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Thirty Years of Accomplishment: A Project from the Past – U.S. Virgin Islands

See where thousands of hermit crabs converge each year

It’s not every morning that the team at National Park Trust (NPT) wakes up to see the results of its land preservation efforts featured on the national news. But that’s exactly what happened in September of 2012 when Good Morning America picked up on a YouTube video from the U.S. Virgin Islands that was going viral. While the news anchors joked about the “terrifying scene” of thousands of hermit crabs converging on the secluded Nanny Point beach inside the Virgin Islands National Park, we at NPT realized that this was just one more of the unexpected benefits of saving the beach from private development. It was not known until after NPT transferred ownership of the beach to the National Park Service (NPS) that it is the site of an annual migration of Caribbean hermit crabs (Coenobita clypeatus) that scientists do not yet fully understand. Click here to watch this video.

As with so many of the projects undertaken by NPT during its thirty year history, the donation of 5.5 acres of undisturbed beachfront property on the Caribbean island of St. John to NPS for inclusion in the Virgin Islands National Park has continued to yield unexpected benefits long after its completion. The project was initiated in 2006 with the support of a $1.2 million donation from an anonymous donor. The donor’s original intention was to protect the stunning viewscape of Nanny Point enjoyed by thousands of park visitors each year and long assumed to be part of the park prior to being offered for sale by its private owner. NPT was able to orchestrate the immediate acquisition of the critical parcel and to work with NPS on expansion of the boundaries of the Virgin Islands National Park for preservation of this pristine beachfront in perpetuity. The project took nearly four years to complete and has yielded benefits far beyond the preservation of the view.

During the process of evaluating the parcel for potential donation, NPT, working with the donor and local experts, discovered that the parcel contained the largest population of Solanum conocarpum a rare indigenous plant existing only on St. John. This discovery helped convince NPS that this land was a valuable addition to the park and has since been the catalyst for scientific research on the species by scientists from the University of the Virgin Islands, The University of Mississippi and the U.S. Department of Interior. The project also sparked an ongoing propagation program in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico aimed at preserving the genetic diversity of the species and establishing new populations of the plant within the Virgin Islands National Park.

Following the completion of the NPT project and incorporation of the beachfront parcel into the Virgin Islands National Park, the owner of adjacent land, including the tip of the Nanny Point peninsula, was inspired to follow NPT’s lead by donating a significant portion of his Nanny Point property to the park as well. His donation together with the NPT land transfer resulted in the protection of some of the most extraordinary dry coastal forest habitat in the Caribbean and added a rare population of “Turk’s Cap” barrel cactus (Melocactus intortus) to the holdings of the Virgin Islands National Park.

Now that Nanny Point has also been identified as the site of a sizable annual hermit crab migration, researchers from the New England Aquarium in Boston, working together with a team from Tufts University, are gathering data on the migration to learn more about the timing location and purposes behind this dramatic event.

Creating and discovering unexpected benefits to our national parks through the preservation of our nation’s natural and cultural history is part of everyday life at NPT. The donor who made the Virgin Islands project possible has become an ongoing supporter of NPT and continues to encourage others to donate to NPT’s land projects. For him and for all of our donors making a gift to enable completion of our national parks and to preserve the legacy they provide for generations to come is truly a gift that keeps on giving.