Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Antigua: Land of the Lost (Snake)

This past week I found myself on the Caribbean island of Antigua, scratching my head at my strange fortune. On the one hand, I was in a stunning area of the world, staying at an amazing resort, hanging around with a motley crew of fascinating folks—and it was a work trip (BASK! GLOAT! BRAG!). On the other hand, I was as close as I will ever get to the world’s most critically endangered snake species, with absolutely no chance of playing my hand at finding one.

The Antiguan racer (Alsophis antiguae) was historically found on the islands of Antigua and Barbuda as well as many small offshore island (photo from

But it is now extirpated from the main islands and hangs on only on a few tiny keys. While on the island, we were told that the snake-fearing Britons who colonized the island imported mongooses to control the “snake problem.” This notion immediately caused me to smell a “rat.” Even the most ophidiophobic limey would not go to so much trouble to kill a harmless beast like the racer! As it turns out, the mongooses were imported to kill rats that had invaded the island from ship cargo holds. Unfortunately, the diurnal mongooses never encountered the nocturnal rats, so Rikki Tikki Tavi fed heartily on racers and their eggs.

To make matters worse, the mongooses chomped up the island’s lizards, which were the snakes’ main prey items. Ground dwelling lizards are now few and far between. Here’s an Antiguan ameiva lizard (Ameiva griswoldi), which I was lucky to see a single specimen of:

At one time, scientists estimated that there were only about 50 Antiguan racers left in the wild. Conservation efforts have since increased those numbers by an order of magnitude at least. A success story of sorts! Ah, it would have been so nice to see… but alas! I was here for work, and not my usual snakey sort.

What sort of non-snakey work would bring me to a Caribbean island? One of the other octopus-arms of my job—pre-med advising at Cal Poly. A medical school on the island—American University of Antigua—hosted pre-med advisors from California to visit their campus. They have recently received accreditation in California, meaning that their graduates will be able to get residencies and practice medicine in the golden state.

This is a very good Caribbean program. The students and faculty are extremely diverse, and they learn using a combo of large lectures and small hands-on experiences. Here are some students learning how to do a breast examination:

Cool brain model:

The school has state of the art technology, including Bertha—yep, that's a birthing robot. Right now she is set to deliver breach.

Even more exciting was Sim-man, a robot that can be programmed with all kinds of symptoms. The students have to diagnose him and give him proper treatment, and he will react accordingly.

After introducing us to the campus, the trip organizers took us around the beautiful island for some sight-seeing. Antigua has a rich history, ripe with pirate tales and skirmishes between the English inhabitants and attacking French. This is a building at Nelson’s Dockyard, a historic area in English Harbour where Admiral Horatio Nelson lived in the 1700’s. The harbor is now a famous yachting and sailing area. Here's one of the historic buildings, complete with badly dressed tourist out front:

Then we went up to Shirley Heights for a view of the dockyard from high up. Beautiful!!!

Nearby you could also get a peek of Eric Clapton’s house (which is currently for rent!):

The island is home to hundreds of churches, from grand to tiny. Here is a particularly gorgeous one.

We enjoyed some excellent Caribbean beer and food:

Meghan, my cohort from Cal Poly, REALLY enjoyed this Baked Alaska!

We stayed at the Carlisle Bay resort at the south end of the island. Absolutely gorgeous! It was nestled right into the tropical vegetation:

And of course, right on the beach! Here’s a little Watt’s anole (Anolis wattsi) that I found in front of my room within about 30 seconds of arrival:

A better look at a Watt’s anole:

By far the most common lizard was the Leach’s anole (Anolis leachii), whose arboreal habits apparently keep it out of reach of mongoosedem (this is allegedly the Caribbean slang plural for mongoose).

The beach at night:

Goodnight Caribbean! See you next time!


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