Natural Cuba

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Cuba Past

Ross D. E. MacPhee
Curator and Chairman, Department of Mammalogy
American Museum of Natural History,
New York


Travelers—even ones with naturalistic leanings—don’t ordinarily go to islands to watch land mammals, unless they happen to be interested in bats. This is partly because most people don’t associate mammals with island fauna. Birds, of course; reptiles, like lizards and snakes, certainly. And insects and spiders and other invertebrates by the legion. But not mammals, not usually. One might conclude from this that most islands never had any land mammals on them, which would be true in a strictly actuarial sense. But it would overlook the point that, in fact, many islands supported unique mammalian faunas until comparatively recently—indeed, until the appearance of humans. Then, in short order, the faunas collapsed, sometimes within scant decades after the first human footfall. In some cases the collapse affected mammals of large body size, while smaller species managed to survive. This is true, for example, of Madagascar, where only 1000 years ago there were gorilla-sized lemurs and short-legged hippos. These are all gone; today, the largest lemur, the teddy-like indri, weighs in at about 20 pounds. On other islands, the losses were utterly catastrophic: all land mammals, whether large or small, disappeared. This is what happened, for example, on some of the Galapagos islands, and on many of the islands of the central Mediterranean.

It also happened much closer to home, in the West Indies. Indeed, the islands making up the West Indies have, overall, lost almost 90 percent of their land-mammal fauna in the past several thousand years. In this respect they have suffered proportionately more losses in recent times than any other place on Earth. The figure to remember is that somewhere between one-quarter and one-third of all mammalian extinctions since 1500 occurred in the West Indies.

All of this naturally inspires some questions: what kinds of mammals once lived in Cuba, and what has happened to them? Thanks to a considerable amount of hard work by professionally trained paleontologists and interested amateurs in Cuba, we now know quite a bit about long-vanished mammals. Digging in caves and other hard-to-reach places that preserve bones and teeth, these miners of bone have uncovered an entire heritage that was previously unknown. The second question—why nearly all of them have disappeared—is difficult to answer, although it is practically certain that humans played a substantial role, directly or indirectly.

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