Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Don’t feel blue about these iguanas

Igor, an adult male blue iguana, weighs about 9 pounds, making him on the smaller side of his species. (Roberto E. Rosales/)

Copyright © 2022

Igor sits across a rock, soaking up a beam of sunlight streaming through a skylight above his enclosure at the ABQ BioPark Zoo — the scales covering his clumsy body taking on an iridescent bluish hue.

He is one of three blue iguanas at the zoo and part of an endangered species of lizard that is native to the island of Grand Cayman in the Caribbean and was nearly driven to extinction.

Igor’s zoo habitat is intended to mimic his natural surroundings. “We have overhead misters in here to provide humidity and keep it more like their natural environment,” explains Phil Mayhew, one of four reptile keepers at the zoo and Igor’s main caregiver. He recently returned from a trip to the Cayman Islands, where he learned more about the natural environment of these ancient-looking creatures.

The habitat contains thick foliage with some rocky, sunlit, open spaces for basking in the sun, loosely packed soil and places to hide. Also featured is a flowing freshwater stream, which can be part of their natural environment, depending on where they are found on Grand Cayman, he says.

The zoo’s reptile staff is responsible for 350 individual animals, including aquatic and terrestrial turtles, giant tortoises, alligators, a West African slender-snouted crocodile, a komodo dragon “and a host of venomous and nonvenomous snakes,” says Mayhew, 29.

ABQ BioPark Zoo reptile keeper Phil Mayhew works with the zoo’s three blue iguanas, which are native to Grand Cayman Island and are an endangered species. (Roberto E. Rosales/)

At Grand Cayman, Mayhew got to see three wilderness reserves that the iguanas inhabit, and he spent time working with the Blue Iguana Conservation program, assisting the staff in processing hatchlings, helping with medical exams, tagging and microchipping the reptiles, and learning more about their care, diet and breeding.

“The blue iguana was one of the most endangered species on the planet,” he says. “They had a population survey done in the early 2000s that showed their wild populations were only around 25 individuals, so they started a breeding and release program down on the island and they have since released over 1,000 iguanas. When I was down there, I got to release the 1,018th blue iguana back into the wild.”

The biggest threats to the island’s blue iguanas have been predation from feral cats and competition for food and habitat from non-native green iguanas, which “were likely introduced from the pet trade.” The breeding facility on the island is now fenced off, and there is a government sponsored invasive species plan to trap feral cats and to cull the numbers of green iguanas, Mayhew says.

“Blue iguanas are mainly herbivores, but they have been known to eat insects and small rodents and birds. They’re not very aquatic, but they can swim if they have to. They’re primarily terrestrial and spend most of their time in vegetative brush.”

Their articulated toes make them efficient diggers and tree climbers, which is especially useful for young members who tend to be a bit more arboreal, he says.

In the wild, blue iguana can live 30-40 years, well into their 50s in captivity. The record for the oldest captive one is 69 years, Mayhew says.

Except for the April through June breeding season, blue iguanas are mostly solitary. They are also diurnal — active during the day and sleeping at night, where their favorite snoozing spots are rock crevices, tree cavities or holes that they dig.

Among the largest species of lizard in the Western Hemisphere, a mature male blue iguana can measure 5 feet long from tip of the nose to end of the tail and weigh 20-25 pounds. Females are somewhat smaller.

Nine-year-old Igor is a bit on the smaller side, tipping the scale at about 9 pounds. He was paired with 12-year-old Lola, who recently laid a clutch of 14 eggs but broke three of them in the nest. The other 11 have been placed in an incubator, “but we don’t know yet if there are embryos growing inside of them,” Mayhew said. “There is a chance that these eggs could be infertile.”

In the meantime, Lola, who was “being very territorial,” was moved out of the habitat to her own space. A third blue iguana, Frankenstien, 12, is also part of the zoo’s collection. The three blue iguanas were born in captivity at zoos in the United States, but under a licensing agreement they remain the property of the government of the Cayman Islands, Mayhew says.

A native of Albuquerque, Mayhew graduated with a degree in biology from the University of New Mexico and began working at the BioPark Zoo in 2018 and moved to the reptile department a year later. His fascination with reptiles, however, far precedes that.

“I grew up watching Jurassic Park. That’s probably a misrepresentation of what dinosaurs really looked like, but that sparked my interest,” he says. “I feel like reptiles are a very underrepresented taxonomic group. They don’t get a whole lot of credit and they’re amazing animals that are capable of things that a lot of mammal species would never be able to do.”

As an example, Mayhew points to the New Mexico whiptail, the common lizard darting around backyards or seen in the mouths of roadrunners.

“They’re all female,” he says. “There’s no males in that population. They breed through a process called parthenogenesis, so it’s basically a virgin birth — the mother clones herself.”

One of the biggest misconceptions about reptiles, including the blue iguana, is that they are “stupid animals,” when in reality they are quite intelligent, Mayhew says. “When I do training with these guys, they pick up on cues quickly. They’ve been on this planet for a very long time for a reason — they’re very good at surviving.”

The negative attitude that people have about reptiles may stem from the impression that “they’re not cute and cuddly,” Mayhew offers. “Of course, I have a very different view of that.”

Blue iguanas get their name from the shades of blue-green and blue-gray on their fine scales and the spike-like fins across the ridge of their backs. (Roberto E. Rosales/)

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