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THE ORIGINS AND DISTRIBUTION OF THE WILDLIFE OF THE BAHAMAS

*Note - this article is not an accurate scientific record of Bahamian species. It is written to give visitors an idea of what they might expect to see if they go looking!

The Islands of the Bahamas are close to both Florida and Cuba and share wildlife species with both.

For many visitors from colder climes, the animal and plant species of the Bahamas will be new. Visitors from Florida - especially the southern part around Miami and the Everglades will find much in common, but those from the West, mid-west and north-east will find a whole new world. The wildlife species of the Bahamas are very much a mix of those from Florida, from Cuba and from Central America. Visitors from Georgia will recognise the familiar Mocking Bird, but will find the Smooth-Billed Ani a total stranger. Similarly in the winter months Canadian visitors will see many familiar Warblers on their migratory routes through the islands to South and Central America. One of the rarest of all the warblers flies down from the Jack Pine forests of Michigan to the Bahamas every winter. Kirtland's Warbler is so rare though, it is almost never seen. Recently however it has been seen on Eleuthera - a first for that island.

The Curly Tailed Lizard (Leiocephalus carinatus ) is large and curious. It is common on Grand Bahama and other islands, but not however found on New Providence Island, until recently where it has been seen around the commercial dock area of Bay Street.

To understand the fauna and flora of the Bahama Islands, we must first examine the geology and topography, for in this respect the Bahamas are quite unique.
The Bahama Islands, in common with the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands are made from a form of marine limestone called Oolite. As a result, the chemistry of the rocks and the soil is similar throughout the islands and will support only those plants that like a lime-rich environment. Such plants have come into the islands mainly from Cuba, the West Indies and parts of Central America. They will have arrived over thousands of years as mats of floating vegetation washed from flooded rivers, as seeds in the droppings of birds or blown by the wind.
Unlike many of the West Indian islands, there have been no volcanoes in the Bahamas. There is therefore no thick fertile soil like that found in St. Lucia and the other volcanic islands. The soil of the Bahamas is thin, and tends to be found at its best in solution holes in the limestone called ‘Banana Holes’. These though are rather few and far between.

The Mahogany is one of the most famous trees of the Bahamas. However very few large specimens remain as they have almost all been harvested. Most were cut in historical times as a valuable export, while today many are cut to make the so-called 'native' carvings on sale to tourists. The unusual fruit opens in sections to reveal the seeds.

 Throughout history, major crop growing initiatives have tended to fail. Pineapples, Sisal and Sugar Cane have all been tried and then abandoned. Most farming today tends to be subsistence farming - although there are examples of new methods being used successfully, albeit not on a large scale. There are no rain forests in the Bahamas, just two very different types of coppice. On all the islands are broad-leaved coppices with Gum elemi, Mahogany, Pigeon Plum, ‘haulback’, Sapodilla and Poisonwood dominating. On Andros, New Providence, Abaco and Grand Bahama only are extensive forests of Caribbean Pine.The limestone rock of the Bahamas is very porous, allowing rapid drainage of rain and allowing for few ponds as such. I have conducted a survey of freshwater fish upon New Providence and found very few species - certainly as compared with similar sized lakes and ponds in Central America or Florida. 

The only places that freshwater bodies are able to form is where low-lying land allows the creation of a freshwater ‘lens’ above salt water that has permeated through the porous rock from the sea.Peculiar features of the Bahamas are Blue holes. These are vertical caves plunging down through the limestone to depths maybe in excess of 200 feet. These caves were dissolved away by the natural acidity of rain over thousands of years when sea levels were lower than they are today. Consequently, many of these Blue Holes are now actually in the sea. Some interesting and unusual species have evolved in the Blue holes. On this site there are two articles about the Bahamas Blind Cave fish.

The Bahamas Blind Cave Fish is scientifically known as Lucifuga speliotes, which translates as 'light shunning cave dweller'.


Recently discovered in a Blue Hole on Grand Bahama is a unique new species of ‘shrimp’ called Spelionectes lucayensis. This has turned out to be not only a new species, but a member of a whole new class of the arthropods!

As many as 50,000 Flamingos may gather on the lakes and salt flats of Inagua each year to breed. Their numbers have been monitored by the Bahamas National Trust and the Audubon Society for many years. They have few natural enemies, although wild pigs - introduced by the Spanish as a source of meat, can destroy hundreds of eggs.

In both inland Blue Holes and in the shallow lakes of the islands, there is mixing of fresh and salt water resulting in somewhat brackish lakes. Sometimes even the evaporative effects of the sun cause such lakes to become hyper saline – as seen in parts of Inagua where salt has been ‘farmed’. These lakes provide food and refuge for many species of birds, especially Egrets and Herons, Roseate Spoonbills, Grebes, and of course the Flamingo.Lake Rosa on Inagua supports the largest breeding colony of Flamingos in the Western Hemisphere. The birds are migratory though and many disperse to other Caribbean islands and to Mexico and Central America in the winter.

The Cuban Tree Frog is likely to be seen in vines and trees around hotels where lights attract nocturnal insects. It is a favourite food of the Bahamas Boa or 'Chicken Snake'.

The lack of fresh water and the rapid drainage means there are comparatively few species of Amphibian in the islands. Indeed, the only frog that tourists are likely to see is the large Cuban tree Frog (Osteopilus septentrionalis), although they will likely hear the loud croak of the shy aquatic Pig frog (Rana Grylio). There are actually five species of frog in the Bahamas, three of which have arrived from the south-eastern United States.

The Bahamas Boa (Epicrates striatus) is quite harmless. Growing to 8 feet in length it is frequently persecuted despite its useful role in eating rats and mice!

One common frog is the Greenhouse Frog, (Eleutherodactylus planirostris). This little frog has a remarkable adaptation for living in dry areas. Its eggs are not laid in water, but underneath vegetation and rocks. The tadpoles hatch out and remain in the thin jelly layer of the egg until the fully formed frog struggles free as an even smaller version of the adult!

Of the forty one species of reptiles in the islands (2 freshwater turtles, 29 lizards and 10 snakes), some 60% are endemic or found no-where else. Tourists are not likely to see any snakes at all. See the page 'Snakes of the Bahamas' for further details of the snakes. Particularly important are the Bahamas Rock Iguanas found from Andros and the Exumas down to Cat Island.

The Crawfish or Spiny Lobster is a valuable export from the Bahamas as well as being a staple part of the diet for many. It lives under coral reefs and ledges where it can protect itself from the front with its spiny antennae.

The marine life of the Bahamas is famous, for the extensive shallow Bahamas banks – formed from the same marine limestone as the islands – make up the largest shallow water area in the Caribbean region for the growth of coral reefs. As there are no rivers in the Bahamas, offshore reefs are not subject to damage from silt or sediment. The life on these reefs is the same as that found from Brazil all the way up to Florida, for the sea is of course continuous. The Mangrove swamps are an important breeding ground for many reef fish. Scientists on Bimini have extensively studied the Lemon Shark which breeds in the Mangroves there. Although most islands have Mangroves, they are at their most extensive on the western side of Andros.

This pile of Conchs is on Potter's Cay by the Paradise Island Bridge. The meat of the Conch is purchased by locals to eat as 'Crack Conch (fried) or Conch Salad (raw in a salad) . Many of the shells are sold on to tourists.

This large Bank area means that the Bahamas is well endowed with two staples of the islander’s diets, Conch and Crawfish. The Queen Conch or Pink Conch as it is properly known is a huge marine snail. It feeds on Sea Grass and can be easily collected in shallow water grass beds to a depth of about six or seven metres. However, like the Crawfish, the Conch is now scarce around New Providence, having been locally over-fished by both fishermen and weekenders. Nevertheless, the large area of the Bahama banks means that the islands have a major part of the Conch habitat of the entire Caribbean.

Fortunately, there are still plenty of Conch around the Family Islands, although there are concerns recently about their possible rapid depletion. 

 

© Rod Attrill