St. John USVI Fauna
Animals of the Virgin Islands
On this page you will find images and descriptions of some of the animals you may encounter on your travels around St. John and the Virgin islands
The American Kestral, also known as a sparrow hawk or killy killy is a relatively small raptor whose habitat ranges from as far north as Alaska south to the islands of the Caribbean. They grow to about 12 inches in length and feed on lizards, insects, small birds and rodents.
The bananaquit, also called yellow bird, bananabird and sugar bird, is a commonly seen St. John resident. They suck the nectar from flowers with their curved beaks and will also eat fruit and small insects.
The local Virgin Islands name,” sugar bird,” comes from the fact that they are easily attracted by setting out bowls of sugar.
Jamaican Red-Tailed Hawk
Although native to Jamaica the Jamaican Red-Tailed Hawk can be found on St. John and throughout North America.
The females tend to be larger than the males and measure between
20 and 25 inches in length with a wingspan of up to 54 inches.
Males measure between 18 and 23 inches in length with a wingspan
up to 45 inches. Females weigh between 2 and 3½ pounds,
males between 1½ and 2½ pounds.
Red-tailed hawks are said to be capable of flying at speed of
more than 60 mph. Their diet consists mostly of small mammals.
They live on insects and make their roughly constructed nests out of twigs. The clutch consists of 2 to 3 pale green-blue eggs.
A wonderful bird is the pelican,
Its bill can hold more than
its belly can.
It can take in its beak,
Enough food for a week.
But I really don’t know
how the hell-he-can.
The brown pelican is one of the most common and easily recognizable birds found on St. John. Like the human population of the island some brown pelicans are native Virgin Islanders and permanent residents, while others are temporary residents who come to St. John from North America for the winter season.
The brown pelican is a large bird, weighing as much as ten pounds
and having a wingspan of up to eight feet. A decent-sized pelican
can consume about four pounds of fish a day.
Brown pelicans are excellent fishermen. This is extremely fortunate
for them, because if they had to buy their fish at today’s prices
they’d need to have good jobs and make lots of money, not an
easy trick on St. John, especially for a pelican.
Although pelicans are often perceived as ungainly or clumsy
when seen on land, they are extremely graceful in the air. They
maneuver with ease and can reach airspeeds of over 35 mph, and
with a good tailwind their ground speed can be over 60 mph.
Pelicans have excellent eyesight and can spot fish from heights
of over seventy feet. When suitable prey is selected, the pelican
tucks in its head and wings and makes a steep and rapid dive
into the sea. With its great bill acting like a fisherman’s net,
the brown pelican is usually successful in scooping up a large
mouthful of unsuspecting fish that just moments before were swimming peacefully beneath the waves, completely oblivious to the danger from above.
The captured fish are stored temporarily in the pouch that hangs
from the pelican’s long bill. In addition to the fish, the pelican
may have as much as three gallons of water in its pouch. As three
gallons of water weighs 24 pounds, the pelican obviously needs
to lighten up his load before taking to the air once again. To
accomplish this task without allowing any fish to escape, the
pelican slowly squeezes the water out of its pouch.
During this time the pelican reverts to its awkward and clumsy
state. Laughing Gulls, a species that frequents the Virgin Islands
in the summer, may take advantage of this temporary vulnerability
by circling just above the pelican or by landing on its head
or bill and perhaps giving the pelican some sharp pecks in the
hope of stealing a fish or two.
Once the water is squeezed out of the pouch, the pelican is
able to swallow. Since the pelican’s pouch can hold three times
more fish than its stomach, only a portion of the catch can be
eaten at one time. The surplus fish is stored in the pelican’s
esophagus, leaving the pouch empty and the pelican ready for
Newborn baby pelicans dine on what they must regard as a delicious
diet of regurgitated fish, which their parents bring to the nest.
When the chicks are older, but have not yet perfected their own
fishing skills, the parent pelicans let the youngsters eat fish
from their pouches.
Outside of man, pelicans have few natural enemies. Occasionally
a hungry shark happens to be in the vicinity when a pelican makes
its dive into the sea, but this happens only rarely.
Man, however, has been a serious threat to the brown pelican.
Around the turn of the twentieth century, pelicans were extensively
hunted for their feathers, which were used to adorn women’s clothing, especially hats. Pelicans were also hunted for food with nesting sites being invaded by people gathering eggs and capturing newly hatched chicks too young to fly to safety. This practice was
common in the Virgin Islands during subsistence days, but has
since ceased now that Virgin Islanders no longer have to survive
on subsistence activities as well as the fact that the brown
pelican has been protected under both American and British Virgin
The most severe threat to pelicans came from the use of DDT
as a pesticide in the 1940s. Pelicans that ate fish contaminated
with this poison began to lay eggs with shells so thin that they
broke before the baby chicks were hatched. The situation became
so serious that by the 1970’s the brown pelican was in danger
of extinction. A sad example of this fact was the disappearance
of the Brown Pelican from the state of Louisiana where pelicans
were once so plentiful that they were honored as the official
In 1972 the use of DDT was banned in the United States. Pelicans
in the Virgin Islands, however, were spared the devastation of
DDT poisoning, as this pesticide was never widely used here.
The brown pelican achieved official government protected under
the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and today, with the benefit
of governmental protection and the more intelligent use of pesticides, the brown pelican population is again on the rise throughout the range of its habitat.
In the spring laughing gulls return to St. John
from the coast of Venezuela where they habitually spend
their winter vacations. While in the Virgin Islands, these
bold and boisterous sea birds visit the less frequented
offshore cays where they mate and lay their eggs. In addition
to their breeding activities, the laughing gulls spend
their time gathering food to eat, which can include fish
and other seafood as well as just about anything that we
humans decide to throw their way.
One method the laughing gull has of getting food is to steal
fish from another seabird that inhabits the region, the brown
pelican. The laughing gull accomplishes this larceny by waiting
for the brown pelican to make a successful dive.
When the pelican has a bill full of fish and water,
it transfers the fish to the pouch that hangs below its bill.
The pelican cannot fly away or swallow the fish until the water
is drained from the pouch. Laughing gulls either circle closely
above the pelican or land on the pelican’s bill or head. The
gull may even give the pelican a sharp peck or two. If the pelican
pays too much attention to the antics of the laughing gull and
not enough attention to the delicate draining and swallowing
process, the pelican may lose some of the trapped fish. The gull
then swoops down and scoops up the pelican’s hard-earned catch,
flying away at top speed from the scene of the crime and makes
short work of his ill-gotten gains.
There is a West Indian folk tale that deals with this phenomenon. It was told to me recently by Ranger Laurel Brannick of the Virgin Island National Park Service. The tale goes like this:
Once upon a time the Pelican had a large body and
a small bill, while the Seagull had a small body and a large
Neither the Pelican, nor the Seagull was happy
with this state of affairs. The pelican could not catch enough
fish with its small beak to satisfy the needs of such a large
creature as himself, and the big bulky bill on the diminutive
Seagull only interfered with its ability to fly.
The two seabirds decided to remedy the situation
by trading bills, the Gull getting the small bill for its smaller
body and the Pelican getting the large bill, more suitable for
its large body. The Seagull, realizing that the Pelican had more
to gain from the trade, convinced the Pelican promise to share
his presumably increased catch. The Pelican agreed to give up
half of its catch upon the demand of the Seagull.
Immediately after the trade the Pelican tried out
his new bill. He dove into the water and came up with a bill
full of tasty fish. It was just as the Pelican thought. He had
become the best fisher of all the sea birds.
The Pelican let the water slowly drain out of its
beak. He tilted back his head to swallow some of the savory fresh
fish, and, just then, he felt a stabbing pain on the top of his
head. It was the Seagull who had landed on the Pelican’s back
and was giving him a series of sharp pecks on the top of his
head with his small, but pointy beak.
The Seagull did this to remind the Pelican of the
agreement they had made. To make sure the Pelican understood,
the gull cried shrilly into the Pelican’s ear, “Half! Half!
Half”, and to this day the Seagull that visits the Virgin
Islands, the one now called the Laughing Gull, makes the same
distinctive sound, “Half, Half, Half.”
At 14 – 16 inches in length and wine colored in tone, the Scaly-Necked Pigeon is much larger and darker than ordinary doves. On St. John they inhabit the wooded hillsides.
The Great Black-backed Gull, Larus marinus, breeds
on the coasts of Euope and America as wll as in the Caribbean.
It’s a very large gull that takes about four to five years
to mature. The call is a deep “laughing” cry. They
are omnivores that scavange, hunt and often steal the catch
of other seabirds.
Two species of snakes can be found on St. John, the blind snake and the garden snake; both are harmless.
The blind snake (Ramphotyphlops braminus) lives underground. Unless you look really close, you could easily mistake it for a worm. This species can be found, not only on St. John, but also just about all over the world. They are blind, notwithstanding their two vestigial eyes. Another interesting factoid about the blind snake is that it is unisexual. No males have ever been found. Go figure.
The garden snake is longer than the blind snake, about a foot long. I have only seen one once in all the time I’ve been on St. John, but it disappeared into the bush before I could focus my camera, so the above image belongs to Photo: dpnr.gov.vi
Since then flamingos have been spotted on Necker Island and Tortola and the now they’re on St. John. The following photos were taken on Trunk Bay 8/21/2016
Native Tree Frogs
Sounds of the night
Each night as the sun sets an unseen orchestra begins its concert. The music can be heard all over the island, but it is particularly evident in less developed areas.
Let us introduce the musicians:
Antillean tree frog – Continuous “churee – churee”
Whistling frog – High-pitched prolonged whistle often followed by a clicking sound
Coqui – “Ko – KEY” followed by a long pause “Ko – KEY”
White Lipped Frog – “queeee – queeeee – queeee”
Coqui – “Ko – KEY” followed by a long pause “Ko – KEY”
White Lipped Frog – “queeee – queeeee – queeee”
Cuban Tree Frog
Native to Cuba and the Bahamas, the Cuban Tree Frog is considered an invasive species that can now be found in Puerto Rico, the US and British Virgin Islands, on several other Caribbean islands and on the US mainland.
The Cuban tree frog is easily distinguishable from other frogs on St. John due to its large size, from three to four inches long and by its prominent toe pads.
The Cuban tree frogs needs water in which to breed and their tadpoles can often be found in cisterns, pools in guts and other places where water might accumulate. They have a big appetite and like to eat all kinds of insects, lizards and other frogs as well as just about anything else that they can get into their mouths.
Unlike the melodious sounds made by the small native Virgin Island tree frogs, the Cuban tree frog makes a shrill, loud, annoying sound like door hinges, badly in need of oiling. To make matters worse, the mucus on their skin is said to be toxic causing skin irritations if touched. (Although I have touched them and nothing happened.)
Cuban Tree Frog Tadpoles
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The white-tailed deer is the most common deer in North America. It
is also found in southern Canada, Central America and has been
introduced in parts of Europe, South Island, New Zealand, and
the Virgin Islands.
The Wildlife Restoration Act of 1937 provided funding for the
stocking of white-tailed deer on St. John and St. Thomas.
In the Virgin Islands, where the sheep don’t have fluffy wool, it’s not so easy to tell the difference between sheep and goats. Here’s the key; sheep tails go down, goat tails go up.
After fighting a long and losing battle to keep donkeys off the resort property, Caneel Bay has recently chosen to co-exist with their four-legged, non-paying guests.
Periodically the leaves of the frangipani tree are eaten by beautiful, large, black and yellow caterpillars with red heads called frangipani caterpillars (Pseudosphinx tetrio).
After The caterpillars eat up all the leaves they begin a metamorphosis and eventually become a big dark moth called the sphinx moth.
The tree survives and grows new leaves.
The name “iguana” comes from the Taino language. They live in trees and can grow to be as much as six feet long. They have spines on their backs and tails that they use for defense by whipping their tails. Their tails will break off if grabbed allowing the iguana to escape, whereupon it will grow a new tail.
Their dewlaps, which hang from their lower jaws are used to regulate body temperature and to attract iguanas of the opposite sex. Iguanas eat plants utilizing their sharp teeth to shred leaves
and plant matter. They seem to especially love hibiscus flowers.
Iguanas lay their eggs in holes that they dig.
Video of an iguana digging a nest
The answer is the hermit crab, which can indeed be found just
about anywhere on St. John walking about, always carrying its
home along with it.
The hermit crab also known locally as soldier crab is scientifically
named Coenobita clypeatus. Its home is usually a shell commandeered from the West Indian top snail, better known as the whelk, although shells of other mollusks and even small bottles will do in a pinch. The hermit crab firmly attaches itself to its stolen shell
by means of two hooks located on its soft abdomen. It will not let go even if you forcibly try to pull it out. It will hold tight to the death, letting its body be torn apart.
The hermit crab, like other members of the crab family, is a
decapod, meaning ten footed. Two of its “feet”, however,
are actually claws, one of which is usually about three times
larger than the other. The claws are used for battle, for defense,
and to procure food. The hermit crab’s eyes are located at the
ends of two short eyestalks. The hermit crab can stick most of
its body out of its shell to walk around or it can withdraw totally
inside using its large claw as a door, which closes off the opening.
The only time a hermit crab leaves its protective shell is when
it outgrows it. The crab then seeks a new and larger one. Because
it is very vulnerable outside its shell, the hermit crab makes
sure that its new home is absolutely suitable before relocating.
It closely examines and inspects its new prospective residence
with its legs and feelers before making the dangerous exit
from one shell and entrance to the next and the exchange is
done very quickly once the decision is made. When shell pickings
are scarce, hermit crabs can use any convenient item as a home.
John Gibney reports that in his youth he saw hundreds of hermit
crabs walking around in old baby food jars that his father
had been saving.
Competition for new shells is keen and hermit crabs will often
steal shells from one another. They will engage in fierce battles,
fought to the death, for the possession of an appropriate shell.
The loser of the engagement not only loses its life but will
be eaten by the victor. It is because of this tendency towards
fighting one another that the hermit crab is alternately named “soldier crab”.
The Hermit crab is predominantly a land creature, but it still
has close ties to water and the sea. In fact it can never be
entirely away from water, and solves this problem by always carrying a supply of water in its shell. Moreover, the hermit crab returns to the sea in order to reproduce. At certain times of the year
hundreds of these creatures scramble and tumble down the mountainsides and make their way to the seashore where the females crawl to the water’s edge. They then cast their fertilized eggs in the sea where the newly born hermit crabs spend their next few months before returning to land.
Hermit crabs are not eaten by human beings, but they do provide
people with other benefits. Hermit crabs will eat almost anything.
The more disgusting, the better they like it. Choice items are
discarded organic material from garbage, compost pile goodies,
and various varieties of feces. Thus hermit crabs become an effective army of walking garbage recyclers. In addition, local fisherman often use hermit crabs for bait, either by taking them out of their shells and putting them on a hook, or by crushing them
up with sand and then using the mixture for chum to attract fish
to an area.
Hermit crabs have another use, although not yet exploited in
St. John; they are sold on the United States mainland and in
Europe as pets. They are sold, however, with the following warning: “Temperament
– Usually good tempered but can pinch hard when handled.”
Video of Hermit Crabs Mating
Hunting land crabs for food is a part of St. John culture and probably
has been so since the first human beings came here about 3,000
years ago. The primary use of the land crab is to provide the
essential ingredient for the tasty West Indian dish known simply
as crab and rice.
Land crabs, called pond crabs by British Virgin Islanders and jueyes by people from Puerto Rico and Santo Domingo, are the grayish-colored crabs that live in the network of holes found in low-lying areas near mangrove swamps, salt ponds, wetlands and marshes. They are rather large crabs, growing to about four or five inches in diameter not including their formidable claws. During the day you may see them standing just outside a hole into which they will quickly descend as soon as they notice your approach.
Land crabs live inside these holes or burrows, which go down
on an angle and lead to a larger living area, where the crab
stores food for winter dry spell. Parts of the burrow go down
to the water table and there will ultimately be one or more alternate
openings to the surface. The crabs only venture away from their
holes at night or when it’s raining in order to search for food.
They eat just about anything they can find including their own
young, dead things, garbage and worse. They are not effective
predators, however, and as such their diet is usually limited
to plants they find near their burrows.
An essential ingredient for the dish “crab and rice” is the crab. They cannot be bought at any store; so you first have to catch some crabs. Crab hunting is usually a group activity that takes place in the spring and summer on a waning moon, a time Virgin Islanders call dark night. This is when the land crab is most likely to be found out of its hole. Crabs are very skittish and have excellent senses of hearing and sight, so normally it is extremely difficult to sneak up on them and catch them. If you shine a bright light on them at night, however, they tend to stop in their tracks, blinded by the glare.
Catching crabs at night is locally called “torching,” a
name, which comes from the days before flashlights were commonly
available and a torch was used instead. Torches were made out
of an oily wood, aptly named torchwood or in later years would
be made out of a piece of cut up truck or automobile tire tied
to a stick.
Torching requires at least one of each of the following, a flashlight,
a forked stick and a sack. Usually one person wields the light,
another catches the crab and a third holds the sack. The beam
of light from the flashlight serves to blind the crab and momentarily
stops it from running away. The stick is useful to control the
movements of the crab and to block up its hole if it tries to
get back in. The goal is to snatch up the crab and put it in
the sack. This is done with a quick sweep of the hand grabbing
it firmly from the back and tilting it forward to prevent being
pinched by the claws. Less confident crab hunters may wear a
heavy glove as a semi-protection against this possible pinching,
which can be quite painful.
Crabs can also be caught during the day. On method is to lay
a noose over the entrance to the crab hole and secure it to a
stick pounded into the ground. The crab can exit its hole with
no problem, but when it returns it often gets snagged in the
noose. Another procedure takes advantage of the fact that the
burrow goes down on an angle. First you look down the crab hole
and if you see the crab near the entrance you pound a pointed
stick into the hole in back of the crab. This prevents him from
going deeper in. Then you gradually pry the stick upward forcing
the crab to exit his hole and into your waiting sack. There are
many other methods including a hook with bait technique and the
direct “stick your hand in the hole and grab the crab method.” This
latter approach can, however, result in a painful experience
if not done properly.
Land crabs should always be purged before cooking them. The
most important reason is that because they live in habitats where
manchaneel trees are also found, and because they are immune
to the manchaneel poison, they may have yet undigested manchaneel leaves in their system. Purging also improves the crab’s flavor as it rids the crab of anything disgusting it may have eaten.
To purge the crab you must put it in a cage with plenty of ventilation
and access to food and water. Feed the crabs such things as cornmeal, table scraps, coconut meat, and crab bush. Keep the cage clean and periodically wet the crabs with water.
Recipes for Crabs and Rice
Courtesy of Jackie Clendennon
1) Obtain four land crabs.
2) Purge the crabs.
3) Obtain the following ingredients: rice, seasoning
(salt, pepper, garlic powder, or whatever else strikes
your fancy), cooking oil, vegetables (onion, green
and red peppers, parsley, thyme, garlic), sauce (tomato
paste, catsup, pepper sauce and/or whatever else you
4) Cut open the crab’s abdomen and remove the guts.
Then using a toothbrush or wire brush, thoroughly clean
all parts of the crab. Lightly crack the crab’s shell
around the claws and abdomen. Place seasoning mixture
over the crab and within the cracked shell. Let the
crab stand for about a half an hour to let the seasoning
soak into the crabmeat.
5) The best way to cook a crab is in a cast iron kettle.
Add a few tablespoons of cooking oil and sauté the
crab for a few minutes. Next, thoroughly chop up the
vegetables and add them to the cooking crab. Continue
to sauté the mixture for another few minutes.
Add a can of tomato paste, a small amount of catsup
and pepper sauce, according to taste. Allow this to
cook another few minutes. Add sufficient water and
salt to cook three cups of rice and bring to a boil.
Add the rice and when the water is absorbed, the crabs
and rice will be ready.
Recipe for Crabs and Rice
By Enid Hendricks of Enid’s Kitchen
· 6 large land crabs (purged)
· 4 cups rice (uncooked)
· 1 cup Mrs. Filbert’s margarine
· 2 fresh tomatoes (diced)
· 1 cup tomato paste
· 1/4 cup A-1 sauce
· 1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce
· 2 tablespoons Kitchen Bouquet
· 2 tablespoons Adobo seasoning
· 2 large green peppers
· 2 large red peppers
· 3 stalks celery
· Parsley, thyme, garlic, capers, whole cloves
· 1 large hot pepper
(Dice all vegetables and seasonings.)
Put crabs in a large tub. Pour a large pot of boiling
water on them to kill them and let stand 10-15 minutes.
Take off the back of the crab. Clean crabs and remove
guts and waste using a vegetable brush and a mixture
of cool water, vinegar and lime.
In a large cast iron kettle add 1/2 cup vegetable oil,
crabs and 1/2 of the above seasonings. Sauté on
medium heat for a few minutes. Add 8 cups water and bring
to a boil. Add the rest of the seasonings and the rest
of the ingredients. Boil for a few more minutes and then
reduce heat to low. Cover kettle tightly and cool until
moisture is absorbed.
(Serves 8-10 persons)
Enemies of the Land Crab
Although the land crab has a fierce appearance and sharp claws,
this is not enough to frighten away all of its enemies.
The land crab’s worst foe is the human being. Over the millennia
people have devised and practiced many effective methods for
capturing these tasty creatures. Even more threatening to the
land crabs is the destruction of their habitats caused by land
development. On many of the larger and more populated islands,
land crab populations have declined dangerously. On St. John,
however, where there are not so many humans and development is
limited, land crabs are still abundant. Notwithstanding, they
no longer enjoy the great proliferation that they did in the
Moreover, with their precipitous decline on St. Thomas and Puerto
Rico, there is now a hefty price on their heads. St. Thomians
and Puerto Ricans have been known to pay as much as five dollars
a piece for these increasingly hard to find delicacies. Concern
over these stresses on this natural resource, has led the Virgin
Islands National Park to prohibit crab hunting in park territory,
and crab hunters now must confine this activity to lands that
are not under park jurisdiction.
Human beings, however, are not the only enemy faced by the land
crab. There is a bird on St. John that hunts land crabs by night.
The local name for this bird is “crab bird,” but it
is more properly known as the yellow-crowned-night-heron. The
crab bird actually sticks its formidable beak into the crab hole
and pulls the crab out. According to musician and naturalist
Mano Boyd, the crab bird is able to kill its prey while the crab
is still in its hole. This way they avoid the crab’s viscous
claws, which become considerably more dangerous outside the confines of the narrow burrow. Also, according to Mr. Boyd, the crab bird makes an ungodly racket as it attempts to break open the crab
shell by pecking at it and by wildly swinging the crab against
sticks and stones.
Land crabs also face another sneaky and deadly predator, the
sly mongoose. The mongoose will try and sneak up on the land
crab and, utilizing its great speed, will attack before the crab
is aware of the mongoose’s presence. Wilmoth King, however, tells
a story of how a land crab once turned the tables on a mongoose.
As a youth King lived in Pine Peace and would go to the beach
at Great Cruz Bay, which in those pre-Westin days, was a mangrove
swamp with one small, but very sandy, beach area.
One day, while walking down the dirt road that led to the beach,
King heard a commotion in the mangroves off to the side of the
road. Being young and curious, he went into the mangroves to
About ten yards into the swamp, King came upon a life and death
drama, a battle between a mongoose and a crab. The mongoose was
stalking the crab, waiting for a time when the crab was not looking
so that the mongoose could attack and perhaps bite off a tasty
claw and then finish off the defenseless creature. The mongoose
finally saw its opportunity. Thinking that the crab was not paying
attention, the mongoose made a lightning fast charge.
The crab, however, was fully aware of the mongoose and its evil
intentions. With a well-timed sweep of the larger of its two
claws, the crab grabbed the mongoose by the neck. The hunter
had become the prey. The mongoose squirmed and twisted, and squealedand wailed, but could neither bite the crab nor get away. Meanwhile, still holding firmly to the mongoose’s neck, the crab would cut and snip at the mongoose with its other claw at every chance that it got. Within a few minutes there was one less mongoose on the island, and the crab scurried back into the safety of
The mongoose looks like a stretched-out
squirrel that is often seen speeding about the island.
The history of the mongoose in St. John demonstrates
the usual result of man’s interference in the natural order of
things. The Danes brought mice and rats to these islands in the
ships coming from Europe and Africa. The mice and rats ate or
spoiled large quantities of the valuable sugar which the planters
had been so painstakingly cultivating.
The mongoose was brought here from India to control
the rat population. Unfortunately the rats in the Virgin Islands
are nocturnal and live in trees during the day. They were therefore
able to eat as much sugar as they wanted by night, while the
mongoose were sleeping and were safe, during the day, from the
mongoose, which cannot climb trees.
The mongoose did have a great impact on other species,
though. Mongooses sought out chickens, ground nesting birds and
their eggs as well as turtle, lizard and iguana eggs. The rats
meanwhile were free to eat the planter’s sugar and the eggs of
tree nesting birds.
The mongoose became a nuisance for farmers and
an environmental problem. This was officially recognized at least
as early as 1936. In that year there was only one sign posted
in all of St. John. It was nailed to the palm tree nearest the
town dock in Cruz Bay. It was signed by the Government Secretary
and embossed with the government seal. It announced a bounty,
dead or alive, for mongooses. Fifteen cents for a male and twenty
five cents for a female.
There is an old Virgin Island saying:
Mongoose say: “If I had a cent, I would leave this island”
Chicken say: “If I had a cent, I would lend it to you.”
Many of the domestic pigs, originally brought to St. John by the
first European colonists, have escaped into the bush and reverted
back to their wild state.
Dragonflies can usually be seen around St. John’s fresh water
pools, such as can be found at the Petroglyphs or along the Fish
“A dragonfly is any insect belonging to the order Odonata, the suborder Epiprocta or, in the strict sense, the infraorder Anisoptera.
It is characterized by large multifaceted eyes, two pairs of
strong transparent wings, and an elongated body.
Dragonflies typically eat mosquitoes, midges and other small
insects like flies, bees, and butterflies. They are usually found
around lakes, ponds, streams, and wetlands because their larvae,
known as ‘nymphs’, are aquatic.
Dragonflies do not normally bite or sting humans (though they will bite in order to escape, for example, if grasped by the abdomen); in fact, they are valued as a predator that helps control the populations of harmful insects, such as mosquitoes…”
(From Wikipedia) Read full article
Jack Spaniard wasps build their nests on thin branches, unfortunately usually at face level. They are not particularly
aggressive, but if you disturb their nests they will sting you, sometimes more than once and they sting hard. So if your walking in the bush, be on the lookout.
I was told by a native Virgin Islander, and I witnessed the same, that if you take their nest they will not bother you. He carefully broke off the branch and threw it to the ground. The wasps swarmed around the nest, but didn’t come after us.
A Puerto Rican friend of mine will clap his hands over the nest squashing all the wasps and not get stung. My advise though is, “don’t try this at home, kids.”
Some people seem to react to the venom especially if you continue
working or exerting themselves immediately after the sting so if you do get stung it’s probably a good idea to take it easy for a while.
Usually it just hurts and that’s that. They probably got their name because although the Spaniards had claimed all the “New World” to be theirs, other European nations established colonies on the smaller islands that Spain had ignored. Spanish warships would attack these colonies from time to time, I guess to make some sort of statement.
Golden Orb Spider (Nephila clavipes)
The golden orb spider or golden silk spider is one of the many
spiders in the orb weaver family. The orb weaver makes webs
sometimes reaching from 15-20 feet. The golden orb is the only
spider known to make its webs strong enough to be used for
various kinds of bags and fishnets. Although this spider does
not sting, the females are known to eat their mates after sex.
Catching a tarantula
The scientific name of these creatures is Nasutitermes. On St. John they are commonly called wood lice or wood ants or simply termites. Our Latin friends call them comejen and down island they’re known
as pul bois. (Another species, called subterranean termites,
also inhabits St. John, but their nests are built underground
and you usually don’t see them until they start eating up things
in your house.)
Termites are “social” insects. The survival of the
colony depends on the specialized services of three distinct
castes, workers, soldiers and reproductives, which make up termite
society. Two of these castes, workers and soldiers are readily
observable the year round. The third caste, reproductives, live
deep within the nest, and you usually only get to see them one
time a year after the first big rain in the fall, when they develop
wings and fly away from the nest in their attempt to establish
To observe members of the soldier and worker castes, simply
make a hole in a termite nest with a stick or other sharp object
or brush away a small section of a termite trail. Soldier termites
will rush out and crawl all over the disturbed area. The soldiers
are light brown in color with dark mahogany-colored heads that
end in a pointed proboscis. The workers quickly disappear back
inside the nest or the trail, but will return a few minutes later
to begin repairing the damage. The workers are lighter in color
than the soldiers, have a larger abdomen, and their heads are
more rounded, lacking the protruding proboscis.
The termite nest, or termitarium, is constructed by the worker
termites out of chewed up and partially digested wood, which
they cement together using their own saliva and feces. The termitarium consists of a complex maze of tunnels, passageways, and chambers.
Nasutitermes nests can be quite large, reaching more than seven
feet in length and four feet in width. An extensive tunnel system
leads away from the nest, down the tree trunk, and along and
under the ground. These tunnels, or galleries, can extend outward
as much as a football field’s length away from the home nest.
The covered trails provide the blind and sun-sensitive workers
access to food sources.
The worker termites are sterile females. Not only are they in
charge of the building and repair of nests and trails, but they
also locate, obtain, and provide food and water for all the other
members of the termite colony.
Wood lice, as their name suggests, subsist on wood, usually
obtained from broken branches and dead trees in the forest. They
will also eat lumber, if it has not been treated with an anti-termite
chemical, as well as other wood products such as paper or cardboard.
Only rarely does this species eat the healthy wood of live trees.
Wood is not an easy food to digest, even for a termite. In order
to accomplish this feat termites enlist the services of microorganisms that have the ability to break down the thick cellulose walls of wood cells and convert them into simpler and more digestible substances. In return, the microorganisms are provided with abundant raw materials in the form of chewed up wood as well as a nice safe place to live within the termite’s intestinal tract. This
mutually beneficial relationship is an example of the partnership
that biologists call symbiosis.
Termites are not born with these microorganisms living inside
them. They obtain them by a process called proctodeal feeding,
whereby a young termite feeds on the liquid intestinal contents
taken from the anal aperture of an older termite. The symbiotic
microorganisms are contained in the intestinal material.
Once the chewed wood has had a chance to be broken down chemicallywith the aid of the microorganisms in the worker termite’s intestines, the workers travel throughout the termitarium in order to feed the termite larvae, and the members of the other termite castes. The predigested food is then either regurgitated or excreted and presented to the patiently waiting recipients.
The soldier caste consists of sterile males dedicated to the
security and defense of the colony. Their greatest military expertise
comes in the form of chemical warfare. The soldiers have the
ability to shoot out a sticky and strong-smelling chemical from
the pointy proboscis located at the tip of their heads. This
secretion can trap and poison small termite enemies, such as
ants. Larger predators, such as birds and lizards are deterred
by the irritating qualities of the chemical as well as by its
disagreeable odor and taste. (If you have already experimented
with disturbing tree lice nests or trails, you probably have
experienced the turpentine-like odor of the soldier’s chemical
The role of the termite king and queen, the most monogamous
creatures on Earth.
In late summer the reproductive castes of St. John termites
begin their preparation to leave their nest for the first and
only time in their lives. They develop wings to fly with and
compound eyes to give them the temporary sense of sight, which
they will need in the vast and perilous world outside the confines
of the termitarium. They also change from their usual pale color
to a dark brown, the newly acquired pigment being necessary to
protect them from the light of day. The transformed reproductives,
now called alates, wait for the signal that will coordinate an
airborne exodus of alates from all the different colonies in
The awaited sign comes in the form of the first big rain in
autumn. When the rain stops and the sun sets, the alates fly
off en masse into the night sky. Termites are not strong flyers,
and their flight, although slow and drifting, is generally adequate
enough to put a modest amount of distance between them and their
home nest. The flying termites tend to be attracted by lights,
which is why you may come home some night after a big rain and
see hundreds of winged insects swarming around a lighted area
or crawling around your floor. Upon landing, their wings fall
off and it is possible that you will not see any bugs at all,
but will find piles of insect wings strewn about.
Outside their nest the termites are defenseless. They are easy
and ready prey for any creature who finds them appetizing. The
mass swarming of the termites, however, acts to overwhelm these
predators, who can eat only so many of the little delicacies
leaving the survivors with the opportunity to complete their
one and only mission in life, which is to reproduce.
The unusually hard rainfall that signals the mass departure is
an event that all termites in a given area will experience at
the same time, thus increasing the probability that termites
from one nest will mate with termites from another nest. This
is crucial for the well being of the species, because the residents
of each individual nest are most likely descended from the same
king and queen, making them brothers and sisters, relatives too
closely related for healthy genetic combinations.
The airborne journey is just the beginning of the termite romance.
After the termites land and shed their wings, they pair off into
male and female couples. The female leads the way while her love
struck partner follows close behind. Together they search for
the location of their future home, which will most likely be
a crack or defect in a tree trunk or branch. The couple will
then work together to make a hole in the wood.
When the excavation is large enough, they will seal off the entrance with their feces. The humble hollowed out section of tree now becomes a royal bedchamber where the two previously undistinguished termites will live together as king and queen “until death do they part”.
The royal couple then mate, and the first eggs are laid. The
eggs hatch into tiny larvae, which have the capability of developing
into workers, soldiers, or reproductives.
The destiny of the larvae is determined by such factors as diet, time of year, and the introduction of a chemical called a pheromone. This important chemical is produced by the queen. It is excreted through her anus and imparted to the recipient termites when they groom the queen with their mouths.
Pheromones are also responsible for the attraction of male and female termites to each other at mating time, for communication, and for trail marking, so that the blind workers and soldiers can find their way through the complex maze of trails and passageways in and around the termitarium.
Tropical termite queens can become quite large and may measure
as much as four inches long. The termite queen is well taken
care of by her comparatively tiny king, who spends most of his
life feeding and licking her. The queen can remain fertile for
as long as twenty-five years, and as she gets older and larger,
she may lay thousands of eggs per day.
Many people see termites as their enemies because the termites
can eat up their houses or wooden furniture. Termites, however,
are not without redeeming value. Their excrement accumulates
in certain areas of the nest or trails and is periodically pushed
out through holes made especially for that purpose. The excrement
is rich in nitrogen and thus plays an important part in the fertilization of the forest soil.
Termites are also helpful in preventing forest fires, as they eat up dead trees that could become highly combustible in dry weather. This is the reason that they are sometimes called nature’s fire fighters.
On the negative side, however, the immense scope of their wood consumption and digestion is responsible for a considerable amount of methane production, which contributes to the greenhouse effect and global warming.