Most hikers on the Reef Bay Trail head down to the petroglyphs or check out the great house, but on January 24 about 20 people were spotted overturning rocks and poking through the underbrush.
The group was not a gang of vandals set on disturbing the natural beauty of Reef Bay, but participants in the Friends of the V.I. National Park’s reptile hike seminar led by territorial wildlife biologist Renata Platenberg.
“While trees are nice, I’m more interested in what is underground,” said Platenberg. “The best way to look at things is through a window and you can do that underground by picking up rocks. You can see a whole world of things no one sees.”
Don’t Squish Anything
People should only overturn rocks they can lift easily and be sure not to squish anything when returning the rock to its original location, warned Platenberg.
The scientist, who earned her undergraduate degree at Colorado State and masters degree at the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology in England, dispelled the common myth that there are no snakes on the island.
Two different species of snakes, in fact, call Love City home — the garden snake and the blind snake.
The garden snake can be easily identified by its dark brown coloring and white cheeks, while the blind snake — which looks like a worm — is distinct for its blunt head and pointy tail.
Racer Decimated by Mongoose
The Puerto Rican racer, which can grow up to four feet, was decimated on St. John, St. Croix and St. Thomas by mongooses, explained Platenberg.
“The Puerto Rican racer was taken out by the mongoose and fairly easily because the racer is a ground-dweller,” Platenberg said. “They are still very prevalent on Water and Hassel Islands despite pressures from cats and cars. It was really the mongooses that did them in on the main islands.”
The endangered Virgin Islands tree boa, which is only found on the east end of St. Thomas and Tortola, is not found on St. John and the reason is unknown, Platenberg added.
Tree Boa Mystery
“Why the tree boas are not on St. John is a mystery,” she said. “Since they are all over Tortola and the east end of St. Thomas, you would think they would be here too. And with all the construction, if they were here, we would have had a sighting.”
he corn snake, which is an introduced species, is the only other snake found in the territory and it has only been spotted in the Subbase area of St. Thomas.
Along the Reef Bay Trail, seminar participants and Platenberg spotted a number of exciting species.
A variety of anoles were seen including crested anoles, barred anoles and grass anoles. Dwarf geckos made appearances as well, but the quick little lizards were too difficult to catch and photograph.
“There are so many lizards found in the same square foot that to avoid competition, they live in different areas of the same square foot,” said Platenberg. “One might live high in a tree, while another will be in the middle and more will be on the ground.”
A white-lipped frog was the first significant reptile found along the trail. This species of frog is native to the Virgin Islands and lives mostly in ditches or ponds. The white-lipped frog can be identified by a light-colored line which runs along the frog’s lips and shoulder.
A whipped scorpion was also discovered along the trail, which Platenberg called harmless.
“It’s not really a scorpion at all, and is completely harmless,” said the reptile expert.
A small churi coqui, also known as an Antillean frog, was spotted on the underside of rock too.
“This little guy makes all that loud che-up, che-up, ki-ki-ki-ki noise,” said Platenberg while holding the specimen. “You can identify this frog by the speckling on the back legs and the lumpy or granular belly.”
Rare Velvet Worm Spotted
The discovery of a velvet worm was one of the most exciting finds of the day.
“This is one of the most rare animals in the world,” said an obviously excited Platenberg. “There are no other animals in the world like this — they have their own phylum. You know how insects have their own phylum and frogs and toads have their own phylum — well these little guys have their own separate phylum.”
The small worm-like species, is “not at all a worm,” said Platenberg, while holding the creature as it slimed her hand in defense with a sticky spit-like secretion.
After a long morning spent bent over, looking under rocks, the group enjoyed a relaxing boat ride back to Cruz Bay aboard Sadie Sea.
The Friends seminar participants left with a greater understanding of the reptiles found on St. John, and will most likely take a different approach to hiking in the future — looking down instead of up.