought on wetlands.

St. Martin’s free nature museum, Amuseum Naturalis, will launch its Crabitat exhibit for World Wetlands Day on January 31st.

“The chance to learn about the island’s natural heritage is something we’re excited to share with our employees, our customers, their families and everyone on St. Martin,” commented Christian Papaliolios, President and General Director of Delta Petroleum, the primary sponsor of Amuseum Naturalis. “It’s a fun and meaningful way to give back to the community that supports us.”

Amuseum Naturalis is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-8pm, and is located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case. Completely free thanks to the support of Delta Petroleum and the Friends of the Amuseum, the Amuseum welcomes residents and visitors of all ages to discover St. Martin’s natural heritage.

Caribbean Curiosities: Live Fast, Transform Young

The Cuban Treefrog is the only amphibian on St. Martin that needs to live in fresh water as it develops, and on St. Martin this is a very challenging proposition.

Cuban Treefrogs often hide in plants during the day.

The Cuban Treefrog is native to Cuba, the Bahamas and the Cayman Islands, but humans have brought it to many other places. It now lives in Florida, Hawaii and many Caribbean islands. Although it needed the help of humans to get to new lands—probably as a stowaway with shipments of plants or other materials—it is very adept at colonizing new places once it arrives.

St. Martin poses a number of challenges for the Cuban Treefrog. For starters, there simply isn’t much fresh water. Most of the ponds on the island are salty or brackish, which is not good if you have permeable skin that can absorb salt. There are no real rivers, and most of the fresh water in guts and roadside ditches is swarming with guppies and other fish that would love to eat young tadpoles.

What’s a frog to do then? For starters, they lay a lot of eggs: 100 to 1,000 at a time. Also, they can hop to water that fish can’t reach, like livestock ponds, wells and even puddles. Of course, this means they have to grow up fast before their puddle disappears. They start by eating algae, which is the primary food for Cuban Treefrog tadpoles, but as their home gets smaller, things take a turn towards the sinister.

In the race agains time, the tadpoles will often eat their brothers and sisters. This provides the best chance for at least a few to survive and transform into frogs before their water runs out. It may seem unpleasant, but for the survival of the species, it is much better than all of the tadpoles dying when their puddle evaporates.

The only free-swimming tadpole on St. Martin.

While their ability to thrive on a relatively dry island is impressive, it isn’t necessarily a good thing for native animals. Like all invasive species, the Cuban Treefrog can upset the delicate balance of life on an island. Animals like our native lizards—including species found only on St. Martin—are potential prey for the Cuban Treefrog.

You can learn more about both invasive species and freshwater ecosystems on St. Martin at Amuseum Naturalis, located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case. The museum is free and open 4-8pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Get more info at http://amuseumnaturalis.com.

Caribbean Curiosities: Here Be Monsters

You’ve marveled at them and perhaps been momentarily intimidated by one. It’s the often massive lizard roaming St. Martin: the Green Iguana.

The Green Iguana is often green in name only.

The Green Iguana is named after a color it often outgrows. Freshly-hatched iguanas are a brilliant acid green. As they age, their color fades to darker greens and shades of gray. Male iguanas wear bright orange during the breeding season, most often on their legs and feet. Despite their diverse and splendid range of colors, all the iguanas on St. Martin are the same species.

The iguana is a gentle giant, more or less. They have up to a hundred sharp teeth, but they mostly use them to eat the leaves and fruit that make up their vegetarian diet. They have a row of spines down their back, but just to protect them from predators. They have sharp claws, but they use them to climb the trees where they spend most of their time.

The iguana is most graceful in the water. On land, iguana locomotion ranges from a plodding gait to an awkward, frenetic scramble. If you approach an iguana near a pond, they will usually take a flying leap, legs flailing, into the water. In the instant after splashing down, they are transformed into a sinuous swimming machine, gliding towards the safety of the far bank.

Although they look like primeval caretakers from the island’s distant past, the Green Iguana is a surprisingly recent arrival on the island. According to most accounts, a couple crates of iguanas arrived via air freight in the mid-1990s. Originally destined to be pets or perhaps soup, they were never picked up. After a number of days, a sympathetic employee released the forlorn creatures, and for some time they lived primarily in Flamingo Pond.

Flamingo Pond was filled as part of the airport expansion a few years later, and iguanas were brought to other parts of the island. These refugees went on to prosper in their adopted home. Over the next decade, they became increasingly common and they are now found all over St. Martin in large numbers.

At home in the water.

What is the impact of the Green Iguana? It’s hard to say exactly, but they have the potential to damage or kill trees in spots where there are too many of them. They are also known to eat bird eggs on occasion. Perhaps the biggest danger is the possibility of Green Iguanas from St. Martin making their way to nearby islands with endangered native iguana populations. Competition with Green Iguanas and interbreeding with them are a huge threat to native iguanas in the Caribbean.

You can learn more about the Green Iguana and other non-native species that are transforming St. Martin’s ecology at Amuseum Naturalis, located at 96 Boulevard de Grand Case. The museum is free and open 4-8pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Get more info at http://amuseumnaturalis.com

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Amuseum Naturalis Kicks Off Season with Record Crowd

A steady stream of guests kept the museum filled all evening. Photo by Maël Renault.

St. Martin’s first and only natural history museum, Amuseum Naturalis, officially launched its 2017 season on Tuesday. It welcomed over 750 guests during the five hour season opening event, an attendance record for the free nature museum, which is run by the Les Fruits de Mer association. The opening coincided with the first Mardis de Grand Case street fair of the season.

“We were delighted to see so many people come into the museum and learn about the nature that makes this island so unique,” explained Les Fruits de Mer President Jenn Yerkes. “The Tuesday night festivals always bring a big crowd, but this one was off the charts.”

Now in its second year, Amuseum Naturalis was buzzing with the activity of visitors of all ages—and the sounds of frogs, bats and crickets broadcast from listening stations at the exhibits. In the theater room, short documentaries took visitors from deserted islets to deep beneath the sea. The latest addition—a mounted iguana—surveyed the main exhibit room from a central perch.

Listening stations filled the museum with the sounds of nocturnal animals. Photo by Maël Renault.

“There’s something incredibly special about having a free museum in Grand Case, especially during the Mardis de Grand Case fair,” commented Amuseum Naturalis curator Mark Yokoyama. “The atmosphere is vibrant and fun, the crowd is a great mix of all ages and people are really in the mood to discover new things.”

Guests took a break from science to enjoy a cultural experience as the parade passed the Amuseum. Photo by Mark Yokoyama.

Amuseum Naturalis was created by Les Fruits de Mer and made possible by the generous sponsorship of Delta Petroleum and the Friends of the Amuseum. The Amuseum is open on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-8pm and is free for everyone. For more information, visit http://amuseumnaturalis.com

Caribbean Curiosities: Nowhere Else in the World

At last count, there are six different species of gecko on St. Martin. Some of them are tiny, about three centimeters long. The Tropical House Gecko is medium-sized and commonly seen climbing walls and eating insects attracted to porch lights. By comparison, the Spotted Woodslave is a monster—up to 20 centimeters overall—with a stout body and thick tail.

The Spotted Woodslave should be a local celebrity.

Many people are not familiar with the Spotted Woodslave. It is rarely seen around homes and it spends its days hiding, coming out at night to hunt. Those daytime hiding spots often include the stone slave walls that crisscross the island and crevices in the bark of old tamarind trees.

The Spotted Woodslave is instantly recognizable. It’s huge, of course, with the sturdy frame of a retired athlete. It also has a generous speckling of black spots on its tan skin. Its legs are draped in loose skin, like long underwear that is a couple sizes too big. Splits in its toe pads make its feet look cartoonishly oversized. It has enormous eyes that stick out on either side of its head like tiny planets.

It is a beautiful lizard, and one that is only found on St. Martin. St. Martiners have known this lizard since people first came to the island, but it was only described as a new species in 2011. Previously, it was considered just a variant of a sister-species, the Turnip-tailed Gecko, which is found in much of the tropical Americas.

Why does St. Martin have its own species of gecko? It’s quite hard to say, because it happened long before anyone was around to watch. Perhaps our Spotted Woodslave lived on more islands at one time, before disappearing everywhere but St. Martin. Perhaps Turnip-tailed Geckos colonized the Caribbean twice: an early group that evolved into our Spotted Woodslave, and then a more recent group that remains the same as the geckos on the mainland.

High-tech toes give this lizard superpowers.

Whatever its origins, the Spotted Woodslave surely deserves wider recognition as a unique part of St. Martin’s nature. It is also part of local culture. With microscopic hooks on its toes like invisible velcro, it can climb walls. This gave rise to the myth that if a woodslave was on your skin it could only be removed by burning it with a hot iron. That myth’s not true, of course, but it is rooted in observation of this animal’s amazing climbing abilities.

You can learn more about the Spotted Woodslave and other species that are found only on St. Martin at Amuseum Naturalis. Visit the museum for free on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-8pm or get more info at amuseumnaturalis.com.

Amuseum Naturalis 2017 Season Opening Event January 17th

The Amuseum Naturalis 2017 season opening event is free and open to the public, Tuesday, January 17th from 5pm to 10pm.

St. Martin’s only natural history museum, Amuseum Naturalis, is officially launching its 2017 season on Tuesday, January 17th at 5pm. The public is invited to explore the museum and enjoy light refreshments during the free opening event. The launch coincides with the first Mardis de Grand Case street fair of the season.

Amuseum Naturalis is a free pop-up museum established by the Les Fruits de Mer association that highlights the natural history of St. Martin and the Caribbean. The exhibits feature some of the island’s most fascinating animals and plants, like lizards that live only on St. Martin and the tree with the hardest wood in the world. The museum also spotlights the nature we often overlook, like the vibrant freshwater ecosystems found in guts and livestock ponds.

“There’s nothing else like it on the island,” explained Les Fruits de Mer President Jenn Yerkes. “So many important stories about the island’s natural history that aren’t told anywhere else are collected right in one place, and that makes a big impact.”

Les Fruits de Mer created Amuseum Naturalis in 2016 so residents and visitors of all ages could celebrate and learn more about the unique nature of the island. It features a dozen exhibits on different topics, a small theater showing short original nature documentaries filmed on St. Martin, and outdoor displays showcasing local birds, plants and insects. Always growing and changing, the Amuseum stays true to its promise of “New wonders every week!”

Amuseum Naturalis is a free pop-up museum established by the Les Fruits de Mer association that highlights the natural history of St. Martin and the Caribbean.

“We’re incredibly excited to officially launch the updated Amuseum,” said Les Fruits de Mer co-founder Mark Yokoyama. “Having a second season gave us a chance to improve and expand on our work from last year and make the experience more beautiful, more engaging and more interactive.”

The Amuseum Naturalis 2017 season opening event is free and open to the public, Tuesday, January 17th from 5pm to 10pm. The museum will be open for the season Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4pm to 8pm, and it is always free. Amuseum Naturalis is made possible by the generous support of Delta Petroleum and over a dozen businesses and individual donors who have become Friends of the Amuseum. For more information, visit amuseumnaturalis.com.

Caribbean Curiosities: The Tree of Life

It is easy to love the mango tree for its sweet, juicy fruit or the flamboyant for its showy crown of flowers. Both come from far away, yet have become a part of Caribbean landscapes and cultures. The true native jewel of the Caribbean is a tree that is unfamiliar to many, but without equal in many ways.

The gaïac tree is also known as the lignum vitae, guaiacum or palo santo. It is native to the Caribbean, it is endangered and it has the hardest wood in the world. It is thought of as a small tree, but that’s not really true and it was used as a cure for many diseases, although it probably didn’t work. At one time it was one of the most important trees in the world, and it has always been one of the most beautiful.

Gaïac branches form intricate shapes.

As a native species, the gaïac evolved to live in the Caribbean. It grows slowly, but can survive in dry and inhospitable environments. They can live near salty coasts, rooted in limestone with just the slightest hint of soil. Their wood is incredibly hard, making the tree sturdy against storms and high winds.

The hardest wood in the world was also very valuable. Gaïac trees were cut down everywhere they could be found, and fashioned into a great many different objects. Mortars and pestles use to pound arrowroot were made from gaïac, as were billiard balls, police truncheons and clock gears. It was also favored for variety of ship parts, like deadeyes and shaft bearings.

In time, metals, plastics and other materials replaced gaïac wood for most uses, but by then much damage had been done to this tree. The thousand-year-old trees reaching nearly 20 meters into the sky are almost entirely gone now. The hundred-year-old trees that have grown up since then lead us to believe that the gaïac is a small species.

It remains incredibly beautiful, with a thick canopy that changes color with the seasons. Deep green leaves stand out during the dry season when the tree is surrounded by browns and yellows. Blue flowers explode into bloom once or twice a year, creating a flurry of activity by bees and butterflies. Tens of thousands of orange fruit can cover a mature tree, bursting open to reveal the seeds in their bright red coating.

The blue flowers of the gaïac.

Today the gaïac is resurgent on St. Martin, planted in yards and along roadsides by those familiar with its charms. In a century or two, perhaps it will reclaim its rightful place on the island and in the imagination of those living here. Learn more about the gaïac at Amuseum Naturalis. Visit the museum for free on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-8pm or get more info at amuseumnaturalis.com.

Caribbean Curiosities is a brand new column in The Daily Herald’s Weekender section. Each week, the column will take a closer look at something from the strange and wonderful world of St. Martin’s nature. Everything featured in Caribbean Curiosities can also be found at Amuseum Naturalis.

Only on St. Martin…

The new Destination magazine is out for St. Martin and it features a couple articles I wrote about local wildlife. This one covers a topic that is especially dear to me: the animals that are found only on this island or only in this region. Grab the actual magazine or check it out below!

Caribbean Curiosities: Monster from the Shallows

They may not look scary—especially the inch-long juveniles in the aquarium at Amuseum Naturalis—but tilapia have a host of characteristics that make them fearsome invaders on an island like St. Martin.

A tiny monster may be disrupting local wetlands.

Tilapia are a group of fish from the warm parts of Africa and the Middle East. They are diverse, with about 100 species, and most live in fresh water. Some species are popular as food. They are caught wild in the lakes and rivers of Africa and farmed around the world to the tune of over a million tons per year.

The things that made them successful in their native range and popular with fish farmers also make them a very dangerous invasive species. In recent years, they have been introduced around the world where they wreak havoc on freshwater ecosystems, eating and competing with native species.

Why are they so dangerous? For starters, they are omnivorous, so they have the potential to disrupt aquatic plants and animals. They even have two sets of jaws. The pharyngeal bones in their throat have teeth and muscles to help tilapia use them as a second set of jaws. With this adaptation, they are able to eat more things and do so more efficiently.

Tilapia grow quickly and reproduce with gusto. They can’t handle cold temperatures or very salty water—something we see in the Great Salt Pond when increased salinity causes large die-offs of tilapia. Otherwise, in tropical areas like St. Martin, they can be all but unstoppable. They are extremely common in the Great Salt Pond and in many waterways and ponds on the island. We don’t know for sure how they impact native species of fish, shrimp and aquatic life, but it’s probably not good.

To their credit, they do eat mosquito larvae and may eat things that other fish avoid. Perhaps they eat the algae that grows too much when human-introduced nutrients overwhelm ponds. Unfortunately, the cost to the local ecosystem is probably higher than the benefits.

At Amuseum Naturalis in Grand Case, a surprisingly fearsome gang of inch-long tilapia prowl the aquarium eating the roots of the water hyacinth, algae growing on the backs of snails and any guppies small enough to fit in their mouths. They are the first to devour tiny pellets of fish food, and their appetite seems insatiable. It’s easy to see why they are considered one of the most dangerous invasive species on earth.

Tilapia are part of the Gut Life exhibit at Amuseum Naturalis. Visit the museum for free on Tuesdays and Thursdays from 4-8pm or get more info at http://amuseumnaturalis.com

Caribbean Curiosities is a brand new column in The Daily Herald’s Weekender section. Each week, the column will take a closer look at something from the strange and wonderful world of St. Martin’s nature. Everything featured in Caribbean Curiosities can also be found at Amuseum Naturalis.

Featured Friend: Roland Richardson Gallery Museum

Meet the Friends of the Amuseum, companies and individuals who have donated to help us upgrade and relaunch our free natural history museum, Amuseum Naturalis.

Sir Roland Richardson is internationally renowned, and has been called “Father of Caribbean Impressionism.” He paints en plein air, working in the field, always from a living subject. In addition to its artistic merit, Richardson’s work is a vibrant representation of St. Martin itself: 40 years of places, things and people. Visit the gallery on Thursdays to see the artist at work, painting the portrait of his island one canvas at a time.

Become a Friend of the Amuseum! Do it online or email info@lesfruitsdemer.org. Today we’re working to raise funds to finish our outdoor plants and insects display so people can learn something at the museum even when we’re not open.

Featured Friend: Lagoonies Bistro and Bar

Meet the Friends of the Amuseum, companies and individuals who have donated to help us upgrade and relaunch our free natural history museum, Amuseum Naturalis.

Enjoy crazy good food, drinks, live music and more on the lagoon in Cole Bay at Lagoonies Bistro and Bar. Lagoonies are also long-time supporters of Amuseum Naturalis and Les Fruits de Mer. Like them on Facebook for daily lunch specials, upcoming live music and other events.

Become a Friend of the Amuseum! Do it online or email info@lesfruitsdemer.org. Today we’re working to raise funds to print outdoor signage so people can learn something at the museum even when we’re not open.