Why the Greater Antilles?
Before humans arrived, around 120 species of land mammal (excluding bats) occurred in the Caribbean region. These included giant sloths, monkeys, giant hutias and tiny ‘island-shrews’ or nesophontids. All of these groups are now extinct, while only 15 species from the Caribbean-endemic hutia and solenodon families remain today. West Indian land mammals have suffered the most extinctions of any mammal fauna anywhere in the world over the past few thousand years.
Of the 10 surviving hutia species, the IUCN Red List classifies two species as Critically Endangered, three as Endangered, three as Vulnerable, one as Near Threatened, and only one as Least Concern. Some of the species listed as Critically Endangered, such as the Cuban dwarf hutia (Mesocapromys nanus), have not been seen for decades and are considered possibly extinct. Hutias are medium-sized rodents found in moist & dry forests of Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica and Bahamas. The Hispaniolan and Cuban solenodon resemble giant shrews and are the two species that make up one of the four families of the Order of insectivores known as Eulipotylphla. Both are Endangered, with the Cuba species being highly restricted in range and only known from two sites in the east of the island. The Caribbean region therefore has the highest proportion of species globally threated with extinction of any small mammal fauna in the world.
Widespread forest loss across the western Caribbean, particularly in places such as Haiti, has led to major range contractions in a number of hutia and solenodon species.
Hutias were an important food source for Amerindians and probably for some early European settlers, and we know some localised hunting for food continues today in Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Both solenodons and hutias are also believed to be adversely affected by invasive mammal species, with feral cats and rats seen emerging from hutia and solenodon burrows. The extent of this threat isn’t well known, but there is evidence of frequent killing of solenodons by both domestic and feral dogs in the Dominican Republic.
Where forest and agriculture meet, both hutias and solenodons are, in places, perceived as an agricultural pest and some evidence exists they are hunted as a result. The hutias occurring on cays off Cuba are also threated through habitat disturbance, such as the accidental setting of fires which can quickly devastate a small island.
Our understanding of the ecology of the hutias and solenodons remains very limited due to very low research and monitoring effort.
Three of the Cuban hutias are considered possibly extinct because there have been no known sightings for decades. However, monitoring efforts for these and other species have been extremely low and surveys are urgently needed to confirm the continuing existence of the most threatened species.
Other urgent conservation actions include managing invasive species and habitat disturbance on the Cuban offshore islands.
Improving the management of the protected area networks across the western Caribbean is vital to reduce agricultural encroachment and deforestation through charcoal production.
For some of the most threatened Cuban hutias, captive breeding programmes may need to be considered until threats can be mitigated and populations restored to reduce extinction risk.
The distributions and habitat associations of most species are only known at a very broad scale and they need refining to be of more use to conservation planning and protected area management. Population sizes for all species are not known, since survey techniques have only recently been developed for some species. Other aspects of their ecology, such as breeding biology and diet, are poorly studied for most species and require targeted research.
The Greater Antilles form one of the SMSG Key Regions in which we plan to fill international knowledge gaps and develop a regional initiative to support and coordinate in-country research and conservation efforts to protect this unique assemblage of small mammals.
At present, the SMSG is working to organise knowledge-gathering and network-building workshops in our three highest priority Key Regions, through which we seek to forge links and recruit local members to spearhead our efforts to galvanise research and conservation focussed on each region’s small mammal species. Our work in these regions will be used to perfect our methodology for achieving similar goals in all our Key Regions. Eventually, we hope to nurture collaborative networks of local and international conservation professionals in every Key Region, which are committed to the study and protection of each region’s small mammal diversity.
While the SMSG is not currently active in the Greater Antilles, we plan to turn our attention to this important region as soon as possible. We will continue to monitor the state of this region’s small mammals through the international scientific literature and IUCN Red List.
If you are a professional small mammal ecologist, taxonomist or conservationist working in the Greater Antilles, please do Contact Us to discuss your work and how the SMSG might help.