You may know Barbuda most recently as the small, low-lying Caribbean island that bore the full force of Hurricane Irma this past November. Barbuda and its big-flashy-sister island, Antiqua, had long been aware of the island’s vulnerability to rising global seas. Because of this potential for loss of endemic species, in 2016 I worked on the island with three dedicated Biodiversity PEEK volunteers and several energetic and fun Barbuda teachers and their elementary school kids. We spent a couple weeks together assessing the overlooked life of the biologically rich island. Most tourists who take the day trip over to Barbuda spend their time in the lagoon amidst the island’s famed frigate bird colony. Those who spend a weekend might journey to Barbuda’s wilder and more rugged east side to get a look at the Amerindian petroglyphs from around 500 BC. And, decades ago when the coral forests ringing the island were healthy and abundant with jeweled life, a snorkel or dive was not to be missed. But, what about the bats, bugs, snake (yep…just one… and so small it looks like an earthworm), lizards and cave dwelling crustacea found nowhere else in the world? That’s why we were there and the kids did wonderful work, sifting through mangrove mud, turning over rocks, and overcoming fears of creepy- crawlies such as the dreaded “ground ghoul” (yes… that same one teensy snake). However, one expedition was deemed too dangerous for the kids, but not for our team and one intrepid teacher . . .
In the little explored Eastern side of Barbuda the Pleistocene era sculpted limestone terraces pocked by sinkholes and hidden caves now densely shrouded in spikey and toxic tropical plants. Somewhere in that dark green darkness was the rarely visited, and nearly mythological, Dark Cave and its rumored rare millipedes and blind shrimp. The island’s museum was hoping we would descend to the pools in the depths of the cave and return with specimens of both creatures that had not been recorded for decades as well as photo data of the various, unknown bat species. Longtime Barbuda residents would speak of Dark Cave to us in hushed tones, shaking their grey heads slowly when we asked how to find it, and insisting that it was not a place we wanted to go. Of course, that just made us really, really want to go. After almost two weeks of searching for a guide to get us there, we found one. Then we began begging our Biodiversity PEEK teachers to come along. Only one was brave enough: native Barbudan, Kerri Ann Walbrook, who is our current featured teacher.
Down in the black of the cave, Kerri Ann helped re-discover both the long-lost millipede (Epinannolene sp.) as well as the famed blind shrimp, using an impromptu kitchen strainer as a collecting tool. Our only available preservative was a sample-sized bottle of rum, and one of each critter gave their lives to the tasty liquid for the museum’s collection. Paul Hamilton and I gingerly (so as not to stir up the bat-guano sediment) snorkeled the deep, dark pools at the bottom of the cave in search of other possible and yet-unknown crustacea. And our volunteers, Ash Wisco and Scott Trageser, applied their patience and professional photography skills to documenting as many different bats as they could. As we were single-file crawling out the cave’s narrow passage we could tell that darkness was settling into the forest outside. Suddenly, our breaths were taken away as every living bat in that cave flew past us in an adrenaline-pumping, wing-whooshing stream! As we celebrated that night it was decided that each of us would partake of the smallest sip of that sample rum with the arthropods, settled like weird tequila worms, at the bottom of the bottle. We joked about being careful not to ingest the specimens. Guess who almost did!? Not to worry, they both made it to the Barbuda Museum safe and sound. We understand that the museum was heavily damaged by Irma but that the interior was spared. In fact, it became the temporary home of the island’s police station which, like most structures, was leveled. We heard from Kerri Ann and fellow Biodiversity PEEK teacher, Cynthia, and know that the spirit of Barbuda remains powerfully strong as they re-build their island home.
You can check out the biodiversity observations made by the kids over our two weeks at www.iNaturalist.org and by searching for “Biodiversity PEEK Barbuda” in the projects tab.