Bermuda: Living Museum Project

Last week I briefly discussed Bermudian Dr. David Wingate and the “living museum” project he has introduced to Nonsuch Island, one of Bermuda’s satellite islands. Because Dr. Wingate has persevered against daunting odds to see his rehabilitation of native species to Nonsuch succeed, his efforts deserve a more in-depth look. The Dr. Wingates of the world challenge and inspire each of us to make a difference, in a great or small way, to make this world a better place.

The Project

Dr. Wingate hopes to restore Nonsuch Island to pre-settlement conditions, where native and endemic flora and fauna can re-establish themselves and, if possible, gain sustainable numbers. Several characteristics made Nonsuch ideal for such a living experiment.

1. Nonsuch is relatively remote from the mainland island, therefore introduced species are less likely to successfully invade (i.e. swim or fly to) Nonsuch and thwart the experiment. However, invasive species do arrive: cane toads have swum to Nonsuch; droppings from birds such as starlings contain viable seeds from pests such as the Brazilian pepper plant, which Dr. Wingate energetically weeded as he toured me around the island.

2. Topographically, Nonsuch island provided most of the six habitats required so as to duplicate the mainland’s varied habitat: beach dune, the rocky coastal, coastal hillside, and upper forest habitats. Two habitats: saltwater marsh and freshwater ponds needed to be built, however. These were both successfully started in 1975. Today, they are well established and blinds permit scientists to study birds and other wildlife unobtrusively.

3. Nonsuch is small enough to be manageable. In other words, Dr. Wingate and his team are able, more or less, to eradicate many of the invasive, non-native species that still manage to gain a foothold. Included in this list of unwanted organisms are rats which he eradicates by using the chemical Warfarin, an anti-coagulant poison.

Why is the project important?

The flora and fauna (vegetation and animals) of Bermuda were gradually wiped out by human activity. As well, from first contact with the island country, settlers introduced familiar species living organisms, sometimes on purpose (starlings, house sparrows, cats), sometimes by accident (rats, cedar scale blight). Such species have predated on the native flora and fauna and, due to their success, indigenous species largely perished.

“Nonsuch” is probably named after a Tudor palace in Surrey, England. The name means “unequalled.” It’s a fitting name for Dr. Wingate’s Living Museum experiment, as he tries to reintroduce native Bermudian species to this country’s satellite island.

What was Nonsuch like before the experiment began?

In 1947 a shipload of cedar trees arrived in Bermuda. Unfortunately, the small trees were covered in cedar scale insects. Cedar once flourished here, and Bermuda sloops (boats) were world famous from the late 1700s on, because the wood resisted rot and was light and durable. A Bermuda sloop was said to last 80 years at minimum. Between 1947-1951 Nonsuch Island was virtually denuded of cedar. Goats were allowed to graze and a “lunar landscape” evolved.

When did the Living Museum Project commence?

In 1951 the Bermuda petrel, or cahow, was rediscovered. This was news, since the sea bird was registered as being extinct for 300 years. Dr. Robert Cushman Murphy of the American Museum of Natural History and Louis B. Mowbray, curator of the Bermuda Aquarium, and a young schoolboy named David Wingate became excited about how they could create a viable habitat in which the species could grow to sustainable numbers of breeding pairs. Eighteen pairs were found and in the next ten years the team developed the “baffler” nest, to protect cahows nests from the longtails, another more successful sea bird.

In 1962, Dr. Wingate moved to Nonsuch as a permanent resident. Since then, he has dedicated his life to the reintroduction of endemic and native species.

What does “endemic” mean?

Endemic refers to a species that is not only native to an area or country, but which only appears in that area or country.

How successful is the Living Museum project?

An internationally recognized conservation project, Nonsuch Island is an example of how habitats can be successfully restored despite almost total destruction of original species.

Dr. Wingate notes, “By taking advantage of Nonsuch Island’s isolation to exclude by quarantine, or remove invasive introduced species and then reintroducing as much as possible of the original native and endemic species within their original context, I have demonstrated that the natural heritage can still be viable. Indeed, the project has succeeded beyond my wildest dreams.”

Another gauge of success is the population of cahows, which now has grown to 55 breeding pairs or 200 birds.

What problems exist?

The project has encountered its challenges. First, the cahow nests needed protection from the longtails, which competed for the nest sites. Second, cane toads managed to swim to Nonsuch. These large toads like to shelter in the cahow nests and present a problem because skin glands on their backs secrete a toxin poisonous to the birds. Dr. Wingate has erected a barrier around the freshwater pond (the built pond habitat on Nonsuch) which is where the toads breed.

What is the future?

Dr. Wingate retired in October 2000 and Jeremy Madeiros is the new Conservation Officer on Nonsuch Island. As he says, “I hope to increase the breeding pairs [of cahows] to 200 on “my watch”.”

Today, Dr. Wingate gives tours of the island to interested tourists, Elderhostel groups, and scientists from all over the world. His advice remains the same to everyone, “Check your clothing, socks and footwear for seeds or burrs of alien plants and remove these before landing.”

This, and his six other rules of conservation for Nonsuch Island will, hopefully, ensure that the Living Museum conservation project succeeds for years to come. Certainly, the dedication, inspiration and sheer hard work of Dr. Wingate serves as symbol to all of us who strive to make a difference in our natural world.


Katharine Fletcher is a freelance journalist who enjoys exploring her natural world. Contact her at