by Victoria Swander
FOOD, FRIEND, OR PEST: A DIVERSITY OF THE CULTURAL SIGNIFICANCE OF THE GREEN IGUANA
The green iguana is a large reptile from Central and South America, established as an invasive
species in a number of other areas. The perception of the iguana and the part it plays within different cultures is shaped according to unique socio-historical circumstances, customs, and values. In some areas of the world the iguana is cared for as a family pet; in others, the animal may regularly be found on a dinner plate. The interaction between the iguana and people largely depends on the cultural setting within which it is placed.
The green, or common, iguana, is the biggest lizard found within the United States (Conant &
Collins 1998). Adults typically reach lengths of 4 to 6 ft and can weigh up to 15 lbs (De Vosjoli 2003). These iguanas are a bright green color as juveniles, but as they mature this color will usually darken or fade to include varying shades of green, gray, brown, or even orange. The females tend to be less colorful and slightly smaller than the males (Swanson 1950). Iguanas possess a dewlap (a flap of loose skin underneath the neck) and spines down their back that make them appear larger to other animals. They also have a sensory organ called a parietal eye on the top of their head. It does not “see”, but it can sense changes in shadows and light. This is useful when avoiding predators that can attack or drop from above. The iguana’s long, powerful tail is used for balance when climbing trees and directs and propels the animal while swimming (Bartlett & Bartlett 2009). It also aids in defense. The whip from their tail is painful even to humans. Moreover, iguanas (like some other lizards) have the ability to autotomize – or drop – a section of their tail in response to a perceived threat. The squirming appendage distracts predators long enough for the iguana to escape to safety. The tail will usually grow back but will not have the same color, texture, or length as it had before (Kaplan 2013).
Habitat & Diet
Iguanas are arboreal and diurnal, meaning they live in the trees and are active during the day.
They are exceptional swimmers and can often be found near bodies of water. They are exclusively
herbivorous, foraging for leafy greens, shrubs, flowers, and non-citrus fruit (Swanson 1950). On occasion an individual is found to have eaten non-plant material like insects, but it is generally accepted that this was due to mistake or accident. It takes an iguana 2-3 years to reach maturity. Meanwhile, they are easy prey to larger animals like birds or snakes. Their lifespan is about eight years in the wild, but with proper care in captivity they can live for up to 20 years (De Vosjoli 2003). Iguanas are ectothermic (cold-blooded) so the environment they are situated within is crucial because their internal temperature will fluctuate according to the outside temperature and humidity (Frye 1995). Often they can be observed basking in the sun or resting on a shady branch. The color of an iguana’s skin is likely to be darker during the morning and evening (when temperatures are low) in order to absorb more of the light from the sun, and lighter during the hot afternoons to reflect it (Gingell 2005). The extension of the dewlap in sun or shade can assist in raising or lowering their temperature as well.
A number of social behaviors are exhibited when interacting with other animals. Iguanas do not
make many vocalizations but instead rely on intent expressed through various bodily displays in order to communicate. A posturing iguana will raise its head and stand up tall on its feet. This could indicate the animal feels threatened and is trying to make itself appear as large as possible as a warning to back off, or it could simply mean the animal is feeling exceptionally content. The classic “head bob” or extended dewlap might be advertising social or territorial dominance, or the iguana may just be saying hello (Green Iguana Society 2009). They also have femoral pores on their thighs which are used to leave olfactory trails to signify territory to other iguanas (Bartlett & Bartlett 2009). They will often gather together as a group while feeding, basking, sleeping, and reproducing or laying eggs. Mating occurs right before the rainy season in the tropics.As polygynous creatures, the males will often take multiple female mates (Burghardt & Rand 1983).
ORIGINS & HUMAN PERCEPTIONS OF THE IGUANA
Iguanas are native through most of Central and South America, from central Mexico down to
southern Brazil. They can also be found on many islands in the Caribbean (Conant & Collins 1998). The word iguana comes from the Spanish adoption of the Taíno iwana. Lizards occupied a significant role in Taíno lore, often symbolically representing the sun or life. Iguanas, both utilized as a food source and frequently seen sunning themselves on water banks, were particularly well-regarded. The large lizards were consumed by the Taíno on a regular basis; in fact, as the human population increased the demand for iguana flesh increased as well. By the time the Spanish established colonial rule over the indigenous peoples on the island of Hispaniola (now known as Haiti and the Dominican Republic) toward the end of the 15th century, iguanas were rare enough that they were only given to the chiefs of tribes (Keegan & Carlson 2008). An important Taíno legend holds that the Sun and the Moon came out of the cave of Iguanaboina (iguana-dark serpent) (Arrom 1998). Similar origin tales exist within other cultures. Anthropologist Mary Helms (2000) shares a story of the source of fire told by members of the Kuna, a group of indigenous peoples of Panama:
“Briefly summarized, the story relates how a small iguana, who could run on the surface of the water, went to Jaguar’s house on the far side of the river. In this primordial time Jaguar was the only animal- person who possessed fire, and he refused to give it to others. After lulling Jaguar into a false sense of security, the small iguana extinguished the fire except for a small burning coal, which he hid in the crest on the back of his neck. Although Jaguar gave chase, the iguana safely recrossed the river and gave the coal to Father Sun, who distributed it to people.”
Role as Food
Iguanas have been consumed as food for over 7,000 years in Central and South America (Wilson
& Peter 1996). They at times referred to as gallina de palo, or “chicken of the trees”. This is a nod not only to its comparison in taste with chicken meat, but also to its significance as a common food item that can be cultivated (both for its flesh and its eggs) (García-Quijano et. al 2011). Their great size in relation to other lizards can provide several pounds of meat to a hungry family. However, there has been a shift in attitude toward their consumption within the past few hundred years. Some Latin Americans express the ingestion of iguanas to be an embarrassing practice, something relegated to the poor and “uncivilized” (Burghardt & Rand 1983). This is likely due to the hegemonic influences imposed upon indigenous groups during colonial rule. The Spanish expressed revulsion at the natives’ inclusion of the lizard in their diet, stating they were not food acceptable for humans. Experiences recorded by Spaniards show that the Taíno commonly prepared the iguana as a stew (iguana de guisado) by removing the entrails and boiling them with peppers and spices (Keegan & Carlson 2008). Modern recipes take advantage of the versatility of the animal as a substitute for almost any type of meat offers ample opportunity to provide sustenance in soups, tacos, chilis, and other everyday meals. Iguana eggs are a delicacy and can be eaten scrambled, hard-boiled, or dried.
Fricassee of Iguana (Liner 2005)
1 large iguana
Lime juice or vinegar
2lbs tomatoes, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
Fresh coriander or parsley, chopped
Salt and pepper, to taste
Skin and dress a large iguana, saving the heart and liver. Divide the back, sides, and upper portions of the tail into pieces. Make a marinade of the chopped onions, salt, pepper, thyme, garlic, coriander or parsley leaves, and a good pinch of the Achiote paste; mix with a sufficient quantity of lime juice or vinegar to moisten the meat evenly. Rub the pieces of the iguana, heart, and liver with the marinade and let stand for 2-4 hours. Drain, dry, and coat lightly with flour. Drain the marinade and simmer it in a little butter for 5 minutes. When the onions are transparent and the butter very hot, add the iguana and cook until browned on all sides. Add a bit more flour to make a light roux, and correct the flavoring with more coriander, thyme, bay leaf, Achiote paste, salt, and pepper as needed. Stir in tomatoes and simmer until the meat is tender and the sauce is reduced to a thick gravy. Serve with rice, fried plantains, and hot tortillas.
However, as the human population in these regions has grown, so has both the demand for
these animals as a food supply and the destruction of their natural habitat. In many areas their numbers have been vastly reduced. In response, some organizations designed advantageous “iguana farming” programs and techniques. The Fundación Pro Iguana Verde (FPIV) in Panama, and later Costa Rica, bred more than a hundred thousand iguanas in captivity and released them into the wild (Microlivestock Council 1991). The foundation encouraged local farmers in raising the lizards as an alternative source of food (providing an economic incentive), hoping to change the idea of the meat from “the poor man’s food” to “the rich man’s delicacy” (Kaplan 2013) as the increasing rarity of the species in certain regions has reduced them to a novelty. Proponents of iguana farming are divided on this issue. Some support the practice as a market of significant economic importance. In regions where the animal is scarce an adult iguana can be sold for much higher than the equivalent weight in other meats (chicken, pork, etc.). Others argue that the iguana plays a key role in the subsistence of those located in areas where the animal is abundant, and if it were to be exploited as a luxury food item then poorer communities would be denied the use of a potentially important food resource (García-Quijano et. al 2011).
Role as a Pet
The acquisition of exotic wildlife as pets has been a symbol of status cross-culturally, and the
iguana is no exception. Their sedentary lifestyle and generally laid-back disposition makes them an
appealing companion. The popularity of the animal as a pet greatly increased with the release of films that depicted reptilian prehistoric or dinosaur-like animals, such as Jurassic Park (1993) and Godzilla (1998) (Christy 2009). The use of ships and aircrafts to mass transport goods around the world in a shorter period of time gave access to those who previously would not have had the means to acquire them. The exotic pet trade is now a global industry that connects people and reflects the cultural ideas they possess and exchange. Iguana iguana is listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITE): “Appendix II includes species not necessarily threatened with extinction, but in which trade must be controlled in order to avoid utilization incompatible with their survival.”
An invasive species is a nonnative species that has been introduced and established into a
different ecosystem, often having serious negative effects on local plants, animals, and people. These species are not only ecologically invasive, but are culturally invasive as well (Pfeiffer & Voeks 2008). Cultural identity and the environment a group is situated within are fundamentally connected. Culture shapes the way a person interacts with their surroundings, yet setting plays a key role in dictating the experiences of people (Cervone 2012). When the environmental setting is altered, people adapt and restructure their actions and beliefs in unique, complex manners. Even within a single community, disputes may occur as individuals react according to the way in which they are informed. For example, one person might consider the iguana to be a welcome feature of the landscape and feed them, while his neighbor may respond quite differently by discouraging or even killing them.
Florida in particular is a focal point of invasive species, having more established nonnative
organisms than anywhere else in the world (Krysko et. al 2011). This is attributed in part to its
prominence within the exotic pet trade and possession of several important international trade ports located on both Florida coastlines. Animals either escape or are released by negligent owners into the wild and thrive within the environment, facing a conducive subtropical climate and lack of natural predators. They have been reported as successfully adapting and proliferating in South Florida as early as the 1960s (King & Krakauer 1966). Their current population is estimated to be in the hundreds of thousands. As pests, these animals quickly overrun gardens and eat valuable plants and flowers. They dig burrows that weaken sidewalks, the foundations of buildings, and seawalls. They leave droppings (a potential source of salmonella) wherever they go. Florida residents are generally encouraged to take up practices that focus more on discouraging iguanas from establishing themselves nearby – such as surrounding gardens with enclosures, avoiding planting items that are appealing as a food source, and filling in burrows – as opposed to outright destroying them (Kern 2012).
The introduction of these lizards by way of the pet trade has brought about a similar situation in
Puerto Rico. Originally considered a harmless addition to the landscape, iguanas now have an
established population of over 4 million. They actually now outnumber the amount of humans on the island (AP 2012). Their foraging habits cause substantial damage to local crops, nature reserves, and golf courses that impact the agricultural and tourism industries. Plane landings at the Luis Munoz Marin airport in San Juan are sometimes aborted because of the interference of the animals on the runway, and their persistent removal costs the territory $80,000 every year.
The Puerto Rican Department of Health recently sanctioned a plan for the capture of the lizards
and distribution of their meat to the United States (AP 2012), in the hopes of generating income while also reducing their population by targeting consumers of the exotic meat market. Alternate measures have been taken to actually incorporate the iguana into the tourism business by including them as attractions on sightseeing tours, within hotel lobbies, and providing iguana-related souvenirs (García-Quijano et. al 2011). Although the animal is not originally native to Puerto Rico it has come to be associated with the region through this integration, to mutual benefit.
The connection between the green iguana and people is largely informed by cultural experience
inside a historical and environmental setting. This relationship is not static; rather, it is altered as
changes in the setting shape societal norms and behaviors. As a source of food the lizards may represent an exotic foreign delicacy, typical every day dish, or a meal assigned to the poor and “uncivilized”. Some call the animals serious pests; others refer them as beloved companions. With the increasing connectivity between people around the world comes an exchange of cultural information and a continuous restructuring of what space the iguana occupies within our own lives.
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