In 1493 Christopher Columbus named it after a mountain in northeastern Spain because he found the island to be as lush and green as the Catalonian province. It’s nicknamed the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean because its early Irish settlers found it reminiscent of their green coasts. But 500 years later most of the Lesser Antillean island of Montserrat has been anything but green. Its volcano became active again in 1995 and nearly two decades of periodic pyroclastic flows, lahars (mudflows with volcanic materials), as well as gas and ash venting have converted much of the island, especially the southern half, to a gray wasteland. The old capital of Plymouth, in fact, is covered under 40 feet of mud and ash. From the nearby town of Richmond Hill, which is about as close as you can get without being arrested (I’ve tried), you can see old sugar mills and three-story boulders that the volcano tossed all the way to Plymouth mixed together in a strange melange.
Since 2009, I’ve been visiting this island to get a peek at Anolis lividus, a medium-sized anole from the bimaculatus clade only found there. My goal was to get as close to the volcano as possible and try to find A. lividus. I was able to get into the exclusion zone, which is the portion of the island that is deemed unsafe to visit at all, only twice. Once I was able to accompany a geological surveying team (June 2009) and the other time I was personally escorted by the superintendent of the police department (January 2011). It really is that difficult to get access into the exclusion zone. Entering alone or without permission is a foolish idea – helicopters patrol the area for delinquents, and neither the prison sentence nor the 2,000 dollar fine are appealing. To get into the exclusion zone, you cross the Belham River to the southern half of the island, where an authorized official opens the gate and then locks it behind you when you go in, so no one else can follow you. Both visits into the exclusion zone were too brief, but fascinating nonetheless.
All said and done, I’ve spent about 8 hours in the exclusion zone and have seen only two lizards, a mating pair in a tree in the abandoned town of Weeke’s. This town is almost at the border to the exclusion zone, and the habitat there seemed relatively unaffected by the volcano. It didn’t smell like sulfur, there wasn’t too much standing ash on the ground, and I saw no obvious signs of acid rain damage. Compared to other parts of the exclusion zone, it was a relative Eden, and these two lizards were the resident Adam and Eve. As far as herpetofauna are concerned, I’ve seen one adult iguana, as well, but that’s it. The exclusion zone is separated from the rest of Montserrat, where anoles are still quite abundant in most places, by the Belham River valley, which is a wide mudflat that is periodically covered in a fresh layer of ash and pyroclastic material. It seems possible to me that dispersal to even the nicer parts of the exclusion zone are limited by this barren riverbed.
I would like to get to the exclusion zone more, but for the time being I’m spending most of my time in the north. Here the anoles seem to get along more or less fine. This past year the volcano has been relatively quiet, so life seems to have come back in most places, even in the exclusion zone town of Richmond Hill, where I saw lots of insects and birds this time around. When the volcano is active the effects can be quite dramatic (see photo above). Let’s hope the dome doesn’t collapse again for a little while!