Animals of Cuba: Solenodons

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Animals that have gone extinct elsewhere can sometimes survive on islands due to the isolation they offer. That’s the case with Cuban solenodons, insect-eating shrew relatives which are part of a mammalian line that has existed since the time of the dinosaurs. Known in Cuba as almiquí, solenodons secrete venomous saliva through a groove in their front teeth. The presence of this groove is an ancient trait, more often found in reptiles.

 

A Cuban solenodon walks across dead leaves and twigs scattered on the forest floor.

A rare Cuban solenodon, photographed in Alexander Humboldt National Park.

© G. Begué-Quiala


Today, only two solenodon species survive—one in Cuba and another on the nearby island of Hispaniola. That makes protecting their few remaining habitats for these mysterious mammals all the more important, says Gerardo Begué-Quiala, deputy director of Alexander Humboldt National Park, one of the solenodon’s few known stomping grounds.

 

A Hispaniolan solenodon crouches near a rock and points his long, narrow snout towards the sky.

Only two species of solenodons survive today—one on Cuba, and the other on the neighboring island of Hispaniola.

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons


“Their ecology and natural history is still not well understood, and these attributes make it a focal species for conservation in the park,” Begué-Quiala said through an interpreter. “If there is a mammal in Cuba that needs to be studied, it is undoubtedly the solenodon.”

Cuban solenodons are so rare, they were once thought extinct. But in 1974, scientists found one individual in the park. Other teams took up the search, and by 2016 scientists and park staff had captured, studied, and then safely released, 11 of these rare, nocturnal mammals. Even better, they found traces of the species elsewhere, both inside and outside of the park, so populations of the highly threatened animal may be larger than once thought.

 

Long view of trees, mountains and sky in Humboldt National Park.

Treetop view of Alejandro de Humboldt National Park.

© AMNH/C. Raxworthy


While solenodons are remarkable, they’re just one endemic species on an island where about half of the plants and a third of vertebrate animals share that distinction. Despite its rich history, Cuba’s biodiversity is still being explored—and the island that has been home to so many amazing species likely holds more discoveries in store.

 

See other examples of amazing Cuban wildlife—in ¡Cuba!, which is open to the public now and free for Members.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.