English Immersion on the Nature Island: French Students Learn about Dominica’s Flora and Fauna*

Students Carole (l), Victoria and Marie-Agnes from Ludicademi in Martinique demonstrated tremendous interest and keenly participated in class discussions.

Students Carole (l), Victoria,Marie-Agnes and Charles from Ludicademi in Martinique demonstrated tremendous interest and keenly participated in class discussions.

The Crapaud frog (aka Mountain Chicken) is critically endangered and is endemic to Dominica and Montserrat. Read about its plight and the exceptional efforts to save it here.

The Crapaud frog (aka Mountain Chicken) is critically endangered and is endemic to only Dominica and Montserrat. Read about its plight and the exceptional efforts to save it here.

During a class held at the University of  the West Indies Open Campus in June, the English immersion students from Ludicademi in Martinique grasped the significance of  relevant and meaningful vocabulary  that could be directly applied to plants and animals on the Nature Island. Over the course of three hours, they began to understand  the meaning of biodiversity, the importance of wildlife conservation, as well as how, why  and what endemic, migratory,  endangered and vulnerable species are found here.

By the amount of questions that they posed, it was clear they were tremendously interested in the less common  and threatened species that exist on Dominica. That afternoon,  renowned author and  Forestry and Wildlife Officer Arlington James (retired) would be taking them on an interpretive tour of the Syndicate Forest Nature Trail (located above Dublanc on the west coast, in the foothills of Morne Diablotin). I was assured that they would come away from this day’s topic with a great appreciation for and understanding of Dominica’s flora and fauna.

The Fragile’ Mountain Chicken’ Frog

They were particularly fascinated by the ‘Mountain Chicken’ frog (aka Crapaud), which is critically endangered (almost extinct!) due to a persistent fungal infection. It is a regional endemic, as a very  are few found on Dominica and Montserrat. Those that manage  to survive are being closely monitored by Forestry and Wildlife Division officers, with much appreciated assistance from specialists at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL).

Birds, Birds, Birds!

The Imperial or Sisserou Parrot is endangered and is only found on Dominica.  This is a female.  Photo taken by Forestry Officer Stephen Durand.

The Imperial or Sisserou Parrot is endangered and is only found on Dominica. This is a female. Photo taken by Forestry Officer Stephen Durand.

I referred them to the classification system of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) where they would discover the survival status of specific species. They had no idea that Dominica’s two parrots, the Sisserou which is endangered and the Jaco which is vulnerable are only found on Dominica.  That means that they are endemic to this country alone!  However, some of the students wondered if they might have seen Jaco parrots on Martinique.  I could not confirm this, of course.  I do hope that they queried Mr. James.  The Jaco’s numbers are increasing and the distance between Dominica and Martinique is not great, so I wonder if it is possible…I will certainly check with my friend, Forestry Officer/Bird Specialist Bertrand ‘Dr. Birdy’ Jno Baptiste when I next see him!

Certainly, Dominica can be described as a bird enthusiast’s ‘heaven’.  Over 200 species of our feathered friends have been sighted here, although only about 50 are resident year-round (reference:birdlife.org).  Of course, the others are migratory.  The class was intrigued when I showed them a photo of a Blue-Headed Hummingbird, which is only found on Dominica and Martinique.  That means it is a ‘regional

The vibrant colouts of the male Blue-Headed Hummingbird are a sight to see. it is only found on Dominica and Martinique.

The vibrant colours of the male Blue-Headed Hummingbird are a sight to see. it is only found on Dominica and Martinique. Photo Credit: Wikipedia

endemic’!  I was very surprised that no one in the class had ever seen one on our sister island to the south.  I could only hope that they might catch a glimpse of one in the Syndicate area, as I had with ‘Dr. Birdy’.

Snakes and Lizards

Friends took me to see a nest of Boa Constrictors (locally called 'Tet-Chien' in Creole) on Canada day 2012.

Friends took me to see a nest of Boa Constrictors (locally called ‘Tete-Chien’ in Creole) on Canada Day 2012.

I showed the class a number of other photographs of animals on Dominica – at least my favourites!  They were really astonished by the possible length of the endemic species of Boa Constrictor snake – which can reach 10 feet!  I assured them that it was not poisonous, nor were the other three species that are found here.  While the confirmed numbers of this reptile are not exactly known, it is felt by some experts that they might be vulnerable, especially due to habitat loss and hunting.  They do play a vital role in keeping down the rat population.  I am always thrilled to come across one in the forest, which is not that often!

DSCF4538

The endangered Lesser Antillean Iguana (called Leza in Creole) is the largest lizard on Dominica. Recently some other types have colonized here from other countries.

The other reptile that I enjoy watching up close is the Lesser Antillean Iguana.  

Amazingly, the class had seen a bright green juvenile in the Botanical Gardens the previous day but didn’t know what it was!  It is the largest of about nine species that thrive on the Nature Island. Again, it has been suggested that  their numbers are in decline and that they are classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List.  However, on Dominica, these creatures are protected by law, so I hope they fare better here than on other islands.  I have seen them  in various locales along the west coast, including Champagne Beach, Mero Beach and  seaside at Coulibistrie.

This 'stick insect' is endemic to (only found on) Dominica!

This ‘stick insect’ is endemic to (only found on) Dominica!

Whales and Dolphins  and Other Mammals

Of course, I told them a little about the sea creatures as well, including a resident year-round pod of Sperm Whales, and plentiful dolphins.  A number of other types of whales are migratory and pass through Dominica’s waters annually.  Dominica is known as the ‘Whale Watch Capital of the Caribbean’, as the likelihood of spotting some cetaceans  on an excursion is very high.

Then we talked about  a few of the other 16 mammals that exist on Dominica:, including 12 species of bats, the rodent-like agouti, and manicou (opossum).  They are similar to, if not the same varieties on Martinique, according to some of the students.

Sea Turtles

There was a very lively discussion when I showed the class some video clips about the three types of endangered sea turtles that regularly nest on Dominica’s beaches (Leatherback, Hawksbill, and Green).  To see the females come in to  dig a nest and lay many eggs, or to watch hatchlings run into the sea are awesome sights.  As these animals are protected by law on Dominica, some students queried the balance between tradition and conservation.  Historically, turtle meat and eggs have been eaten by some people here.  There was  some concern  in the class about being denied one’s rights to eat a traditional food or to protect an endangered species.  It can be a delicate subject, but I urged the students to consider that if they were plentiful, and if there were no other food sources, I could understand the need to hunt them.  Most definitely, that is not the case these days, and anyone caught interfering with the turtles is arrested.  I also told the group that a number of community associations, especially on the east coast, patrol the beaches at night when the turtles come in.  They also offer turtle  watching tours!

Flora/Plants

There was so much to say about the flora and fauna found on Dominica that I ran out of time.  It was important to point out that the Smithsonian Institute In Washington D.C. has previously described Dominica as “a giant plant laboratory, unchanged for 10,000 years” (Fodor’s Caribbean, 1996).  I made sure to emphasize that there are over 1,000 flowering plants in Dominica, of which 11 species are only found here, and nowhere else!

These red and pink ginger lilies are called exotic plants because they were introduced to Dominica from sources in Malaysia.

These red and pink ginger lilies are called exotic plants because they were originally introduced to Dominica from sources in Malaysia.

These beautiful anthurium lilies belong to the monocotyledons class, of which tere are 186 species on the Nature Island

These beautiful anthurium lilies belong to the class of ‘monocotyledons’, of which there are 186 species on the Nature Island

Two species of heliconia flowers are only found on Dominica.

Two species of heliconia flowers are only found on Dominica.

Prolific Gommier Trees are indigenous to the caribbean region.  There are about 200 forest trees in Dominica.

Prolific Gommier Trees are indigenous to the Caribbean region. There are about 200 types of forest trees in Dominica.

I quickly showed them a few more photos of my favourites and then they were off for their excursion with retired forestry and wildlife expert Mr. Arlington James to learn more in the forest at the Syndicate Eco-site.

This "chicken of the forest' mushroom is edible, although there are other species on Dominica that are poisonous!

This “chicken of the forest’ mushroom is edible, although there are other species on Dominica that are poisonous!

I think they were truly amazed about the extraordinary amount of biodiversity on the tiny lush Nature Island!

* This mini English immersion programme was organized by Tina Alexander, Executive Director of Lifeline Ministries, Dominica.

Reference: Overview of the Flora and Fauna of Dominica [notes] prepared by Stephen Durand For Dominica State College Basic Skills Training Programme, October 2006.

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2 comments on “English Immersion on the Nature Island: French Students Learn about Dominica’s Flora and Fauna*

  1. jennyspencer22 says:

    Hi Gwen! I really enjoyed reading this interesting blog piece on Dominica’s rich and fragile ecosystem. I wish that I had been lucky enough to find a nest of boa constrictors.

    Nice to see the crapaud getting a mention! For those that would like to keep up-to-date on the mountain chicken project in Dominica, check out and ‘like’ our facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Dominican-Mountain-Chicken-Project/136933839835254

    Thanks for helping the crapaud and keeping me in touch with life in Dominica through your blog!
    All the best,
    Jenny.

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