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Collaboration that endured Cold War explores Cuba’s biodiversity

American Museum of Natural History will open a new bilingual Cuba
exhibit this fall as part of a new U.S.-Cuba accord that will increase
research, exhibition and educational collaboration.
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
mwhitefield@miamiherald.com

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 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 New York., 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
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,” Raxworthy said. “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.”

Source: U.S.-Cuba scientific collaboration explores deep in Cuba’s
forest | In Cuba Today –
www.incubatoday.com/news/article91704097.html

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