Getting to Know

Ask Naqqi!

In-the-field botanist also fields questions.

By Jody Rathgeb ~ Naqqi Photos By Tom Rathgeb

Let’s say you’re outside, poking around the yard, and you encounter a bug you’ve never seen before. It’s sort of spidery, but with hairy pinchers and some long things that might be antennae. What is it? What do you do? Well, you might fetch a field guide and try to match a photo to your mystery insect. Or you might take a photo and try to find out what it is in an identification app such as Picture Insect or Bug Finder.

But if you’re on North Caicos or Providenciales, you’re most likely to snap a photo, log into Facebook and ask Naqqi.

Naqqi is most comfortable in the TCI bush, examining plants and explaining what they are and their various uses.

The “askee” of this informal Q&A is B Naqqi Manco, a botanist and assistant director of research and development at the Turks & Caicos Islands Department of Environment and Coastal Resources. Answering questions online about native plants, creepy-crawlies, and snakes is not part of his job, but he gladly responds to the curious and (sometimes) panicked in the name of sharing knowledge and quelling fear. “I get questions about two or three times a week, sometimes more,” he says. “Not just for the Turks & Caicos. People send them to me from all over the world. Most of the time I can give them a family (a category in the scientific classification of plants and animals), but sometimes I’m just looking at a bunch of green leaves.”

He notes that he’s on more solid ground when responding to things found in the Turks & Caicos Islands. Naqqi is certainly uniquely qualified: He began visiting TCI when his mother moved to Grand Turk when he was young; he pursued biological studies at university in the United States; and he has lived and worked in the Islands since 2000. His work here has honed his knowledge, and he continues to be doggedly curious about anything that pops up in the bush or someone’s yard.

A human app

One reason he readily responds to questions is that he has seen the limitations of computer apps that purport to identify plants and animals. “Apps are restricted to a geographical database and your camera,” he says. Most of them don’t cover the Turks & Caicos. Then there is the matter of accuracy. “There are a lot of plants that can only be identified by dissection,” Naqqi notes. “There’s a plant here called Stipitate Dog-Strangle. It’s a milkweed vine that looks exactly like Northrop’s Dog-Strangle. In order to properly ID it, you have to dissect the flower. An app can’t tell you that.”

Okay, the average TCI homeowner might not care which kind of dog-strangle he/she has, but you get the idea that Naqqi cares more about a true ID than your average app. Plus, he can recommend how to nurture a native or kill an invader, and he will plead the case for harmless but scary critters. “I like the panicky questions,” he says, “The ‘OMG, WTF is this?’ posts.”

While a person might get a sting, rash, or bite in the TCI bush, there isn’t anything truly dangerous, so Naqqi uses these questions as an opportunity to teach people about the value of our diversity and some environmental laissez-faire. The only times he becomes annoyed by questioners is when they have already destroyed something—a harmless snake, mosquito-eating insect—out of fear.

Plant blindness

Mostly, though, he’s happy that people are curious and ask their questions, particularly about plants. It helps, he says, to combat “plant blindness.” He says, “Our society is such that plants are a backdrop for most people.” They don’t notice them until they encounter something unusual. “I don’t have plant blindness.”

He never did. Naqqi says that when he was a kid, “My parents tried to get me into normal things, like sports,” but he was always the odd one, distracted by birds when he was supposed to be playing soccer or gathering frog eggs from puddles on the pitch to save them.

Thanks to a “brilliant” botany professor under whom he studied at Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania, Naqqi narrowed his interests to plants, and he worked in the university’s greenhouse while studying English and Biology. Yet his first job after his schooling, in 1999, was with animals: He served in the education department at the Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania) Zoo.

Looking for warmth

While he liked the job, he hated the northern weather. After his door glazed shut during a winter storm, he decided to visit his mother, Pat Saxton, who was then in Grand Turk. During the visit he happened into a job with the TCI National Trust and became its Darwin Initiative project officer in 2000. Ten years later he moved into project contracts for the DECR, and in 2016 he was taken on as a civil servant.

Early in his TCI career, he was able to complete an advanced diploma in Herbarium Techniques and Management at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in London. He didn’t quite expect that his 22 years studying the TCI bush would also provide an unpaid side gig as “Ask Naqqi,” but here he is.

Back and forth

Naqqi admits that answering others’ questions isn’t a one-way transaction. The questioners act as his eyes and ears throughout the Islands, enhancing his continuing research and spurring him into learning more. He constantly encounters surprises and exciting discoveries.

For example, one Sandy Point resident showed Naqqi an orchid he found, and the botanist identified it as Chinese Crown Orchid. Although it is similar to a native TCI orchid, this one had apparently arrived in a shipment of landscape mulch from Florida. “That it could even be there was a surprise!” he says.

Another example: After Hurricanes Irma and Maria, Naqqi began getting reports and photos of Scaly-naped Pigeons. While similar to TCI’s White-crowned Pigeons, these “probably blew in from Puerto Rico. They hung around for about two years, then left.” Such reports are valuable in biological research.

These are just a few of the hundreds of plant and animal images identified by Naqqi on Marta Morton’s Facebook page in the Album “Plants, Bugs and Assorted Unknowns.”

Research behind the answers

While Naqqi can answer most of the plant questions, and those about the more common insects/spiders, from his own knowledge, he does consult others and do research. “I have a spider person (Dr. Sarah Crews) and a bug person (Dodly Prosper),” he says, and he maintains a good relationship with the botanists at Royal Botanic Garden, Kew, England. His primary resource is Correll’s 1982 Flora of the Bahama Archipelago, a thick book that is now out of print, and he supplements that with online research.

None of these underpinnings is evident when the Facebook query arrives. “What ARE these things?” is more likely to get a matter-of-fact response:  “Yellow-banded millipede, Anadenobolus monilicornis. Originally from South America, now established in Florida, and introduced to TCI on imported plants and mulch. They’re completely harmless, can’t bite or sting, but they can smell bad if they’re disturbed. They just eat rotting vegetable matter and seek out moist places to live, but will climb walls during rain so they don’t drown.”

Naqqi is a trusted resource more accurate than any app. Just ask Naqqi.

Editor’s note:  Longtime readers of Times of the Islands will recall countless fascinating, illustrated articles about the TCI’s flora and fauna penned by Naqqi over the years. His vast knowledge, English major, and quirky sense of humor all combine to make his compositions not only educational, but fun to read. Thank you Naqqi!

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