Dispatch #7: A Preliminary Report on  the Philanthropic Possibilities of Cuba 
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          “The south coast, facing Jamaica, has many wild and pristine stretches. On the north coast, in Victoria, is the Carlos de la Torre Museum of Natural History,  run by his nephew, my cousin Alfredito de la Torre. Alfredito is the brother of the lepidopterist Salvador, who was the first to use the electronoscope to decorticate the structure of butterflies 'scales. Alfredito is now early 70s. He will lead you to the Jiguari Plateau, declared by E.O.Wilson (the eminent Harvard ant expert and biosociologist) the best biodiversity area of Cuba.  It has one  thousand endemic plants. We’re not talking lichens, clubmosses, or bryophytes. We’re talking plant plants. 

         “Cuba has  many wonderful naturalists,  and every one is a product of my family,” Julio went on immodestly. . “The most prominent one today is Orlando Garillo, who was a disciple of my father Ricardo, who was the preeminent paleontologist for the Carribean in his day. Orlando has just published a field guide to the birds of Cuba that had been translated into English.  He is connected with the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural but works at home. He is now the grand old man, along with Alfredito.” 

      I spoke briefly with Garillo on the phone.  He sounded, as ornithologists can sometimes be, quite full of himself.  According to Julio, there are no more ivorybill woodpeckers. “It's a myth, a scam. People pay big money to go on ornithological expeditions to Cuba looking for them. In the late fifties American millionaires vied for the privilege of shooting the last ivorybill. The last reliable sighting was in l987, by John Terry [who was later the editor of Audubon Magazine and author of the voluminous Encylopedia of American Birds.]  

       “Moving to the extreme west-- the tail of the crocodile—  is Viñales Valley, four hours from Havana. The valley is a jumble of mesa-like monadnocks, each of which is smothered with rainforest and watered by cavern-riddled artesian springs and separated from the others by the sedge-like sawgrass that carpets the valley floor. Each of these hills has a completely separate fauna. Viñales is known as the Galapagos of the Carribean because of its numerous endemic amphibians and butterflies and molluscs. 

     “In the thirties Uncle Carlos revised all the shells of the world and  became recognized as the world's greatest malacologist because of his work on these things.  In pre-de la Torre days there had been a feud among malacologists, which his revision resolved. There is a bust of Carlos in the central hall of the Smithsonian. He taught [the late  Harvard malacologist and natural history essayist] Steven J. Gould. Gould knows a lot about Cuban land snails He worked on the genus Eurocaptus all over the Antilles, particulary in northern Cuba and the southern Bahamas. He changed the names of a lot of snails. Tucker Abbott   [Florida malacologist] also knows a lot about Cuban land snails.  But Alfredo knows the most. 

        “The Legus snails are conical, but the most interesting ones  in Viñales from an evolutionary point of view  are the round Polymitas. They are polymorphic, with. fifty-some suspecies. The radix of the snail picks up whatever crap it is feeding on and secretes it, shooting it into the aragonite (a new type of calcium carbonate named by Carlos)  gloss on the back of its mantel. It's like the pigment that the glans of mother of pearl oysters shoot into their shells.

         “Adjacent to Viñales Valley is a mountain road that takes you up into the Sierra de Los Organos, so named because of its cliffs which resemble organ pipes. The road borders a brook whose source is a hot sulphur spring. You come to a little valley surrounded by rainforest-covered mountains, which are known as the Sierra de Rosario, a subgroup of the Organos.  This is cloud forest--  little trees encrusted with orchids and full of gorgeous birds like the extraordinary red-legged honeycreeper which is attracted to the hibiscus and is known as El Aparecido de San Diego. The place is known as Zoroa.  Orlando Garillo has done a lot of work here. On top of one of the mountains is a mansion built by an eccentric Spanish tycoon which is now a restaurant. 

        “As for the center of the island : the government will not let you off without showing you Fidel's favorite place : the Zapata swamp. This was where the Bay of Bigs invasion was thwarted. Here live  the huge endemic Cuban crocodile, Crocodilus rombifer, and other weird endemics like the Zapata wren, which has the smallest range of any bird;  the Zapata rail; and the Zapata sparrow, Torreornis inexpectata, the unexpected bird of the tower, which belongs to a monotypic genus and is named for another of my naturalist relatives; and  Fernandina's flicker. There is a  superb visitor center with a platform where out you can go out after dark and see the  quasi-endemic Stygian owl, Asiostymis,  catching Cuban mastiff  bats as they are catching insects. The owls are a large black version of the long-eared owl. They have orange eyes and a deep hoot and they sit on the railing of the platform, waiting for the moment to snatch a bat out of the air.

              “East of the Zapata Swamp is the Topes de Collantes, a massif of hills cross from top to bottom  by a canyon created by the Agabama river. E.O.Wilson did his first field work on ants here and is convinced that there are many still unnamed species. Before him, in l905, this was Frank Chapman's (legendary ornithologist with the American Museum of Natural History) first bird collection site. The Canyon and the Topes are also quite intact. One road leads up into the mountains from Trinidad, which is a  showpiece of 18th century grandee architecture. Two brothers Iznaga vied for the grandest palazzo.  The one at Guaracabuya was grander but its towers collapsed. Everyone said it was God punishing that brother's hybris.. The other brother paved the walk to his house with gold dubloons. At the top of the ridge, where the river starts to cut the canyon, Batista built a tuberculosis sanitorium. From there it is an easy climb to the 1024 meter summit of the Pico de Potredillo, the second highest mountain in Cuba. I spent a year on a small farm on its slopes, waking up to enormous garrulous flocks of Cuban aratinga parakeets. Each major Carribean island has its own endemic species of aratinga.  It's a huge genus.  Tinga is a Tupi Guarani dimunutive, arara is a macaw, and the aratingas are like 10 inch to a foot long macaws. You also find the Cuban trogon in the canyon. There is a local saying if you ever dip your hand in the Acabama you will never die  until you do it again, so you have to go back.”


        The Museo Nacional de Historia Nacional is part of the National Science Museum. Its director, Marian Saker, was in the middle of hosting  a marine biology conference, but I was heartily welcomed by its platopterist, Estevan Guttierrez. Guttierrez gave me a reprint of  his Annotated Checklist of Cuban Cockroaches, published in the Transactions of the American Entomological Society, in which he describes Cuba's more than 80 species of cockroach, of which more than 60% are endemic. 

      Guttierrez introduced me to the museum's curator of herpetology, Luiz A. Diaz, a sweet man in his thirties who Julio hears is the up-and-coming naturalist of his generation and everyone at the museum looked up and said was the person I ought to talk to.  Diaz is someone who is obviously completely in love with his subject. He illustrated the mucho endemismo of Viñales and the Sierra de los Organos with specimens of Viana rock snails;  a pickled giant knight anolis, A. luterogularis, known locally as the chipojo, as is the   false chameleon, Chaeoleolis  chamaeleonides, which lives in the Sierra de Rosario, in and around Zoroa. . Diaz had a terrarium with several  Eleutherodactylus limbatus, which are among the smallest frogs in the world and also hail from Zoroa. 

        Marston Bates and Salvador de la Torre did classic  work on the lepidoptera of Cuba in the thirties (when my father Nicholas Shoumatoff and his uncle Andrey Avinoff were making what is still the definitive collection of the butterflies and moths of adjacent Jamaica). Recently, Christina Dockx [sic], a Colombian student of Lincoln Brower, has studied the monarchs on the island.

        There are  populations of both the migratory  Danaus plexippus plexippus and the smaller, blacker, resident Danaus plexippus megalippe. Dockx has found that when strong winds blow monarchs migrating in the fall down the east coast of North America out into the Atlantic, some of them make it down to Cuba, where they come into reproductive readiness and mate with the resident megalippes and then lay their eggs and die, without attempting a northward return. So the monarchs of Cuba are "somewhat intermediate," according to Brower. Usually (in Mexico, for instance, where the bulk of the monarchs overwinter), the two subspecies are not in reproductive contact.  

       Returning to the herps, Luiz Diaz said that the other notable Cuban species include pygmy boas, the Cuban racer, the endemic colubrid snake Arrhyton, the giant Cuban toad (Bufo Fustiger a west-island endemic), the cave-dwelling rock frog, Eleutherodactylus zeus, and the spiney aolies, Eleutherodactylus klonikowskii. “We need money for a field guide to the reptiles and amphibians,” Diaz told me. “It would be an invaluable tool for conservation, monitoring, and education. We have a good illustrator in Cuba and the field guide could be produced for three or four thousand dollars, including financial support for field trips which will produce new species.” 

        Frogs the world over are experiencing inexplicable mass die-offs. They are the
canary at the mouth of the mineshaft , passing out from the carbon monoxide fumes—  an indicator of the health of the overall ecosystem. So to support the  embattled frogs of Cuba and Diaz, who is a first-rate scientist, to make a real difference for the island’s terrestrial ecology with such a little layout, seems to me something that really ought to be followed up on.

     Diaz already has a species by species breakdown of the frogs on his computer, with photographs and a recording of each one's song which he layed for me. It was a thrilling experience. 

     My wife and our three boys and I drove  to Zoroa, which is an easy hour and a half drive west from Havana, and spent a day and night. It is a magical place, a zona afrodisiaca, popular with couples,  according to our taximan whose name was Ruben. We stayed in one  motel cabins on the valley floor and discovered a path that led up through the forest up a road that led up to the ridge of the Santa Rosarios.  From one side you could see down out over the sugar cane- blanketed plane several thousand feet below which was quickly lost in haze. The other side looked out to more remote and undisturbed forested mountains. The cloud forest was alive with birds. The adorable Cuban tody, the long brown tail of a huge cuckooid rustling in the trees, hummingbirds galore, overwintering warblers soon to start on their spring migration back to North America. We found bleached white shells of round rock snails. Way down below the river fed by the hot sulphur spring spills over a 25 foot waterfall, of worldclass exquisiteness. 

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