Virgin Islands National Park: Thoughts on the Plants and Animals

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Brown Pelicans at Brown Bay. Sage Mountain on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands is behind them.

It is estimated that ninety percent of St. John was clear-cut during the plantation era. But researchers have also learned that because of the uncertain plantation economy on St. John, wherein an estate might lie fallow and abandoned for several generations, only a fraction of the island was clear-cut at any one time. Regardless, there is very little virgin forest in Virgin Islands National Park. Many of the oldest and largest trees date from the plantation era, but these were left standing to provide shade or property demarkation and therefore don’t necessarily follow natural distribution patterns on the landscape. (It is difficult to date the age of trees in the tropics because there are no annual growth rings.)

Virgin Islands National Park is teeming with plant and animal life, both on land and in the sea. But not all of these species are native to the island, or even the Caribbean. California Fan Palms and Eucalyptus, among the trees, are invasive species. The mongoose population is non-native and hugely harmful to the island’s birds. As are the feral cats, pigs, goats, and donkeys. Even the green iguana was likely brought to St. John from South America by the earliest immigrants to the islands some 2,500 years ago. Does that make it native or non-native?

In doing restoration work on the island’s ecosystems, what becomes the demarkation line between native and non-native? It’s a complicated question. There are plant species that are endemic to St. John that exist nowhere else on earth. Were invasives to go unmanaged, these native species would very possibly become extinct.

There is currently huge concern over the invasion of red lionfish into Virgin Islands waters. The lionfish is native to the Indian and Pacific oceans. It was accidentally introduced into the waters off Florida in the 1980s, and it has recently rapidly expanded its range, reaching the Virgin Islands. It is extremely venomous (it’s sting can kill a human), and it is a voracious predator that can wipe out native fish populations. The National Park Service’s Lionfish Response Plan is available here (pdf).

The only certainty is that Virgin Islands National Park’s ecosystem is gorgeous, living, and teeming. Further invasives, climate change, and increased visitation are certain to create challenges in the decades ahead. Current federal budget battles (not to mention sequestration) are not helping the situation of park management. With adequate funding for everything from species management to historic site restoration and documentation, this unique park that balances so beautifully recreation, scenery, wildlife, and history, could be one of the unqualified superstars of the National Park System.

The National Park Conservation Association issued an assessment of Virgin Islands National Park in March 2008 as part of its Center for the State of the Parks project. The assessment, which delves into greater detail on many of these topics, is available for free download here.

After we returned from Virgin Islands National Park, I compiled a list of the species that we encountered while we were there, only including those that we are reasonably certain of the identification (for instance, I haven’t included terns because I have no idea which species we saw).

Here’s the list:

BIRDS

Bananaquit (Concordia, Concordia Nature Trail, Annaberg)
Black-Bellied Plover (Salt Pond)
Brown Pelican (Brown Bay, Salt Pond Bay)
Caribbean Martin (Cruz Bay)
Gray Kingbird (Ram Head, Petroglyph Trail, Annaberg)
Great Egret (Concordia Nature Trail)
Greater Antillean Bullfinch (Concordia)
Greater Antillean Grackle (Concordia Nature Trail)
Green-Throated Carib Hummingbird (Concordia, Salt Pond Bay, Cruz Bay, Ram Head)
Little Blue Heron (Brown Bay)
Magnificent Frigatebird (Red Hook)
Mourning Dove (Concordia, Concordia Nature Trail)
Pearly-Eyed Thrasher (Concordia, Ram Head)
White-Cheeked Pintail (Concordia Nature Trail)
Wilson’s Plover (Salt Pond)

MAMMALS

Bat (unable to ID species) (Concordia, Reef Bay Estate House)
Cat (bush) (Concordia, Coral Bay, Cruz Bay)
Donkey (feral) (Coral Bay)
Goat (feral) (Coral Bay)
Mongoose (Salt Pond Bay, Petroglyph Trail)
White-Tailed Deer (Lameshur Bay Trail, Reef Bay Trail, Cinnamon Bay Loop Trail)

FISH

Bar Jack (Brown Bay)
Barracuda (Cruz Bay)
Beaugregory (Brown Bay, Salt Pond Bay)
Bicolor Parrotfish (Brown Bay)
Blue Tang (Brown Bay)
French Grunt (Brown Bay)
Goatfish (Brown Bay)
Sand Diver (Salt Pond Bay)
Southern Stingray (Salt Pond Bay)
Spotfin Butterflyfish (Brown Bay)
Trumpetfish (Brown Bay)

INVERTEBRATES/ARTHROPODS

Conch (Brown Bay)
Hermit Crab (Concordia, Concordia Nature Trail, Ram Head)
Jellyfish (Brown Bay, Maho Bay)
Long-Spined Sea Urchin (Brown Bay, Salt Pond Bay)
Pin Cushion Sea Star (Brown Bay)
Sea Snail (Salt Pond Bay)
Short-Spined Sea Urchin (Brown Bay, Salt Pond Bay)

REPTILES

Grass Anole (Concordia, Concordia Nature Trail, Cinnamon Bay Loop Trail, Petroglyph Trail, Cruz Bay)
Green Iguana (Concordia, Maho Bay)
Green Sea Turtle (Salt Pond Bay, Maho Bay)

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