January 18, 2010
"I could not quite believe it the first time I held a solenodon; I was in utter awe of this mesmerizing mammal. […] They have a long flexible snout which is all down to the fact that it is joined to the skull by a unique ball-and-socket joint. This makes it look as if the snout is almost independent to the rest of the animal. You can’t help but feel fascinated by the snout and inevitably it does make you smile," Dr. Jose Nunez-Mino, the Project Manager for a new initiative to study and conserve the island's last mammals, told mongabay.com in an interview. "When handled properly they are remarkably docile and relaxed which makes it very easy to observe them in the hand. […] All in all I think it is fair to describe solenodon as amazingly cute. They have a toy like quality about them which is reinforced by their very small eyes and their cumbersome walk which is more of a side to side waddle."
The hutia may not be as odd or cute as the solenodon, but Nunez-Mino ensured mongabay that the hutia was just as special as the solenodon.
Dr. Jose Nunez-Mino with the wonderfully strange Hispaniolan solenodon. Photo by: Philip Bethge of Der Spiegel magazine.
Nunez-Mino is heading up a new initiative to not only better understand these last survivors of Hispaniola, but also to find effective ways to save them. The initiative, known as the Hispaniolan Endemic Land Mammals Project, is being funded by the UK government's Darwin Initiative with partners including the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Zoological Society of London and EDGE, the Sociedad Ornitologica de La Hispaniola, and the Dominican Republic National Zoo.
Although little-known both the solenodon and the hutia are important due to their unique evolutionary history.
"The solenodon represents an ancient lineage of mammals that has been around since the time of the dinosaurs – in all effects it can justifiably be described as a living fossil. […] Its most distinctive feature and one that causes a lot of interest is the fact that it can secrete venom along a grooved tooth (the word solenodon derives from the Greek for channelled tooth) in a manner similar to snakes," explains Nunez-Mino.
The Hispaniolan hutia for its part "is the only surviving member of the Plagiodontia genus which is the oldest lineage of hutia and diverged from the other hutia around 20 million years ago. It is, undoubtedly a very special animal."
Hispaniolan hutias are arboreal mammals, spending their awake-hours (during the night) in trees. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
Solenodons make "a series of clicks and high pitched whistles," says Nunez-Mino, "there has been some suggestion that these may be implicated in echo location but as far as I know there has been no conclusive work in this area. We have managed to make some initial crude recordings of the solenodon which have roused a lot of interest with scientists that work in this area."
"Hutia produce a series of whistles and chirps with their alarm calls having more of a chortling quality about them. Sound is obviously very important for the Hutia, on quiet night you can hear them whistling to each other in the tree tops," says Nunez-Mino, who hopes to find acoustic experts to study the sounds (the mammals' sounds can be heard in videos at the end of the article).
So little is known about these two mammals that researchers are unclear about what is threatening them. It's not that there is a lack of threats to choose from—deforestation, conflict with humans, poisoning, introduced species like mongoose, feral dogs, hunting—however determining which threats are most pressing is not easy.
While Haiti has lost nearly all of its forest cover (only 4 percent remaining), the Dominican Republic retains 28 percent of original forest cover and has large protected areas, though these areas do not protect the species from invasive and domestic animals: Nunez-Mino has heard unsettling accounts of feral dogs preying unmercifully on solendons. For the hutia deforestation could be particularly troubling, since the large rodern spends most of its awake-time in trees. Hutias have also been hunted in the past.
A view of the largely deforested Haiti, smoke is from burning charcoal. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
To save these wonderfully weird mammals "we need to both raise awareness as widely as possible not just at the national level but at the international one too. For the project to reach and continue into the future we want as many individuals or organisations as possible to get involved. […] Awareness raising can be done at many different levels, from having conservation issues as a topic of conversation or discussion, through to the more personal contribution of volunteering and experiencing conservation work in the field first hand," Nunez-Mino says adding that interested people can follow his blogs on the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust website or the EDGE website, or join the Facebook group devoted to the project.
In addition, Nunez-Mino states that interested parties should feel free to contact him at: Jose.Nunez-Mino (at) durrell.org and a new project website has been set up at: http://www.thelastsurvivors.org/.
"Unlike all the other endemic non-flying land mammals of Hispaniola that have gone extinct, these two species have survived against the odds and are still with us," explains Nunez-Mino. Hopefully the project will be able to keep it that way.
In a January 2010 interview, Mongabay spoke with Jose Nunez-Mino about the solendon and the Hispanolian hutia, including what it was like to encounter the mammas in the wild, their unique places in evolutionary history, the interest in their respective calls, and the threats to their long-term survival.
INTERVIEW WITH JOSE NUNEZ-MINO
Mongabay What is your background?
Jose Nunez-Mino: Although born and raised in London (United Kingdom), my parents are of Spanish origin and as a child I would return to rural north-west Spain (Galicia) every year to spend the summer with my extended Spanish family. It was during these periods that my love of the natural world was born and blossomed. I particularly remember the conversations with my maternal grandfather, who had been a farmer and hunter all his life, where he would tell me how in his life time he had witnessed the disappearance of great swathes of forest along with the reduction in numbers of the species associated with them. One particularly poignant story he never tired of telling was the fact that he had seen his last wild deer in the area where he lived in 1940, the year my mother was born.
Dr. Jose Nunez-Mino and Jorge Brocca with camera traps. Photo by: Philip Bethge of Der Spiegel magazine.
Mongabay How did you become interested in the solenodon and the hutia?
Jose Nunez-Mino: In 2009, as I was coming towards the end of my doctorate, I began looking for a post that would combine and make use of both my research/science skills in addition to my other life skills (management, logistical, people, negotiation and diplomatic). I knew I did not want to go into a postdoc since I wanted my work to be in the context of achieving concrete results in the real world. The Darwin initiative funded project working for the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust (DWCT) in collaboration with other organisations offered me just such an opportunity. I must admit, up to this point I had very little knowledge of these two species apart from the big solenodon news story that had been reported by various news media including the BBC and mongabay earlier in the year. When I started to do some background reading into both species I was amazed at how little work had been done previously. For such charismatic and unique species, our knowledge of their biology, ecology, behaviour and conservation status is remarkably limited.
Mongabay What makes the Hispaniolan solenodon so unique?
Jose Nunez-Mino: There is so many ways that this question can be answered. From a conservation perspective they are unique because, along with the hutia and unlike all the other endemic non-flying land mammals of Hispaniola that have gone extinct, these two species have survived against the odds and are still with us. Additionally the Hispaniolan solenodon is also one of only two surviving insectivores from the Caribbean, the other being the related Cuban solenodon.
A juvenile Hispaniolan solenodon. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
Mongabay What was your reaction when you first found a wild solenodon?
Jose Nunez-Mino: I could not quite believe it the first time I held a solenodon; I was in utter awe of this mesmerizing mammal. It is a lot larger than people imagine with adults weighing around the 1Kg mark (2.2 pounds). Physically there are two things that jump out at you when you look at them. They have a long flexible snout which is all down to the fact that it is joined to the skull by a unique ball-and-socket joint. This makes it look as if the snout is almost independent to the rest of the animal. You can’t help but feel fascinated by the snout and inevitably it does make you smile. The other feature that is very distinctive is the long sharp claws which it uses along with its snout to dig for its insect prey. When handled properly they are remarkably docile and relaxed which makes it very easy to observe them in the hand. Most individuals show very little aggression although juveniles can be a little feistier.
All in all I think it is fair to describe solenodon as amazingly cute. They have a toy like quality about them which is reinforced by their very small eyes and their cumbersome walk which is more of a side to side waddle.
Mongabay How did you manage to catch them?
Nose poke of the Hispaniolan solenodon. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
Unfortunately this method may not be suitable for all the environments where the species are found since it relies on having the dry leaf litter to hear them and you definitely can’t catch the animals in this way on very rocky and/or steep terrain. We are working on developing other methods that might be suitable in these areas.
Mongabay Can you tell us about the sounds solenodons make?
Jose Nunez-Mino: I am not an acoustics expert but I can tell you that the sounds they make consist of a series of clicks and high pitched whistles. There has been some suggestion that these may be implicated in echo location but as far as I know there has been no conclusive work in this area. We have managed to make some initial crude recordings of the solenodon which have roused a lot of interest with scientists that work in this area. Plans are developing to hopefully raise some funds to investigate the sounds in order to understand a little more about this aspect of these intriguing animals.
Mongabay What have you discovered is threatening the Hispaniolan solenodon?
Hispaniolan solenodon juvenile on the left and adult on the right. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
In the past it has been suggested that the introduced mongoose may be impacting on solenodon populations but there is still a big question mark as to whether or how this might be happening. However, local people do put out poisoned bait to control the mongoose that prey on their chickens. Since solenodon seem to be quite opportunistic in their food choice they may well be feeding and dying from eating the poison bait – an indirect effect that could well explain any potential correlation between mongoose in an area and reduced solenodon numbers. We need to investigate all these threats before coming to any solid conclusions. Right now I would say that it is our lack of knowledge that is posing the biggest threat.
Mongabay How do you think the Cuban solenodon (the only other solenodon in the world) is faring?
Jose Nunez-Mino: The short answer to this question is not very well. Although it used to have a fairly widespread distribution across the whole of Cuba it appears to now be restricted to the Eastern Provinces. It is a very different species to the Hispaniolan solenodon, it is smaller and probably has its own unique niche. There have been some arguments that it should be placed in its own genus. Having said this, we have been in touch with some Cuban scientists in the hope that we might learn from each others experience in studying solenodon and hopefully form a Caribbean wide collaboration in the future with the aim of studying and helping to conserve all the land mammal fauna in this part of the world.
Mongabay What is a hutia?
The Hispaniolan hutia peeking out from behind a tree. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
The species is primarily arboreal and although their tail can hardly be described as prehensile, from what I’ve seen they definitely use it for balance and for extra grip while they are up in the trees. Hispaniolan hutia are nocturnal animals, spending daylight hours in caves or hollowed out trees. The first time I read this I remember thinking how odd it was that an arboreal animal should live in burrows at ground level but having now witnessed their descent from the trees at first light, I can confirm that this is absolutely accurate.
Mongabay What makes the Hispaniolan hutia unique, even among other hutias?
Jose Nunez-Mino: They are the only surviving native rodents of Hispaniola. Although other hutia species are still found in the Bahamas, Cuba and Jamaica, the Hispaniolan hutia is the only surviving member of the Plagiodontia genus which is the oldest lineage of hutia and diverged from the other hutia around 20 million years ago. It is, undoubtedly a very special animal.
Mongabay The hutia makes unique sounds as well, can you tell us about these?
The nocturnal Hispaniolan hutia caught in light at night. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
Mongabay What threatens the Hispaniolan hutia?
Jose Nunez-Mino: Hispaniolan hutia are arboreal animals that feed on leaves, fruit, shoots and bark. As such, they are utterly reliant on the presence of trees and forests. Deforestation is likely to be the most direct threat to their ongoing survival. In some areas I have seen evidence of small populations which are surviving in forest fragments set within agricultural landscapes, some villagers are complaining of crop damage and the finger is being pointed at the hutia. The danger is that as the forest becomes increasingly fragmented, not only is the hutia habitat being destroyed but the human-animal conflict could escalate to an all out persecution. This is simply a theory at the moment but something we need to give some serious thought to. The hutia use to be hunted opportunistically as a source of food in the Dominican Republic, in fact in Haiti and for some Cuban species this may still be the case. If human population continues to increase and resources become limited, could this become a more significant future threat to the Hispaniolan hutia?
Mongabay Many of the species of Hutia have already gone extinct—what led to their demise? How about other surviving hutia species—how are they faring, are they receiving any conservation attention?
The Hispaniolan hutia hanging out. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
The second question is also a tough one to try and answer accurately mainly because of a lack of data. All of the hutia family is endemic to the Caribbean and many are restricted to single islands or groups of islands. The IUCN (International Union for the Conservation of Nature) currently lists six species as Extinct, four as Critically Endangered, four as Endangered (including the Hispaniolan hutia), three species listed as Vulnerable, one as Near Threatened and one of Least Concern. Some of the species listed as Critically Endangered, for example the dwarf hutia from Cuba, have not been seen for over seventy years. Worryingly we know very little about most hutia and for some of the extinct species we do not know what the cause of extinction was. Although many of the hutias have populations within protected areas and legislation that outlaws hunting, this does not inherently mean they are not still potentially in danger from factors such as invasive alien species.
CONSERVATION IN THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC AND HAITI
Mongabay What are your thoughts on the status of the Hispaniolan solenodon and the Hispaniolan hutia?
Jose Nunez-Mino: The jury is very much out on this question and it lies at the core of the work that we are doing. There is no doubt that their range and numbers have decreased steadily since the arrival of humans on the island. In some areas they are surviving in small forest fragments set in agricultural landscapes. This brings both species into conflict with man in both direct and indirect ways. One would hope that the extensive protected area network in the Dominican Republic will be providing some sort of safeguard but as I mentioned earlier we have already heard of some worrying reports (i.e. dogs) even within these, and in addition there is also some agricultural activity and deforestation within the boundaries of some national parks. Luckily there are several national conservation organisations, including our main project partner “Sociedad Ornitologica de la Hispaniola” who are working very hard to conserve these species and their habitat.
Mongabay What needs to happen to save these species?
Nicholas, a native research assistant, interviewing a local about the solenodon and the hutia. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
Education is also needed in order to make more people at the national and international level aware of the potential dangers involved in losing these species along with their habitat. Imagine the signal it would send to the world if the solenodon, whose lineage has been around for over 60 million years, becomes extinct. Similarly if the hutia, which is the last native rodent of Hispaniola and which has survived despite all adversity, was to disappear. Of course education alone will not save either species or their habitat, conservation efforts need to be carried out within the context of sustainable development. There needs to be a wider realisation that environmental resources are valuable, irreplaceable and finite.
Haiti is already been held up as a world wide example of how disastrous environmental degradation can be [note: interview was conducted before the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti]. We do not want to extend this example to the rest of Hispaniola. There is a huge potential to help the situation in Haiti to improve so that it can be held up as an example of how things can be turned round. What’s needed is a collaborative and integrated approach where conservation is not simply seen as a nice sideline, but rather a central requirement as such we need to coordinate our efforts with a wide range of organisations and agencies. This can happen and there are some positive signs that it is happening, within the context of our project we have already received support from a private company, Punta Cana Resort & Clubs, via their ecological foundation.
Mongabay How do local people view the hutia and the solenodon?
Forest fragment surrounded by agricultural landscape. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
Mongabay What do you hope to discover over the next few years of this project?
Jose Nunez-Mino: Bottom line within the lifetime of the project we need to discover an effective and efficient way to conserve the Hispaniolan solenodon and hutia. This means ascertaining their distribution and abundance at the national scale along with an assessment of the threats which are having an impact now and could possibly do so in the future. Invasive alien species, such as cats, rats and mongoose, are often quoted as potentially having an impact, but we really don’t have a real understanding of how. We need a holistic and integrated approach to monitoring the species in the long term in order to make sure that we really have identified all the threats and start taking measures against them. The picture is likely to be a complicated one, where specific dangers vary from one area to another.
Mongabay How can people help raise awareness and funds to save these strange and wonderful mammals?
Prime solenodon and hutia habitat: inside a forest fragment. Photo by: Jose Nunez-Mino.
Unfortunately conservation work does need financial support at least to get the process started. This does not have to take the form of a direct donation to the project, although we obviously welcome these and they can be done through the websites of DWCT or the EDGE of Existence. Other forms of contribution can take the shape of resources (e.g. accommodation or food costs, access to land or provision of training), project promotion (e.g. advertising or contact with people/companies who might want to contribute), expertise (e.g. scientific, educational or social) and equipment (e.g. camera/video, sound recording equipment or radio tracking equipment). I’d encourage anyone who wants to contribute to not hesitate to get in touch. I’m happy to answer any questions or listen to any ideas that people come up with although I would urge them to have patience when waiting for a reply since I am often out in the field.
Nunez-Mino states that interested parties should feel free to contact him at: Jose.Nunez-Mino (at) durrell.org.
A new project website has been set up at: http://www.thelastsurvivors.org/