Exploring Students’ Attitude and Awareness to the Management and Control of Invasive Species on Grand Cayman.  A Baseline Study.

Most countries know when they are being invaded, but not when it’s by seemingly innocuous creatures like trees or fish.  There have been no baseline studies of the awareness and perceptions of invasive species conducted on Grand Cayman.  Invasive non-native species are one of the main threats to biodiversity.  Consequently there is a need to control or eradicate those species that are causing problems in order to mitigate their impact.  An understanding of the need to control and manage invasive species can be critical to the success of such projects.  To assess attitudes towards invasive species management and socio-demographic factors influencing such attitudes, a mixed methods approach was used.  The main research instrument was questionnaire survey of 320 High School students on Grand Cayman, along with interviews and discussions with students.  It was concluded, that there is huge support for conservation management on Grand Cayman; however, students need help in understanding control methods and the threats to biodiversity posed by invasive species.  Stakeholders involved with education and conservation management, need to engage directly with students, explaining the reason for eradication programmes, by providing a more heuristic learning environment.  The study calls for a modification in the national curriculum and a reinforcement of the social, economic and environmental impact of invasive species, at every stage in their education.  This would equip teenagers with the knowledge and experience to make their own informed judgments and decisions regarding these issues as they advance forwards to become tomorrow’s community leaders and stewards of their Island environment.

Biological Invaders

Biological invaders are thought to be the second largest threat (globally) after habitat destruction, to biodiversity In many areas for example Europe, invasive species came along with the introduction of agriculture and now seem to be “part of the furniture”.  The Caribbean has many invasive species, despite some islands being geographically isolated.  The Green Iguana (Iguana iguana) for instance, is now considered an invasive species.  In Australia the Cane Toad (Bufo marinus) has caused much devastation to the Australian ecosystem.  These are prominent examples, but, as stated by Williamson (1999) “whatever the local perception, invasions are almost everywhere, an increasing problem.”

Grand Cayman, courtesy of Wikitravel.


Because of their relative isolation, the Cayman Islands are unlikely to have been physically attached to other land masses, despite being near to Jamaica, and on the edge of the North America and Caribbean plates.  All flora and fauna must therefore have arrived via long distance or passive dispersal.  Even marine organisms had to colonise after migrating long distances of very deep ocean.  (Brunt and Davies 1994)


Grand Cayman covers 197 sq km, of which the majority are wetlands composing of tidal mangrove swamps, dominated by the red mangrove Rhizophora mangle.  The islands highest natural point is some 15ft above sea level.  There are no rivers; most of the runoff from rainwater goes into the North Sound.

Maps of undisturbed vegetation in the Cayman Islands, 1998.
© Frederic J.  Burton/National Trust for the Cayman Islands

Around fifteen years ago, scientific studies revealed many endemic species and sub species, including 21 plants, one mammal, 16 birds, 21 reptiles, 3 fish and various insects.  Other species which are not endemic but are threatened and needed to be conserved are the booby Sula sula which is found on Little Cayman, and the whistling duck, Dendrocygna arborea.

Threats to Biodiversity

Of the globally threatened species identified in the 2004 IUCN Red List, 74 critically endangered species occur in the UK Overseas Territories (compared to 10 in metropolitan UK) along with 49 endangered species (12 in metropolitan UK) and 117 vulnerable species (37 in the metropolitan UK).  Many of these species are endemic and so are found nowhere else in the world.  In addition, and as an indication of the threat to island biodiversity, there are 39 recorded extinctions in the UK Overseas Territories and two species are extinct in the wild, compared with only a single extinction from the metropolitan UK.  (JNCC report 2009)

Non-native species are a major cause of the loss of biodiversity globally and their impacts are especially severe on the island ecosystems and species typical of Overseas Territories.  Species on islands such as The Caymans’ are often vulnerable to the impacts of non-native species because of their previous isolation from predators, diseases or competitors.  Indeed, the majority (72%) of global extinctions since 1500 have occurred on islands and, for example 67% of threatened birds on oceanic islands are threatened by invasive alien species, compared to only 8% on continents (Baille et al 2004).  Invasive species are also thought to be responsible for the extinction of at least 65 bird species, more than any other known factor (Baille et al 2004).

Problems with invasive and non-native species are apparent in many of the overseas territories; however the full extent of their occurrence and of the subsequent threat posed, is still not known.

Since the boom years of 1964 – 1974 the rise in population from 1964 (ca.  8000) to the present day (ca.  55,000) the major threat to Caymanian biodiversity is the destruction of habitat.  Large scale deforestation appears to be accelerating and as do other unsustainable forms of human activity and land uses, such as housing, roads and golf courses.  These continue to displace native biodiversity.  As a result, 46% of Cayman Islands’ native plants are now threatened with extinction.  If measures are not taken, recent estimates indicate that complete deforestation will have occurred in all three islands by the end of the century.

Environmental Awareness and Education.

It’s been well documented that environmental campaigns based on providing education alone has been ineffective in producing changes in behaviour and thus attitudes .  (Kollmuss et al 2002) At high school level the students should have the maturity to be developing a more heuristic approach to learning.  However understanding issues like invasive species, is very much an abstract concept which has limits on human cognition, many of the reasons for this are bulleted below:  (after Hollmuss & Agymen 2002)

  • Non immediacy of environmental problems.  If it’s not ‘in your face’ then it’s not important.  Most environmental degradation happens over time and as was noted before, many students do not look as far forward as next week, so communication and meanings have to be constructed with visual aids such as pictures and graphs (and recently Hollywood has made movies like “The Day After Tomorrow, and  Avatar) to get some of the concepts across.
  • Slow and gradual ecological destruction.  The best metaphor for this is the famous experiment where, when the frog is placed into hot water, it immediately jumps out, but when immersed in cold water and slowly heated, it did not react and boiled to death.  Environmental decay is almost imperceptible.
  • Emotional involvement.  Stephen Jay Gould (1991:14) states:  We cannot win this battle to save species and environments without forging an emotional bond between ourselves and nature as well – for we will not fight to save what we do not love” studies have shown that a when emotional involvement is high , their relationship towards management was stronger Fischer &van der Wal (2007)

For students to become stewards of the environment, it has to be meaningful to them.  Meanings can be goal orientated or related to culture; by culture one can consider the appreciation of the environment.  This appreciation can only occur if one interacts with nature.  E.O Wilsons Biophilia hypothesis states that humans have “an innate tendency to focus on life and life – like processes” (Wilson 1984:1).

Little research has been carried out in the Cayman Islands regarding the attitudes of the society towards the management of invasive species (IS).  In such a small population this is very much a social issue which touches upon both economic and environmental factors as much as it does ecologically.

Adolescents, especially those who are about to leave school and become adult citizens play an important role in society; influencing their parents and siblings about matters that are important to them.  Many Cayman teenagers enjoy fishing and partake in outdoor pursuits.  These students are about to go into the workforce, and become part of the human capital; “the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual capacities of any individuals” Porritt (2007)

Some baseline information about awareness and misconceptions, regarding invasive species, has to be acquired in order for meaningful teaching to take place.  Only then can adolescents be guided towards informed and effective discussion and knowledge based values in order participation in future decision making.

Specific Aims

  • To measure the level of student awareness of invasive species.
  • To ascertain whether there is more support for the management of certain species than others.
  • To determine what socio – demographic variables influence choices of management and levels of awareness in high school.
  • To determine what methods of communication used by conservation managers and educators are raising student awareness.

Specific Research Questions.

  • At what level are students’ aware of invasive species?
  • Which species generate more support for control and management of invaders?
  • What socio – demographic variables influence choices of management and levels of awareness in high school?
  • Which method of communication was most utilized by the students?

Below: shows the information given to the students besides each photo.

a) Casuarina trees.  These are fast growing and can outgrow the local trees, preventing other plants and trees to thrive and the wildlife that depend on these.  The shallow roots prevent turtles from digging their nests and speed up beach erosion during the winter storms.  The needle like leaves which they drop below them, stop the   growth of vegetation beneath them.

b) Scaevola sericea is fast growing and very tolerant of salty water, it is seen on the beaches.  Its rapid growth means that it overtakes the slower growing local species Scaevola plumiere (Inkberry).  The native species has black berries whereas the invasive has white berries, the native species is now on the endangered list.

c) Lionfish were introduced in 2007 from Biscayne Bay.  These beautiful fish are voracious predators.  They have no natural predators; they grow rapidly and can reproduce within a year old and produce lots of eggs.  They eat any fish they can get into their mouth, this will inevitably lead to a loss of the local fish population over time and will have a detrimental effect on the life of the fishermen and the dive industry who rely on fish for their livelihood.

d) The Monk Parakeet was introduced in the 1980s after the release of captive birds in Georgetown.  These compete with local birds and parrots for food.  They also pose an environmental health hazard as they build large community nests on power lines.

e) Green Iguana, these out compete the Grand Cayman Blue Iguana for food, and space.

f) Fire ant, native of South America this ant is a top predator eating other invertebrates as well as affecting other vertebrate species by eating the eggs of native lizards and invading the nests of iguanas.
photograph © Alex Wild 2006


g) Feral Dog, these were thought to have killed the native Blue Iguana and are responsible for killing many other birds and mammals on the island.

h) Feral cat, these are responsible for killing native species of Blue iguana, they also eat the eggs and kill many other birds and small mammals on the island.

i) Black and Brown rats.  These have thought to have been responsible for the extinction of at least two endemic (found only on Grand Cayman) species of shrew.

 j) Logwood, this species was deliberately introduced and is now invading native thickets and will eventually displace native plants.

Results and Discussion

Figure 3.  Shows where students acquire their information from.

Figure 4.  Chart comparing the percentage of students attitudes towards different control methods

Student Awareness of Invasive Species.  Table 1 Shows an example of some of the questions asked.

Question No Attitude and Value Statement
12 Protecting the Cayman countryside and its wildlife should be a Government funded priority
13 Controlling some wildlife (both native and non-native) is necessary to help conserve the environment.
14 All invasive non-native species living in Cayman should be eradicated(totally removed), where possible, to protect native species.
15 Non-native species should be controlled or eradicated where they cause economic damage
16 Non-native species should be controlled or eradicated where they do damage to any native Cayman species.
17 Non-native species should be controlled or eradicated where they do damage to threatened Cayman species.

Figure 5 Shows the reported frequencies of attitudes towards management and conservation, in Cayman.

Figure 6 Shows the percentage of students aware of invasive species.

Figure 7.  Chart comparing the percentage of students attitudes towards different control methods

There is a lack of support for the use of herbicides, pesticides, digging up trees, sterilisation, trapping and lethal injection were all above 60%.  Interestingly students were more supportive of poisoning, shooting and cutting down trees as methods of control.

The results show that on analysis of the answer to question 21 (which of the above species a – j where you aware of being invasive before you did the questionnaire?) revealed that under 50% of students were aware that each of the species was invasive.  The terrestrial plants show the lowest percentages, followed by wild dogs and cats.

Qualitative Research Data

Interviews and Observations

Below are some remarks made by students when in discussion with the teacher, who went through the questionnaire and asked what the student “thought about the photo”:

Lionfish photo – “kills fishes, stings you”

Green iguana – “keep it” national symbol

Fire ant – “stings you”

“Most of the students in my class, when discussing the lionfish problem said it was bad for us because it may sting you, or you could accidentally stand on it, there was no mention of students talking about them eating juvenile fish”   Laura Edmonds (teacher (pers com.))

Environmental Education; High School and Beyond.

My contention is that the teaching and learning of environmental education, and sustainable development, within the high school, falls short of providing students with the intellectual and emotional acumen which would allow them to become good stewards to the environment.  The analysis of the survey is discussed here.

Student Perceptions

Students showed very high levels of support for controlling wildlife (>90%) however where eradication was mentioned, these showed lower levels of support (<90%) but still over 50% of the students supported these attitudes.  My contention is that many students dislike the ‘idea’ of killing any life, this is borne out by some of the comments students made in their final comments, statements 5, 7, 8 and 14 all say that they are opposed to killing dogs, ”they can be tamed” or other wildlife “There is no right to kill any animals native or non – native, they are animals and they deserve to live no matter what” These statements also correlate with questions 14 and 15 which asked students whether they thought all invasive or non native species should be eradicated.  Clearly the students do not like to kill things.  From an ethnographic standpoint, many of the students attend church regularly from an early age, and continue to do so into their teens, perhaps it is the influence of the church (e.g.  “the sanctity of life,” “go forth and multiply”) and a strong Christian (and Seventh Day Adventist) ethos;  that has impacted the students’ attitudes towards the control methods?

Much of the information students acquired were from mass media (TV, radio and the newspapers) very few state the internet and parents.  In studies on the affect of TV on knowledge (of science) TV has little is gained from and in many cases the information can create misunderstanding, even of the reporting is accurate.  (Hargeaves et al 2003)

Attitudes to different control methods.

Summary statistics of the student’s attitudes towards the various control methods yielded interesting data.  Most students were ambivalent as  to how invasive species should be controlled, with 50% agreeing that shooting and lethal injection were acceptable but the majority of students were against all the other forms of control (>60%) with the least favoured being sterilization/ contraception and trapping which is contrary to what other studies found ( Fraser, 2006).  This seems ironic as the human society and Cayman C.A.R.E advocate spaying and neutering programmes, much of it with local and international support.


This dissertation has allowed the researcher to have an extensive view of the awareness and attitudes of students in Grand Cayman towards conservation issues.  There is huge support for conservation management on Grand Cayman, however students need help in understanding the threats that invasive species pose to biodiversity.

Only by taking students out of the classroom situation, away from text books, and into the environment at every stage in their education, by incorporating the different disciplines of ecology, sociology and economics, will students gain a personal experience and understanding of the damage caused by invasive species.  Perhaps then students may realize the benefits of control and eradication programmes, and prevent invaders from spreading.  There is no better way to affect a global change in any society than to start with the youth of today, locally.

About the author:

Sharon Adam-Whitmore is based in Grand Cayman where she writes and teaches in the sciences. She has a special interest in marine ecology, drawing particularly on her experience as a skilled scuba diver and hyperbaric chamber technician.

Email: sharon@bsac.ky

Blog: http://shazeil.blogspot.com

Sponsors: David Hirschowitz and Neil Whitmore