Under the Mistletoe

The Hunt for Dendropemon caymanensis

The Cayman Islands Department of Environment (DOE) recently collaborated on a project with longtime partner Royal Botanic Gardens Kew (RGB Kew), UK, to locate a mysterious Mistletoe species Dendropemon caymanensis known to be located only on Little Cayman. There is very little known about this parasitic plant but records from botanist George Proctor, author of the “Flora of the Cayman Islands”, indicate that it is possibly located within the North Eastern interior of Little Cayman and is a parasite of the Headache Bush (Capparis cynophallophora) and the Black Candlewood (Erithalis fruticosa). No one has seen this plant since 1991 and there is no photographic record – just a single herbarium collection as proof of its existence.

The people in the photo from left to right are: Steven Bachman & Justin Moat (RGB Kew), Jane Haakonsson & Jessica Harvey (DoE), and Fred Burton (BIRP).
The Dendropemon UAV team from left to right are: Steven Bachman & Justin Moat (RGB Kew), Jane Haakonsson & Jessica Harvey (DoE), and Fred Burton (BIRP).

In order to find this plant, the DOE and RGB Kew used a mini Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV). The UAV is a small flying machine with a camera; it weighs less than a kilogram (2 lbs) and is controlled by a sophisticated remote computer system. It takes aerial photographs on a pre-programmed course mapped out using a GPS coordinates.

The search team included Research Officers Jessica Harvey, Jane Haakonsson and GIS Officer Jeremy Olynik of the DOE, Species Conservation Assessment Officer Steven Bachman and GIS Officer Justin Moat of RGB Kew and Frederic Burton of the Blue Iguana Recovery Programme (BIRP) acting as our local plant specialist. Mr. Moat and Mr. Bachman are highly trained and certified UAV pilots with previous experience in the UK and Peru and both are off to Burkina Faso after their trip to the Cayman Islands.

The DOE worked closely with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to establish and follow all safety protocols. This included ensuring all launch and search sites were inspected and approved by the CAA prior to the project start date, approval was also granted by the Chief Surveyor of the Lands and Survey Department and all flights were coordinated and approved by the Grand Cayman and Cayman Brac Air Traffic Control towers prior to take-off. This is very important as flying UAVs without authorization could be a hazard to all types of aircrafts including police helicopters and mosquito planes. Launching and landing sites were also granted permission from the relevant land owners.

Survey areas included, with the permission of the National Trust, the Colliers Reserve and Salina Reserve in Grand Cayman where locations of the host plant species are already known. Images taken from these areas will be compared with images taken in Little Cayman. The project will also allow the DOE to try a new method of monitoring the Booby colony in the National Trust Booby Reserve on Little Cayman which could prove highly time and energy efficient compared to previous monitoring techniques.

Upon completion of this project the DOE hope to determine the true status of the endemic D. caymanensis in the Cayman Islands while also gathering data on the current status of the Booby breeding area in the Booby Pond Reserve. This project would not have been possible without assistance from the Mohamed Bin Zayed Conservation Group who donated just over US$ 3,000 to the project through a grant, the Cayman Islands National Trust including BIRP, the CAA, and RGB Kew.

This project started on 12 June 2014 and completed on the 19 June 2014. For more information, contact the DOE at , at 949-8469 during working hours or on our Facebook page.

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