Hurricane-induced population decrease in a Critically Endangered long-lived reptile
Catastrophic events, like hurricanes, bring lethal conditions that can have population-altering effects. The threatened Caribbean dry forest occurs in a region known for its high-intensity hurricane seasons and high species endemism, highlighting the necessity to better understand hurricane impacts as fragmentation and clearing of natural habitat continues. However, such studies remain rare, and for reptiles are mostly restricted to Anolis. Here we used single-season occupancy modeling to infer the impact of the intense 2017 Atlantic hurricane season on the critically endangered Lesser Antillean Iguana, Iguana delicatissima. We surveyed 30 transects across eight habitats on St. Eustatius during 2017-2019, which resulted in 344 individual surveys and 98 iguana observations. Analyses of abundance and site occupancy indicated both measures for 2018 and 2019 were strongly reduced compared to the pre-hurricane 2017 state. Iguanas at higher elevations were affected more profoundly, likely due to higher wind speeds, tree damage and extensive defoliation. Overall, our results indicate a decrease in population estimates (23.3-26.5%) and abundance (22-23.8%) for 2018 and 2019, and a 75% reduction in the number of opportunistic sightings of tagged iguanas between 2017-2018. As only small and isolated I. delicatissima populations remain, our study further demonstrates their vulnerability to stochastic events. Considering the frequency and intensity of hurricanes are projected to increase, our results stress the urgent need for population-increasing conservation actions in order to secure the long-term survival of I. delicatissima throughout its range.