When you're right in the middle of your yoga routine nothing ruins your zen quite like a nibble on the finger from a cheeky iguana. In a clip uploaded to social media earlier this week, a Bahamian yoga instructor, who now goes by the name "Da Iguana Gal" on Twitter, is seen mid-pose on a beach – an audience of iguanas watching her every move. As the yogi stretches her hand out in a wide arc above her head, one of the lizards – enticed by the prospect of a tasty morsel to eat – scuttles closer and nips at an outstretched finger. 

"Ow! He bit my f****ng finger," the disgruntled recipient of the iguana chomp can be overheard screaming in the video, before hurling a handful of sand at the nonchalant lizard. In the iguana's defence, this was not a malicious attack, but rather a hopeful lunge for food. As Da Iguana Girl herself outlines on Twitter, tourists have been flocking to Bahamian beaches just like this one for years now armed with a buffet of treats for the local reptile population. Feeding iguanas is big business in The Bahamas, but – as is often the case when humans and wildlife share landscapes – things can get complicated.

Three subspecies of northern Bahamian rock iguana can be found basking on white-sand beaches or scuttling through tropical forests across the island nation, and two of these live in the Exumas – an idyllic chain of tiny islands, or cays, scattered in the turquoise waters of the Atlantic some one hundred miles from the capital, Nassau. The viral video – according to Charles Knapp, a scientist from Chicago's Shedd Aquarium who has been working with iguanas for over 20 years – was likely shot on Bitter Guana Cay and the star of the clip is an Exuma Island rock iguana (Cyclura cychlura figginsi). 

"Prior to 2006, it was challenging to find iguanas on this particular cay," Knapp told us via email. "However, tour operators began to arrive to feed the iguanas and in a short amount of time, the animals became desensitized to people and now appear on the beach in large numbers." It's a trend that has occurred on more than one of the country's cays triggering shifts in iguana behaviour and physiology that researchers like Knapp are doing their best to monitor. In some instances, the reptiles will scurry to the water when they hear the whir of an outboard motor – it's a sort of Pavlovian response to the prospect of a free meal.

Bahamian rock iguanas are often fed unnatural or inappropriate foods like grapes, bread or potato chips and may wind up scoffing down a heap of sand along with their treats as many tourists (wisely) throw the food on the beach to avoid getting too close to those powerful chompers. Knapp's research indicates that the iguanas that are regularly fed show elevated glucose levels and high parasitic loads, not to mention that plant dynamics may be disrupted if the lizards give up gnawing on leaves and instead rely entirely on handouts from humans.

A typical example of iguana feeding in The Bahamas (note the appeal of colourful nail polish for the reptiles).

Feeding the iguanas, then, seems like a really bad idea. But there are upsides that have to be considered and inevitably complicate this unique web of human-reptile interaction, Knapp points out. "We are happy that people choose to observe these amazing animals. Feeding the animals, however, is a complicated issue because the immediate socioeconomic benefits are obvious but the long-term impacts to the iguanas are less understood," he explains. "Tour operators in The Bahamas rely on these wildlife opportunities to showcase for tourists. We recommend that these activities are conducted in a manner that reduces any negative impacts on animals and their habitats."

A good start would be the introduction of specially formulated, pelleted food for the iguanas which could be sold to tourists to discourage people dishing out potato chips and bread. Delivery systems could also be altered: rather than lobbing wet food on the ground where it gets gobbled up along with a healthy dose of sand, the food could be served in some other way that minimises sand ingestion. In a study authored by Knapp and other iguana experts, they also stress the importance of leaving certain cays untouched "to keep iguana populations in a natural state so that they may serve as controls for interpreting long-term physiological and demographic impacts."

For now, rock iguanas in The Bahamas are doing okay, but threats from invasive species, habitat encroachment and the fact that the reptiles have such fragmented populations makes them vulnerable to extinction. Knapp and other researchers continue to work on figuring out sustainable solutions to secure the iguanas' future.

As for the yoga pro who bore the brunt of the problematic feeding practices going on in the Exumas, she's doing just fine. A quick visit to the doctor and some antibiotics were all that she required. "The woman in the video is lucky that the iguana was small. A large iguana could have removed a finger," Knapp warned. "These are calm creatures that are not interested in people except if there is a potential food reward. On beaches where iguanas are fed, people do need to be careful."

Iguanas may not be malicious, but it's best to keep your distance all the same.

Header image: Joseph Bylund