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Searching for the Elusive Cuban Solenodon

By on July 14, 2017 in Cuba, EDGE Fellows, EDGE Updates, Expedition

The Erasmus Darwin Barlow Conservation programme aims to give conservationists of the future new skills and experiences, by funding two places each year to join a ZSL EDGE of Existence expedition. The expeditions are named in tribute to the late Dr Erasmus Barlow, a Founder Fellow and key contributor to the Society in his role as Secretary from 1980 to 1982.

The two early-career conservationists chosen this year were Joshua Blackman (a Zoology graduate from Queen Mary, University of London, and a budding bat enthusiast) and Katia Sanchez Ortiz (a 2nd year PhD student at the Natural History Museum, with a special interest in island ecosystems). In this second blog post on the expedition, Katia shares news on the team’s efforts to find the extremely rare Cuban solenodon, a shrew-like mammal with a venomous bite!

The 2017 EDBE expedition aimed to focus on several EDGE species in different areas of Cuba; therefore, after spending a week in Guanahacabibes working with Natalus primus (see first blog post) we headed to the east of the island to look for the Cuban solenodon. The species (Atopogale cubana) has proved to be extremely difficult to find over the time since it was described in the 19th Century, and it has repeatedly been assumed to be extinct. It is one of the top 10 highest priority EDGE mammals.

This second part of the expedition started on the 7th of February when we arrived to Santiago de Cuba city. After taking an overnight bus to cross the island (from west to east), we arrived in the city where our host Dr. Gerardo Hechavarria was waiting for us ready to start planning our trip to the southern mountains of Pico Cristal National Park. Gerardo is part of Empresa Nacional para la Protección de la Flora y la Fauna, which is in charge of the administration of Cuban natural protected areas. During our stay in Pico Cristal we got to know about his conservation work and his great passion for Cuba’s biodiversity.

Getting into the mountains proved to be much more difficult than we expected. From the nearest frontier town, it took another four hours to get to the ecological station that would be our base, and this was only accessible on the back of a very loud tractor, the only transportation able to reach the camp due to the steep and muddy roads.

On our way, we started noticing how the landscape was completely different to what we had seen in Cuba so far; this time we were in the second highest mountain range in Cuba (~1300m).

The tractor, our transportation to reach the ecological station (© Carolina Soto Navarro / ZSL)
Finally at the camp (© Carolina Soto Navarro / ZSL)
The view from the ecological station (© Katia Sanchez Ortiz / ZSL)

Our aim in Pico Cristal was to find any definite evidence that the Cuban solenodon can still be found there. We also aimed to get the very first camera trap video of the species, something which Gerardo said could be really effective in persuading the protected area managers of the importance of the area. Each day, the EDBE team was supported by several obreros de la conservacion (conservation workers), who are experts in the area and work in different conservation projects supporting researchers. These workers are people who were born in the area, know the forest like no one else, and are the ones who perform most of the fieldwork that is required for species monitoring and protection. Sharing our time in Pico Cristal with Gerardo and the conservation workers reminded me about the essential role of local communities in biodiversity conservation and how helpful traditional knowledge can be for conservationists.

Dr. Gerardo Hechavarria and Pedro (one of the conservation workers) at the ecological station (© Oliver Wearn / ZSL)

During the four days we spent in Pico Cristal, we searched for the solenodon in the southern half of the park where no one has looked for the species before. We did daily walks in different areas where we looked for tracks and possible burrows. These walks were an amazing experience for the team; we discovered beautiful areas with an almost pristine look and hillsides full with burrows and interesting tracks.

Pedro leading the team in one of our walks (© Oliver Wearn / ZSL)
Me and Josh in one of the sites where we looked for borrows (© Carolina Soto Navarro / ZSL).
Ollie looking for tracks and burrows (© Carolina Soto Navarro / ZSL).
One of the burrows which looked suitable for the solenodon (© Carolina Soto Navarro / ZSL).

We set up camera traps in the areas that we considered the most suitable for the species and we kept them in these sites for three-four nights. Unfortunately, once we checked the videos recorded by the cameras we realized that the burrows that we surveyed (possibly old solenodon burrows) seem to be now inhabited by black rats. Black rats are not native to Cuba and may be having a negative impact on the solenodon.

Ollie setting up a camera trap in order to film the entrance of a burrow (© Carolina Soto Navarro / ZSL).

Our work in Pico Cristal helped me to gain a better understanding about sampling designs and about limitations for finding and studying and rare species. Moreover, the whole experience helped me understand more about the main current threats for native species in Cuba. Invasive species seem to be having a considerable impact on Cuban native species; however, different species in Pico Cristal are threatened by poaching and illegal trafficking, which is still common in some countries even in protected areas. My PhD project, as part of a NERC-funded project called PREDICTS (Projecting Responses of Ecological Diversity in Changing Terrestrial Systems), aims to analyse the effects of land-use change on biodiversity on mainlands and islands. I focus mainly on the vulnerability of islands due to their high level of endemic species and particular environmental conditions (e.g., isolation, small area). Spending three weeks in Cuba gave me the opportunity of experiencing island ecosystems and learning more about the vulnerability of native species. The EDBE expedition helped me to reconnect with my passion for conservation and to gain strong bases for my project, which aims to contribute to a better understanding of the effects of human impacts on islands biodiversity and provide useful information for the development of successful conservation strategies.

The EDBE 2017 team (Carol missing) and Gerardo at Pico Cristal National Park (© Carolina Soto Navarro / ZSL)
A beautiful area in Pico Cristal with an almost pristine look (© Carolina Soto Navarro / ZSL).

– Katia Sanchez Ortiz