Three cacti species that dominate our island’s landscape are the Yatu, Kadushi and Kadushi di Pushi.
Known as Chogogo in Papiamentu, the Caribbean Flamingo is Bonaire’s national bird
Known as Turtuga blanku in Papiamentu, the Green turtle is one of our more common turtle species
Known as Wayaká in Papiamentu, this evergreen tree species has been used to treat numerous ailments.
Monarch butterflies are especially abundant in the Washington Slagbaai National Park.
Known as Gutu in Papiamentu, these distinctively colorful fishes play an important role in protecting our coral reefs.
Staghorn Coral is one of the most important shallow reef-building corals in the Caribbean
Shrimp or prawns are known as kabaron in Papiamentu. The Banded Coral Shrimp (Stenopus hispidus) is a type of cleaner shrimp found circumtropically. As its name implies, the Banded Coral Shrimp is easily identified by the striking red and white bands on its claws and abdomen. While the shrimp’s carapace, or body, only grows to 6cm in length, its large antennae can grow three times as long. When diving or snorkeling, look for little white antennae peeking out of the reef and you’re sure to find a hidden Banded Coral Shrimp. While these shrimp have been found as deep as 210 m, they are most abundant in the shallow reefs.
The adult Banded Coral Shrimp does not any known natural predators; likely do its symbiotic role between this shrimp and the reef community. Banded Coral Shrimp cleaning stations play an important role as the “hospitals” of the reef. These shrimp sway their antennae from side to side to attract reef creatures to its station. Fish and other creatures approach the station and signal to the shrimp that they need to be cleaned by changing colors or tilting their head up in the water and opening their mouth. These shrimp can be spotted entering and cleaning the jaws of moray eels, removing necrotic tissue from injured fish, and helping rid reef creatures of minute parasites. These tiny dentists have even been known to clean the teeth of patient divers!
Known as Buní wowo grandi in Papiamentu, the Bigeye Tuna (Thunnus obesus) and is one of three tuna species found in the Dutch Caribbean. Bigeye Tuna are pelagic species, meaning they prefer to stay in the islands’ deeper, open ocean. They are an important source of food and revenue to all Dutch Caribbean Islands, both through commercial fishing and recreational game fishing. On Curaçao, they are primarily targeted by long-line vessels and exported to the U.S.
Sadly, this tuna species is overfished globally and the IUCN Red List lists them as Vulnerable due to overfishing and incidental bycatch, particularly in the Pacific. According to a recent assessment, the Southern Caribbean population is not yet over-exploited, however the population biomass in the Atlantic decreased 40% over the last two decades. If managed sustainably, the Bigeye Tuna could thrive in Dutch Caribbean waters – the species has a lifespan of up to 12 years and reproduces quickly, with two spawning events a year during which females release around six million eggs. For those of you who enjoy fresh fish when eating out, give the Bigeye Tuna a break and enjoy some more sustainable choices such as Mahi Mahi (also known as Dolphinfish or Dorado) or Wahoo (Ocean Barracuda).
Known as the Prikichi in Papiamentu, this beautiful and brilliant species of parakeet, Aratinga pertinax, is regularly seen perched on trees on Bonaire. There are 11 subspecies of Brown-throated parakeet endemic to South America and the Southern Caribbean. Bird lovers can identify the Prikichi by its yellow-green underbelly, bright green wings and back and brown-tinged throat plumage. While the Prikichi is sometimes mistaken with the Yellow-Shouldered Amazon Parrot (Lora), it is smaller than the Lora, typically reaching 25cm in size; in addition, it lacks the red and blue wing feathers distinct to the Lora.
The Prikichi is highly vocal bird with a range of sounds from repeated “cri-eek-cri-eek” in flight, a high-pitched tittering “cree-cree, cree-cree” song to and chattering when at rest. It lives in a variety of habitats from mangroves to savannahs, arid shrubland to wooded urban parks, from sea level to 1,000 m elevation. They are social birds, normally spotted in pairs of small groups, though they sometimes roost in larger communal groups. They breed between February and September, typically nesting in sheltered tree cavities. Females typically lay 3-6 eggs, which they incubate for a little over 3 weeks. Chicks typically fledge within two months, though they sometimes remain with their parents or in small groups. The male feeds the fledglings while the female incubates the next clutch. They feed on a variety of fruits, flowers and seeds. Enjoy your birding adventure with the beautiful Prikichi!
Three cacti species that dominate the arid landscape of the ABC islands are locally known as Yatu (Stenocereus griseus), Kadushi (Cereus repandus) and Kadushi di Pushi (Pilosocereus lanuginosus). They are commonly grouped as “columnar cacti”, as they are hard to tell apart at first glance. However these magnificent cacti species, which can grow up to 10 m (~32.8 ft) tall, deserve a closer look. Here are a few tips to help you identify each one of them: Yatu grows straight up and branches out close to the ground; its thorns make up neat rows of rosettes. Kadushi is the largest of the three cacti species and looks more like a tree as it branches out further from the ground; its thorns form dense rows that stick out in all directions. Kadushi di Pushi has long white hairy spines and yellow prickles on the top of its branches.
All three species are abundant on the ABC islands, and the IUCN categorizes them as species of Least Concern. However, they are all listed in Appendix II of CITES, meaning that their trade is strictly regulated. The cacti have a very important ecological role: their fruits and flowers, which bloom only at night, provide critical food resources for a variety of the islands’ bats, birds and reptiles. Bonaire’s endangered Yellow-shouldered Amazon Parrot is especially dependent on the Kadushi’s red-purple fruit during periods of drought. The nectar-eating bats of the ABC islands, including the endangered Southern Long-nosed Bat, have a very special relationship with the cacti: they need them for food (the flowers of the cacti only boom at night, which suits the bats perfectly), and in turn, the cacti need the bats to pollinate their flowers.
The Yatu and Kadushi form an intrinsic part of our islands’ history and culture, as Bonairians, both past and present, have found many uses for them. The flesh of Kadushi is used to make medicine, shampoo and even a delicious soup (sopi di kadushi) typically eaten with fish or salted meat. In Rincón, the Cadushy Distillery produces the unique, local kadushi liquor, combining the extracted flavors of the cactus with traditional Awa di Lamoenchi (a sweet and refreshing lime beverage). The fruit of the Yatu has traditionally been used to make jam, and the cactus also has a number of traditional medicinal uses where Yatu extract was used as a cure for kidney stones and the cacti’s dried branches were roasted and used to cure an upset stomach. Yatu is also used to build cactus fences, which re-root easily and are covered in enough thorns to keep out goats… and uninvited guests. With a discerning eye, you can begin to distinguish the abundance of cacti species present on Bonaire, or you can enjoy their flavor in local cuisine and beverages.
Known as Chogogo in Papiamentu, the Caribbean Flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber) is Bonaire’s national bird. You can regularly see flamingos foraging in Bonaire’s saliñas (salt marshes), it’s hard to miss their distinctive pink plumage, long legs, and honking calls. They flock to Bonaire by the thousands to feed on brine shrimp and algae- a diet rich in carotene that gives them their characteristic pink coloration. You may notice how they sway their curved beak over the surface of the marsh to filter feed.
Bonaire is one of four major flamingo breeding sites in the Caribbean. On Bonaire, the flamingos breed exclusively in the Pekelmeer flamingo sanctuary in the south of the island, typically from January to July. The solar salt company Cargill manages the flamingo sanctuary, adjusting the water level within the sanctuary to ensure that it is optimal for breeding flamingos and making sure they are not disturbed. Upwards of 3,000 pairs of flamingos breed the sanctuary every year. The females lay a single white egg in a volcano-shaped nest built from mud. Once the breeding season is over, a portion of the colony flies to mainland Venezuela to feed in lagoons along the coast.
For detailed information on Flamingos click here.
Bonaire knows one iguana species, namely the Green iguana (or Common iguana). It is one of the largest lizards in the Americas, reaching 2 meters (6.5 feet) and weighing up to 5 kilograms (11 pounds). Their tail makes up half their total body length! It is an herbivore, meaning it eats no meat. It likes fruit, leaves, new shoots and flowers. Because the iguana is a reptile, and therefore a cold blooded animal, it needs the sun’s heat to warm up. After sunrise they are often found sitting on the roads to absorb the heat. They are also great swimmers! When threatened, they can run pretty fast, and can even survive falls on hard rock from as high as 12 meters (40 feet). The jaw of the Green iguana is very strong and filled with razor sharp teeth. Like other lizards, also this species can detach its tail when it’s caught and will grow a new tail back.
Known as Turtuga blanku in Papiamentu, the Green turtle (Chelonia mydas) is one of Bonaire’s more common species of sea turtles, along with the Hawksbill turtle (Eretmochelys imbricata). The Green turtle has a smooth edge to its shell (or carapace) and a rounded mouth, while the Hawksbill has a beaked mouth and a jagged edge to its shell. Green turtles nest on Bonaire’s sandy beaches and adults forage in coral reef areas, mangroves and seagrass beds. This large sea turtle is named for the green color of its body fat. Its carapace (shell) is olive and black colored with a teardrop shape. Adults live on a diet of seagrass and algae, although young Green Turtles also eat invertebrates such as crabs, shrimp and jellyfish. Green turtles typically stay underwater for 5 to 10 minutes when they are actively feeding, but can stay under for 2 to 3 hours when resting! They don’t need to come up for air during that time because their muscles and blood store large quantities of oxygen; their heart rate also drastically slows down to conserve as much oxygen as possible.
A number of monitoring projects have taken place to better understand the life cycles and migratory routes of this globally endangered species. Like other sea turtles, Green Turtles migrate vast distances between their nesting and foraging grounds. The Dutch Caribbean Nature Alliance collaborated with Stenapa St Eustatius and the St. Maarten Nature Foundation to track the migration route of both green and hawksbill turtles found on St. Eustatius and St. Maarten between 2006 and 2008. They founds that each of the four turtles they tracked travelled in a different direction—one went to the Dominican Republic, one to St Bartholomew, one to St Kitts and Nevis, and one stayed in St. Eustatius.
The IUCN Red List lists the Green turtle as endangered due human activities such as intentional egg harvest, contamination of or development on coastal habitats, incidental bycatch and degradation of nesting beaches. The local NGO S Sea Turtle Conservation Bonaire works to monitor, research and protect our turtles. We now know that female Green Turtles nest on Bonaire’s beaches at intervals of 2 to 3 years, and that adults are rarely seen outside the breeding season. Juveniles, however, are observed foraging year round in the waters around Bonaire. Through DNA analyses, it was found that these sea turtles come from other parts of the Caribbean and the South Atlantic. Some Green Turtles were found to come as far away as West Africa. They found that Green turtles in Lac Bay on Bonaire have much higher growth rates than in other parts of the Caribbean- demonstrating the importance of conserving seagrass and mangrove habitats in order to protect these turtles.
Known as Wayaká in Papiamentu, the Lignum Vitae trees are the only two species of evergreen native to Bonaire. The two species of Lignum Vitae that grow on the ABC Islands of the Dutch Caribbean are the Roughbark Lignum Vitae (Guaiacum officinale) and the Holywood Lignum Vitae (Guaiacum sanctum). These evergreen tree species are extremely slow growing and have multiple twisted trunks as well as leathery dark green leaves. Several times a year, they become covered in large clusters of beautiful small violet flowers that yield bright yellow-orange fruits.
Lignum Vitae means “Tree of Life” in Latin, a name derived from the medicinal uses of this evergreen’s resin, which contains both blood-purifying and anti-inflammatory compounds. Historically, this evergreen was used to treat ailments from gout to syphilis. Today, it is used as a chronic arthritis treatment. It is the densest of all the trade woods, and historically was used to construct ship propeller shafts, mallets, police truncheons, and even to smooth the surface of gemstones; the wood is so dense and heavy that it actually sinks in water.
The IUCN Red List categorizes both species as endangered due to historical overharvest of the timber. While the trees were harvested on a large scale on the ABC islands in the 18th and 19th centuries, they are now thrive on these islands and are a common sight, especially in protected areas such as the Washington Slagbaai National Park.
The Monarch butterfly (Danaus plexippus) is known around the world for its incredible mass migrations. Millions of Monarch butterflies travel south each autumn from the United States and Canada to California and the volcanic mountains in Central Mexico to escape the cold weather. Because the lifespan of Monarchs is so short (between 6 and 8 months), not one single butterfly that travels south will make the return trip back north the next summer; the next generations will do so. In places where the weather is warm year-round, Monarch butterflies do not migrate but stay in that one area for their entire lives.
This is the case for the Dutch Caribbean Islands, where these butterflies are a common sight year-round, although they have been known to disappear during long periods of drought. On Bonaire, Monarch butterflies are especially abundant in the Washington Slagbaai National Park, notably at Slagbaai.
Monarch butterflies are absolutely stunning. Their wings are bright orange with black veins and a black border with white spots. The fore wings also have three orange spots near the top. The rounded hindwings are a paler orange. Males have an additional black spot in the center of each hindwing. The black veins on their wings are also thinner than those of females. Both males and females have a black body with white spots.
The scientific name of the Monarch butterfly, Danaus plexippus, is Greek for “sleepy transformation”, and refers to the butterfly’s ability to hibernate in a cocoon and metamorphize from a caterpillar into a butterfly. There are actually four stages in the life cycle of the Monarch. It begins as an egg, which hatches into a caterpillar (larvae) after 3 to 5 days. As a caterpillar, it spends two weeks feeding on milkweed plants, after which it uses silk to attach itself to a leaf or stem and transforms into a jade green chrysalis. It then spends 10 to 12 days within this chrysalis, or cocoon, and transforms into an adult butterfly through a process called metamorphosis. Nature is clearly nothing short of spectacular!
One fascinating fact about the Monarch butterfly is that it is poisonous. Not to humans, but to predators such as frogs, grasshoppers, lizards, mice and birds. The poison it has in its body will not kill these predators, but it will make them very sick. The Monarch absorbs and stores poison in its body when it is a caterpillar and eats the poisonous milkweed plant. By ingesting the slightly toxic milksap, the caterpillars becomes inedible to potential predators. Milkweed plants are very important to these butterflies; in fact, females will only lay their eggs on these plants. The rarity of Monarch butterflies on Klein Bonaire has been attributed to the rarity of its larval food plant, Calotropis procera, locally known as Katuna di Seda. Adult Monarch butterflies eat the nectar from many different types of flowers. Like all butterfly species, they drink the nectar using their straw-like proboscis, a long, thin tube that forms part of their mouth. When not in use, the proboscis stays coiled under their head.
Nurse Sharks are known as Tribon di santu in papiamentu. The Nurse Shark (Ginglymostoma cirratum) is not your typical shark. It is a bottom dweller that often spends all day resting on the ocean floor or in a rock crevices and are more commonly seen on the East Coast of Bonaire. Unlike most shark species, the Nurse Shark does not need to move to breathe; when resting, it pumps water over its gills by continuously opening and closing its mouth.
Your best chance of seeing a nurse shark in action is on a night dive or an East Coast dive. The Nurse Shark is a nocturnal predator that feeds on small prey such as fish, squid and shrimp because of its small mouth. It has an unusual way of catching prey: it does by “hoovering” the ocean floor, whereby prey is sucked into its mouth. Its two distinctive barbells, the fleshy appendages that dangle below its nostrils, help the shark locate prey on the ocean floor. It also has small, serrated teeth with which it crushes hard-shelled prey such as sea snails, crab, sea urchins and lobster.
The Nurse Shark has a rounder and flatter body than most other shark species found within the Caribbean, with a broad round head and rounded dorsal fins. While Nurse Sharks are not aggressive towards divers, they can be provoked into biting if disturbed. If you see a Nurse Shark peacefully resting on the ocean floor, please admire it from afar.
Known as Gutu in Papiamentu, these distinctively colorful fishes play an important role in protecting our coral reefs. Why? Coral and certain types of algae compete for space on the reef. In recent decades, the amount of reef algae has increased dramatically throughout tropical reefs worldwide – effectively smothering the corals by choking off oxygen and disrupting helpful bacteria. Have you ever heard a crunching noise on the reef while watching a parrotfish? These fishes eat algae and detritus with their beak-like front teeth, making a distinctive sound. Without constant grazing from herbivores like parrotfishes, the algae grows tall and thick, overgrowing coral. By keeping algae in check parrotfish indirectly help maintain the health of coral reefs. That is why on Bonaire, it is illegal to harvest parrotfishes or use the types of traps that might accidentally catch them. Additionally, as parrotfish scrape algae they remove the top layer of rock from the reef. They grind this up and excrete it as sand- adding variety to the habitat on the reef and helping create the beaches we enjoy.
Maintaining healthy reefs is not the only cool thing these iconic fishes do. All but one species of parrotfish are sequential hermaphrodites- meaning that they change sex part way through their life. In the case of parrotfish, they are born female (Initial Phase) and transition to males (Terminal Phase). The transition is triggered by the size of the fish and group social cues. The same species looks drastically different at various stages of their life depending on their age and sex. On a night dive, look for species like the Queen parrotfish (Scarus vetula) sleeping in a mucous cocoon. Scientists believe they create these cocoons as a type of “mosquito net” to protect them from small parasites.
The largest parrotfish species on Bonaire is the charismatic Rainbow parrotfish (Scarus guacamaia), which can grow over 1m (3.2’) in length! Rainbow parrotfish are listed as Near Threatened by the IUCN Red List and has gone extinct in certain parts of the Caribbean due to overfishing and habitat loss. The good news is these fishes have their highest population density here on Bonaire. Keep your eye out for these big beauties when diving or snorkeling at the northern dive sites that they frequent.
Mangroves are known as palu di mangel in papiamentu. Mangroves are closely tied to seagrasses and coral reefs. They have a very important functional role in coastal ecosystems: they act as a nursery for many juvenile fish, like the rainbow parrotfish, until they are large enough to move to seagrass beds and coral reefs. In total, between 60 and 80 different species of fish can routinely be found in mangroves. Mangroves also export much needed organic compounds which are in short supply on coral reefs. Finally, they also provide roosting and breeding grounds for many aquatic birds- on Bonaire, mangrove-rich Lac Bay is designated as both a RAMSAR site and Important Bird Area.
The dominant mangrove species in Lac Bay is the red mangrove (Rhizophora sp). Red mangroves (Rhizophera sp.) are survivors- they live in extremely salty, brackish with low oxygen content through special adaptations such as breathing through lenticels (pores) in their prop roots (like a “snorkel”). The prop roots form a substratum for many different species: bivalves, tunicates, sponges, hydroids and many more. These roots – full of life – are often very colorful and many tourists enjoy snorkeling through the channels in the mangroves to explore them. All species of mangrove extrude salt through their leaves, which is why the leaves glisten in sunlight. Until the advent of synthetic lines the roots of the red mangrove were routinely used to strengthen natural fiber lines used in fishing. Traditionally they were used much more intensively than today for example in boat building and basket weaving as well as to produce charcoal. These mangroves also provide a buffer from storms and surge: living at the interface between land and water, mangroves provide a valuable service in preventing coastal erosion and mitigating wave action.
Seahorses are known as Kabai di awa in Papiamentu. Seahorses do not have pelvic or caudal fins, instead they use a propulsive dorsal fin and two small pectoral fins to stabilize their bodies and steer while swimming. They are slow swimmers, and typically wrap their tail around a soft coral, sponge or seagrass where they rely on stealth and serendipity to feed on small crustaceans that pass by. Keep a close eye on the reef when you are diving, and you may be lucky enough to see one of these little creatures. Once you spot one you’re almost sure to regularly find it in the same place- seahorses tend to have high site fidelity to their home range, particularly during the breeding season. Seahorses are known for their distinctive breeding, where males carry for the young. After an intricate courtship “dance” the female seahorse puts her eggs in the males’ kangaroo-like brood pouch, where they are fertilized. The male typically carries the young for two to four weeks, nourishing and protecting them.
On Bonaire, one iconic seahorse species is the Longsnout Seahorse (Hippocampus reidi), which inhabits our reefs, seagrass beds and mangroves. The Longsnout Seahorse forms monogamous pairs for the duration of the breeding season, where the male only accepts the eggs of one female to store in his brood pouch. They grow to approximately 17cm in height, with a slender body and a distinctive long snout. They range in color from yellow to red, orange, brown and black, with small brown specks on their body and tiny white specks along their tail.
Seahorses are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because of their high site fidelity, structured social behavior and relatively sparse distribution on the reef. The Longsnout Seahorse is listed in Appendix II of CITES, meaning that their trade is strictly regulated. In 1996, the IUCN Red List categorized the Longsnout Seahorse as Vulnerable species due to illegal harvest for aquaria trade, accidental bycatch from shrimp trawling and harvest for folk medicine. They are now listed as Data Deficient, but are believed to be particularly susceptible to decline, especially given their popularity in the pet trade. So, when you see them on a dive, remember that we want to protect these animals- keep your distance (cameras included) and watch your hands and fin kicks.
Staghorn coral (Acropora cervicornis) is one of the most important reef-building corals within the entire Caribbean region. This large branching coral often dominates reef communities: not only does it grow very fast at a rate of 10 to 20 cm a year, but it is also highly competitive and can overshadow other shallow coral colonies. Staghorn coral is named after its long, cylindrical branches that resemble stag antlers; these branches provide shelter for a plethora of reef species. Staghorn coral colonies grow through a process known as fragmentation: when a branch breaks off, it attaches itself to the substrate and forms a new colony. Individual colonies also reproduce sexually once a year, during which they release millions of gametes into the water column (known as spawning).
While it was once one of the most abundant stony coral species in the Caribbean region, the population of Staghorn coral has now been reduced by 80-98% since the 1980’s and the IUCN Red List categorizes it as Critically Endangered. Staghorn coral colonies face threats such as white-band disease, bleaching (from stressors such as increased temperatures, and pollution (e.g.oxybenzone-containing sunscreens, agricultural and industrial runoff) and sedimentation (worsened by near-shore deforestation and development). Many steps have been taken within the Dutch Caribbean to protect this critical coral species. Locally, the Bonaire Coral Restoration Foundation maintains Staghorn and Elkhorn Coral nurseries and transplants successful corals to our reefs. STINAPA and collaborating researchers regularly monitor coral health on our reefs so that our park managers can better target conservation efforts and gain valuable insight into what protection measures are most effective.
Known as the Lora in Papiamentu, the Yellow-shouldered Amazon (Amazona barbadensis) is a beautiful parrot that has a special place in the heart of many Bonaireans. It is named for the distinct yellow patch on its “shoulder” (the crease of its wing), and had a bright green plumage over most of its body. They typically mate for life, and their nesting season is from May-August. They lay eggs in cavities trees and cliffs, where the female guards the clutch while the male provides food for her and the chicks.
Although the Yellow-shouldered Amazon is often confused with the Brown-throated Parakeet (Aratinga pertinax) you can distinguish by the following features: it had large average body size of ~33cm (13”) compared to the ~25cm (10”) parakeet, it has a deep green underbelly while the parakeet’s is typically yellow-green, and the Yellow-shouldered Amazon has red and blue feathers on tips of its wings.
The Yellow-shouldered Amazon is native to Bonaire, Sint Eustatius and Saba, and Venezuela, but is locally extinct on Aruba and Curacao. Sadly, these parrots are becoming less abundant due to illegal poaching for the pet trade and habitat loss caused by historic deforestation by humans and present day deforestation by invasive goats and donkeys. The IUCN Red List lists the Yellow-shouldered Amazon as Vulnerable. In response, from 2006-2008 STINAPA worked to reforest Klein Bonaire with native plants, with the hope to restore habitat for the Yellow-shouldered Amazon and other local birds. In 2007, STINAPA restored the fence around Washington-Slagbaai National Park to exclude invasive goats. These birds are protected under island legislation. The local NGO Echo,, established in 2010, also works to protect and research the Yellow-shouldered Amazon, reforest the area with native plants and increase community awareness about their importance.