Documenting the Flora of the Hellshire Hills and Goat Islands in Jamaica

The Hellshire Hills, on the south-central coast of Jamaica, form a roadless and rugged karst landscape supporting the largest intact dry coastal forest left in the Caribbean. What little rain falls here disappears underground immediately, and the trees and thorny scrub sprout directly from honeycombed limestone.  The lack of fresh water and daunting terrain have prevented the development of Hellshire, which has been the saving grace for at least 48 plant species endemic to Jamaica and some of the rarest animals in the world. The Jamaican iguana (Cyclura collei) was thought to be extinct for most of the last century—a casualty of predation by introduced hogs, cats, and mongoose—but was rediscovered in Hellshire in 1990.

In 1994, a partnership was formed between the University of the West Indies- Mona in Kingston (UWI), the Fort Worth Zoo, and Kingston’s Hope Zoo to begin a head-start program, which has now returned several hundred young iguanas to the wild.  The central core of Hellshire, which has the largest (and perhaps only) wild Jamaican iguana population, is also protected by a rigorous predator trapping program conducted by members of the Jamaican Iguana Recovery Group, led by UWI professor Dr. Byron Wilson.  If not for the head start and trapping programs, the Jamaican iguana would now be extinct, because captive breeding programs have been unsuccessful.  After twenty years of intensive conservation efforts, the wild population is estimated to be fewer than 250, resulting in the Jamaican iguana’s inclusion in a 2012 IUCN publication highlighting the world’s 100 most endangered species. Meanwhile, the iguanas’ only habitat, the forest of Hellshire—part of Jamaica’s Portland Bight Protected Area—is under increasing threat from illegal wood harvesting and charcoal burning.

 The plants of Hellshire had not previously been comprehensively studied, beyond a rapid survey of the flora in 1970 (known as the Woodley Report and published by UWI in 1971), but with a grant to the Caribbean Wildlife Alliance in 2012 from the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, the flora has now been documented by botanists from the Botanical Research Institute of Texas (BRIT) and UWI.  Over four expeditions in 2012-2013, this botanical project accomplished the most thorough survey of the plants of Hellshire ever undertaken, depositing 464 vouchered herbarium collections (at two Kingston herbaria and at BRIT), representing at least 376 species of plants.  Of these, 229 species had already been reported by Woodley.  In other words, this project collected at least 147 species not previously published as occurring in Hellshire, a much larger number than anticipated.  These include new records of invasive weeds as well as endemic and endangered species. By adding the 271 plant species recorded by Woodley to the 147 species this project collected that had not previously been recorded from Hellshire, one obtains a total of 418 plant species.  In other words, this project resulted in a 54% increase in the known flora of the Hellshire Hills (including Manatee Bay and the Goat Islands), and added eight endemic plant species records to the flora. Data and images for every plant collected are available online in BRIT’s Digital Herbarium (, by browsing by “Project,” and selecting “Flora of the Hellshire Hills, Jamaica.”

The Woodley Report’s plant list contained 12 species that are listed as Near-Threatened (NT), Vulnerable (VU), Endangered (EN), or Critically Endangered (CR) by the IUCN Red List, according to an export from the Red List website performed in April 2013.  This project found five more plant species from the Red List, including three species listed as Endangered, and one species listed as Critically Endangered, bringing the Red List number for Hellshire to 17 plant species total.  Many plant species of Hellshire are poorly-known and rarely collected, making any assessment of their conservation status extremely difficult.  The  Woodley Report survey produced the most often-quoted number of endemic plant species in Hellshire (53), but it is not widely known that the text states explicitly that species were categorized as such whether they were endemic to Jamaica alone, or endemic to both Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.  The new Flora of Hellshire project vouchered 36 species endemic to Jamaica alone, including many from the Woodley list, while adding eight new endemic species records for the region.  After removing from the Woodley “endemic” list species that are also found in the Caymans, and after the removal of a few species that botanists have “sunk” into wider-ranging species and no longer consider endemic, we can state that the combined projects have vouchered at least FORTY EIGHT plant species endemic to Jamaica alone.  Further data analysis is likely to reveal an even higher number.

Building a Better World

This project has contributed to the conservation management plan for the Portland Bight Protected Area being drafted by fellow CEPF grantees, the Caribbean Coastal Area Management Foundation (C-CAM), and will increase our understanding of the natural history of the Jamaican iguana, by facilitating identification of its native foodplants.  Additionally, this project has contributed freely-available online documentation of the Hellshire flora, including more than 5000 vouchered plant images, that will be valuable to other researchers.

One of the goals of this flora was to create better resources for the conservation of the Jamaican iguana, which has evolved to eat plants that grow in the Hellshire Hills. When plants were collected with fleshy, mature fruits likely to appeal to an iguana, the seeds were cleaned and imaged.  Eighty-one plant species’ digital records include these cleaned seed images, which are being used to create a field guide so that Jamaican iguana scat samples can be analyzed and the seeds successfully identified to species. 

This is an important step in identifying favored iguana foodplants, and will also allow targeted conservation efforts if any foodplant species turns out to be equally imperiled—not an unlikely situation, as the iguana may also be the most important disperser of these plant species.


Preparing Specimens

Botanist Amanda Neill preparing a specimen of Pilosocereus swartzii (a columnar cactus) for preservation, on the beach at Manatee Bay. (Photo by Tiana F. Rehman)


Plants of Hellshire Hills

A remarkably large percentage (30%) of the plant species in Hellshire have brightly-colored fruits, such as this member of the Myrtle family, Calyptranthes pallens. (Photo by Amanda K. Neill)



Past Research

BRIT staff have been involved in a variety of projects in Texas and at international sites. This section highlights many of the projects that were completed within the past fifteen years.

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This is a list of titles written by BRIT's research staff and research associates over the past five years.

Biodiversity Research

This section highlights many of the current and ongoing projects that BRIT researchers are working on.