Cuba has one of the largest concentrations of endemic animals in the world. The word “endemic,” in case you didn’t know, means that it is a native species found naturally nowhere else in the world.
These fascinating endemic Cuban creatures cover several groups of the Cuban fauna range: reptiles, birds, mammals, fish and a special little mollusk that will melt your heart (trust me on this). Here are some of Cuba’s most interesting endemic creatures.
The trogon is the national bird of Cuba because its bright plumage of red, white and blue resembles the national colors of the Cuban flag in similar proportions.
Averaging about 11 inches beak to tail, the trogon flies in pairs making a loud, screeching sound. The trogon doesn’t make nests, instead it uses tree holes as a home. It is very common throughout the mainland of its native Cuba but rare in the northern keys or southern island, Isla de La Juventud.
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This pretty Cuban native loves Cuba so much he never migrates, and Cubans return this love by considering a sighting of a trogon to be a sign of good fortune.
The jutia is a rodent ranging in size from about 18 inches nose to tail and 4.5 lbs to the largest ones at 18 lbs. and 2 feet long. They have prehensile tails with which they lounge around in trees and nest in rock nooks and forests.
They have been hunted for food in Cuba by the indigenous population since pre-Columbian times. Many modern-day Cubans continue this culinary tradition. Jutia is prepared differently depending on the region; marinated in wine and spices in Camaguey or cooked with honey and nuts in the eastern regions.
Eating a rodent may be shocking to some but the jutia is considered more of a rabbit than a common rodent.
Cuban Bee Hummingbird
At 2 and ¼ inches and less than 2 grams, the Cuban hummingbird is the smallest hummingbird in the world. It is so small that it is frequently mistaken for a bee, hence the nickname bee hummingbird. Its name comes from the onomatopoeic sound its wings make when beating…humm. In Spanish the sound is zuunn, so its name in Spanish is the zunzun or little zunzun (zunzuncito).
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The hummingbird’s wings beat up to 80 beats per second, but the beats can increase up to 200 per second during its mating ritual. In fact, the mating ritual is quite elaborate. The male birds form singing groups with other males where they demonstrate their singing prowess, display their colors and aerial acrobatics where they fly up, down, backwards, and even upside down to impress prospective mates. The females choose a partner and, after all that, copulation lasts only a few seconds!
This remarkable little Cuban jewel, with its iridescent feathers flashing in blue, red and silver, is one of 27 bird species endemic to Cuba. Is it any wonder Cuba is considered a bird-watching paradise?
At about a foot long with an additional 10 inches of scaly tail, the Cuban solenodon is a creature only a mother could love.
It is a shrew or mole-like creature that emits a foul smell, displays a clumsy gait and either trips over itself when pursued by a predator or covers its face with its paws hoping the predator won’t see him. They are nocturnal but have poor eyesight and make piglike sounds when threatened. Although they give birth to an average of three young at a time, only one will survive. Needless to say, the solenodon has become easy prey for introduced predators like cats and dogs.
This interesting little creature does have one formidable asset, however. It is one of the few venomous mammals. It injects poison into its victims through grooves in its lower incisor teeth.
The Cuban solenodon once inhabited wide swaths of North America for over 30 million years. Today, it is only found in Cuba.
What the Cuban crocodile lacks in size – at 7 to 10.5 feet and 150 to 180 lbs., it is the smallest of the crocodiles – it more than makes up for in brains and behavior.
This croc has a formidable collection of assets that have enabled it to thrive for over 85 million years. It is the most aggressive and intelligent of the species. It can run up to 20 mph on land. By comparison, the average human runs 10 mph. You do the math. It can jump up to 5 feet in the air to catch low hanging animals and low flying birds. More surprising still, it is the only crocodile that has been observed to strategize with other crocs when planning a hunt!
Even when placed with other larger sub-species like American Alligators, the Cuban crocodile presents dominant behavior. You do not want to mess with a creature that even huge alligators are afraid of! Is it any wonder that the Smithsonian Institute has classified the Crocodile among the “Top 10 Greatest Survivors of Evolution?”
Despite its talents and characteristics, the Cuban crocodile has not been able to withstand the onslaught of humans encroaching on its territory. Once abundant throughout the Caribbean, the Cuban crocodile is now limited to the Zapata Swamp in southwestern Cuba and the nearby Isla de La Juventud.
As the Cuban crocodile is officially endangered, there are now breeding areas to help it stay around for another 85 million years.
Here’s a terrifying thought worthy of a science fiction B movie; snakes hunting in packs! But that seems to be what the Cuban boas do to guarantee a successful hunt.
According to animal behavior specialists at the University of Tennessee, Cuban boas have been observed lining up strategically outside of bat caves to catch bats when they fly out. Single boas were not always successful, but a pack of snakes always caught prey.
Known as the Maja de Santa Maria by locals, the Cuban boa is the largest endemic land predator in Cuba and can grow up to almost 20 feet although the largest ones are called Giant Cuban Boas. They live in tropical dry forests throughout Cuba and sometimes enter towns, no doubt to the great surprise and shock of the local inhabitants.
Cuban Rock Iguanas
The Cuban rock iguanas are found throughout Cuba and thousands of the little islands and tiny islets surrounding Cuba on all sides including Isla de La Juventud.
The iguanas are found in the many Cuban biospheres around the country as well as in the Desembarco del Granma National Park, one of Cuba’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
At 4-5 feet and 15 lbs., the Cuban rock iguanas are the biggest lizards in the Caribbean, the second biggest in the world, and are an endangered species.
Today, almost all the Cuban iguana concentrations are protected by law and these efforts are yielding positive results as their decimation has halted.
Once abundant in Isla de La Juventud, the Cuban parakeet was extirpated from there in the early 1900s. Today it lives on the mainland where it is classified as vulnerable although not endangered.
It is a pretty, slim bird with a long tail. Its color is a rich green that blends easily with the green of its environment. However, the parakeet sports bright red plumage under its wings which is visible in flight.
The Cuban parakeet is loud. Its shrill call while in flight can be heard over great distances, but when perched, its call is low and sounds like a murmur. It loves dry forests and places with lots of palm trees.
It is the bird’s beauty that has caused its numbers to be reduced as it is a popular bird for the caged bird trade.
The polymita picta is a snail with a colorful shell. Not only is it native and endemic to Cuba, but it is only found in the Alejandro von Humboldt National Park, one of Cuba’s nine UNESCO World Heritage sites on the island’s northwestern tip, and nowhere else.
The park measures over 70,000 hectares (173,000 acres) and is known to have the most plant density in all of Cuba. It has been named “one of the most biologically diverse tropical ecosystems in an island setting anywhere on earth.” Whoa!
It is here, in this amazing biodiversity, that the polymita picta calls home. The shell of the polymita picta is a beautiful blaze of color and each single shell is unique. These characteristics have led the colorful little snails to be highly sought after to produce necklaces and other jewelry. Of course, this, in turn, led to a rapid decrease in the snail population and landed this painted snail on the critically endangered list.
Fortunately, steps are now being taken to protect polymita picta. We hope these steps are successful.
Hard to believe that the Cuban gar has been around longer than the Cuban crocodile. This creature has been swimming in earth’s waters for over 157 million years and is so old it is considered a living fossil by scientists! It is a tropical, freshwater fish found in western Cuba and the Isla de la Juventud.
Called a marajuari by the original inhabitants of Cuba, the name stuck. Although edible, the gor’s eggs are toxic to humans.
It is sad to think that a creature that has existed for over 157 million years is now on the critically endangered list.
The status of these wonderful endemic Cuban creatures ranges from vulnerable to critically endangered. However, there is hope that heightened consciousness and continued conservation efforts will continue to succeed. The world would be a sadder place without them.