Like any isolated oceanic island, Bermuda is a biologist’s nirvana, not because of the number of species or habitats (for there are fewer than in many Caribbean islands), but for the interesting way its ecology has evolved. Separated from natural competitors and predators that wiped out mainland counterparts, numerous marine and terrestrial species that arrived in Bermuda thousands of years ago have weathered the ages and today count as precious endemics, unique to the island.
The island has long drawn scientists to its mid-Atlantic location, unique marine habitat, geological phenomena, mild climate, coral reef accessibility, and unusual forms of marine and terrestrial plant and animal life. The island lays claim to more than 8,300 known species, half of which are marine. About 3 percent are endemic. Bermuda’s biologically isolated ecology has posed intriguing questions to naturalists, particularly those interested in the development and survival of endemic species.
By its very geography, separated from the mainland by vast stretches of ocean, Bermuda’s biological character is unique. From its earliest days, the Gulf Stream acted as a massive conveyor belt, carrying seeds, plantlife, and marinelife to the limestone-covered former volcano; animals able to swim or fly from mainland habitats also arrived, and life gradually took root. Cut off from predators and other factors that shaped the evolution of mainland counterparts, plant and animal life, along with the habitats they clung to, survived or developed differently. Before humans arrived on the island in the early 1500s, abundant turtles, cahows (Bermuda petrels), and fish made the archipelago an idyllic natural larder. Rats and hogs arrived with the first passing sailors, who, it is believed, offloaded swine to multiply for future provisioning. Rodents, domestic animals, cockroaches, and other pests multiplied with the waves of English colonists who followed, from 1612 onwards, setting loose a domino effect of natural destruction that has continued into the 21st century.
Today, Bermuda’s wildlife remains under the international microscope. The Bermuda Zoological Society (www.bamz.org) and the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences (www.bios.edu) attract world-class scientists who use the island as a laboratory for global investigations, including studies on climatological risk prediction and the use of certain species, such as sea sponges, in pharmaceuticals. The Zoological Society also funds conservation research projects on endangered creatures such as seahorses, turtles, and toads. The Bermuda Biodiversity Project (www.biodiversityactionplan.bm), established through BZS in 1997, has generated important baseline studies of the island’s species and habitats, with a focus on those considered critically endangered. Among other aims, its scientists work to record data on caves, coral reefs, and other special habitats; define major threats to the island’s ecosystems; and develop education and public awareness programs.
© Rosemary Jones from Moon Bermuda, 2nd Edition