6 Jan 2015

Dig, Dig, Dig Iguana!

By Jorge Ventocilla

The iguana dwells in trees and feeds on leaves, flowers, and fruits. As a reptile, its behavior depends on the temperature; that is why we can see it “taking sun baths” early in the morning and, then again, later in the afternoon.

It can reach over 5 feet in length and it would usually go into hiding instead of entering into a fight. If caught by a hunter, it will defend itself by whipping its tail, scratching and biting.  It is a harmless animal that usually lives peacefully, wandering around wind-blown branches high in the trees.  

We can also find a different type of iguana in this region, the black iguana (Ctenosaura similis). It is less common and more likely to be found close to the beaches. If we pay attention, we can also have a glimpse of it playing around the Biomuseo.

Our Iguana iguana reproduces once a year. Its breeding season starts in October, approximately. Male iguanas defend their territories by staying high in treetops; where they mate with willing females. Younger male iguanas stay close to the boundaries of the territories of dominant males, just in case there is a chance for mating. 

Once January comes, iguanas start digging holes and tunnels for laying their eggs, always looking for soft soil and sparse vegetation. Then, between April and June, baby iguanas begin hatching.

Theoretically, green iguanas are found from Mexico to Brazil. However, their population has been drastically reduced, and it has also gone extinct in some areas due to uncontrolled hunting and deforestation.  By law, it is a protected species in Panama and it is very important for indigenous groups and in rural areas. “Ari” is the Guna word for iguana, and Guna people tell stories and have many legends with the iguana as the main character. It is also part of traditional ceremonies as the inna suid or “chicha grande” and, of course, of the Guna menu. 

Even as a threatened species, there are still small, isolated, populations of iguanas  in Panama City.  And they are worth more alive than dead for interested parties. People usually stop by the bridge joining Los Pueblos mall with the Juan Díaz neighborhood to watch iguanas lounging under the sun. The mascot for the mall is also an iguana (“Diana, the Iguana”).  I want to believe that they are still safe around there.

Of course, there are still some iguanas in the area formerly known as the Canal Zone, including Cerro Ancón and the Metropolitan Natural Park.  They have the chance of growing larger in those areas where they are less likely to be hunted.

A fellow biologist once was crossing Avenida de los Mártires, from the Legislative Palace to the Smithsonian and he saw how an iguana was being chased by a stray cat.  Suddenly, a driver pulled over, grabbed the iguana, put it inside a bag and drove away (we don’t think the driver meant to hand the iguana over to any animal protection organization).

If we can still find an iguana in the metropolitan area and have the opportunity of showing it to our children, while we teach them about nature and how we should be more respectful towards it, and how wonderful it is to be able to see wildlife close to where we live, that would be a living proof that it is still possible to have a better quality of life in the city.