The shrewlike Cuban solenodon (Solenodon cubanus)—a "living fossil" that has not changed much in millions of years—was all but wiped out in the 19th century by deforestation and introduced species. The 30-centimeter-long, nocturnal solenodons possess a unique, venomous saliva that they inject through their teeth into their prey. They lack the ability, however, to protect themselves from predators such as cats, dogs and black rats. The animals have a slow, ungainly gait, and when chased tend to stop and hide their heads, making them easy pickings even for animals not much bigger than them. By the 1970s many believed the species had gone extinct, but that changed when a few of the animals showed up in 1974 and 1975.
Solenodon sightings since then have been few and far between, but one of them was spotted in 2003 in the mountainous Alejandro de Humboldt National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the northeastern end of Cuba. A team of Cuban and Japanese researchers has been searching for the animals, known by locals as almiquí, ever since. They finally had success this March and April when they captured and studied seven of the rare creatures.
"Our finding was great and very important," says Rafael Borroto-Páez of Cuba's Ecology and Ecosystems Institute in Havana. "We were all very happy and excited." Other researchers working on the quest came from Japan's University of Tsukuba, Hokkaido University, National Museum of Nature and Science, and Miyagi University of Education.
The seven solenodons captured this year included four males and three females. Borroto-Páez says the team used modified traditional snares, similar to those used to local hunters, to catch the animals without harming them. "All of the animals were very healthy and active and only two almiquí showed ectoparasites." The solenodons were observed for two days and then released back into the wild.
In addition to the captured animals, the team observed signs that more existed nearby. "We found excrement, tracks and feeding holes in other places in the zone of research," Borroto-Páez says. He suggests these as indications that the species's population may be recovering.
Unfortunately, the researchers also found evidence of the invasive species that caused the decline of the solenodon in the first place. "I collected cat excrement and found evidence of depredation," Borroto-Páez says. Black rats are also abundant in the area. He is currently applying for research grants to study more about cat predation in the park and plans to return to the park in December to trap feral cats. The Japanese researchers are also seeking funds to continue their work. "We continue trying to do something with our reduced resources," Borroto-Páez says.
The Cuban solenodon is one of only two remaining species in its genus and the family Solenodontidae. The other, the Haitian, or Hispaniolan, solenodon (Solenodon paradoxus), is equally rare. A 2008 expedition to the Dominican Republic by the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Hispaniolan Ornithological Society turned up only one of the creatures in a monthlong search. A 2010 quest found a few more. The species may already be gone from neighboring Haiti, where at least 99 percent of that country's forests have been cut down.
Photo courtesy of Rafael Borroto-Páez