Collaboration that endured Cold War explores Cuba’s biodiversity

Spencer Galen, a doctoral student, and Ana Porzecanski, director of AMNH’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, prepare field collections during a joint U.S.-Cuba expedition in Cuba’s Humboldt National Park.
Spencer Galen, a doctoral student, and Ana Porzecanski, director of AMNH’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, prepare field collections during a joint U.S.-Cuba expedition in Cuba’s Humboldt National Park. ©AMNH

Throughout the Cold War, as the United States and Cuba clashed over the Soviet Union and Cuba’s export of revolution, scientists from the American Museum of Natural History and their Cuban counterparts continued to collaborate on scientific research.

Even when politics were severely strained over Cuban involvement in Africa during the Reagan years, the collaboration continued. In 1986, a joint U.S.-Cuba team reported eight sightings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, which was thought to be extinct, on the island. Cuban and American scientists, working together, also unearthed extinct monkey fossils from 1989 to 1999.

But one of their biggest collaborations yet will come this fall when the museum and the Cuban National Museum of Natural History inaugurate a new bilingual ¡Cuba! exhibit that will include a live Cuban boa, skittering lizards and tree frogs.

There will also be scale models of some of the most fantastic animals that ever existed on the island: the extinct giant owl that towered more than three feet tall and was armed with crushing talons, the giant ground sloth and, on the other end of the spectrum, the still existing bee hummingbird — the smallest hummer on earth.

Visitors will be able to explore a recreation of the Zapata wetlands where the endangered Cuban crocodile lives and examine fossils of extinct mammals that once roamed Cuba, the largest island in the Caribbean, in a cave reconstruction.

But the exhibition includes far more than creatures. Other iconic features of Cuban life will also be showcased, from tobacco cultivation and Afro-Cuban religions to a street-life display that features a long boulevard where visitors can stroll and experience dance, music, art and other Cuban traditions brought to the island by waves of immigrants.

After opening in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 21, 2015, and continuing until Aug. 13, 2017, the exhibition will go on the road, visiting museums around the country. The hope is that at least portions of the exhibition will end up as part of the permanent collect at the Cuban museum, which is located in the Plaza de Armas in Old Havana.

“We want people to leave the exhibition with a deeper understanding of who the Cuban people are … and how Cuba is connected to the rest of the world biologically,” said Dr. Ana Luz Porzecanski, director of the AMNH’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.

“This is just the latest chapter in what has been a very long collaboration,” she said. “I’m not going to say it’s always been easy, but science transcends politics. The personal relationships between scientists are tight.”

The ¡Cuba! exhibit is the first initiative under an agreement signed July 9 between AMNH, the Cuban National Museum of Natural History and the Cuban Environmental Agency to further joint research, exhibition and education programs.

Porzecanski said she thought the rapprochement between Cuba and the United States “has helped us move forward on the new agreement.” But the AMNH has been working with its Cuban counterpart museum since the latter’s inception in 1960.

And AMNH’s history of Cuban collaboration dates to 1892 when Frank Chapman, an American ornithologist, led one of the earliest expeditions to an area around the city of Trinidad to look for mammals, frogs and lizards to add to the U.S. museum's nascent collections.

More recent work includes joint studies of conservation genetics of two crocodile species and the Cuban ground iguana in the Zapata Swamp and the Monte Cabaniguan Wildlife Refuge, and a 2015 expedition to Humboldt National Park, the largest and least disturbed forest in Cuba, as well as a UNESCO World Heritage Center. Footage from the expedition will be included in the new Cuban exhibit.

“Cuba is a paradise for natural history,” said Dr. Chris Raxworthy, co-curator of the exhibition with Porzecanski and the head of the museum’s Department of Herpetology.

More than an island, Cuba is technically an archipelago composed of more than 4,000 islands and keys that form distinct habitats and ecosystems for many plants and animals that are found only in Cuba.

The live anole lizards that will populate the exhibit, for example, have diversified in Cuba to occupy different niches with habitats ranging from the trunks of trees to tree canopies to the undersides of leaflets, said Porzecanski.

Raxworthy and Porzecanski were both part of the joint U.S.-Cuba expedition that visited Cuba’s Humboldt National Park in October and November 2015. It was the first joint expedition to the park in several decades and was part of the Museum’s Explore21 initiative, which also has sent multidisciplinary scientific teams to the Solomon Island and Papua, New Guinea.

The Cuban expedition was designed to survey and document the biodiversity of the park at different elevations and it’s possible that after all the data is examined, the discovery of some new species — snails, spiders and a form of cockroach unique to Cuba — will be announced.

From a biodiversity point of view, “Cuba is more a mini-continent in the Caribbean than a small island,” said Raxworthy. “Cuba is the Madagascar of the Caribbean.” A large island off the coast of southeast Africa, Madagascar is home to many animal species that aren’t found anywhere else.

Cuba has been or is home to both very large and miniature species. The bee hummingbird is the smallest bird in the world, and the second-smallest frog in the world also lives in Cuba. Though the giant owl, giant eagle and giant sloth are gone, the giant shrew, which was thought to be extinct, was rediscovered in the Humboldt National Park in 1979, Raxworthy said.

Despite Cuba’s proximity to Florida, the species found in both places are “almost completely different,” he said. Of the 67 species of frogs in Cuba, for example, 95 percent are found nowhere else. Eighty percent of the 149 species of reptiles are unique to Cuba, Raxworthy said. “It’s the same with insects, snails, birds.”

Though long extinct, a Cuban species of monkey used to exist and the giant owl was also unique to Cuba.

Although the fossil remains of the giant owl haven’t been dated yet, it is thought to have gone extinct many thousands of years ago in the late Pleistocene. Raxworthy said he has his suspicions that the huge owl may have disappeared about the time humans made their appearance on the island — also in the late Pleistocene — and began eating the bird, which at around 20 pounds, was larger than the average Thanksgiving turkey.

For its prey — probably jutias, which look like giant guinea pigs — the owl “would have been a formidable predator,” said Raxworthy. “The thing would have been terrifying.”

If the ivory-billed woodpecker is also extinct, it would have been a much more recent phenomenon.

There have been relatively recent claims that the rare woodpecker still exists in Florida and Arkansas, but the last eight verified sightings came in Cuba during a 1986 joint expedition to Humboldt. If the bird still exists in Cuba, it is critically endangered.

Locals claim to have still seen the elusive woodpecker in the park. During the 2015 expedition, Raxworthy said a local hunter took scientists on an all-day trek deep into the Humboldt where he had observed a large woodpecker hole — possibly the nest of an ivory-billed woodpecker, in a dead pine tree. The hole was old and abandoned. But Raxworthy said further interviews with local people could turn up interesting leads.

Although the expedition to the Humboldt in eastern Cuba was the first since the new engagement between Cuba and the United States, Raxworthy said the trip also “built on years of [previous] scientist engagement.”

AMNH is already raising funds for another expedition to Cuba next year that will explore other protected areas.

Cuba is a place where it’s still possible to make exciting scientific discoveries, Raxworthy said. “It’s just full of surprises in terms of biodiversity.”