If I told you that I knew an animal that smelled like a goat, chirped like a bird, kills with its saliva and runs on its tip-toes, you wouldn’t believe me- right? So there’s not a lot of point in my writing this, given that you believe my subject to be completely imaginary.
Okay, now let me try a different tack. What would you say if I told you of a rat-like creature that coexisted with the dinosaurs and has been rediscovered off the coast of North America. Better? Now let’s begin…
Solenodons evolved amongst a group of insect-eating mammals that scurried beneath the feet of dinosaurs 76 million years ago. Known from fossil evidence across North America from 30 million years ago, these stubborn little creatures somehow persisted until the present day- now found only on the two islands of Cuba and Hispaniola (the latter being a separate, larger and more common species).
Worm lizards and German sailors
The story of our elusive fur-ball begins in 1861, when a certain ship bearing the renowned German naturalist Wilhelm Peters stopped by on the island of Cuba. A lover of snakes, lizards and all things scaly, he considered this ugly ‘shrew’ to be barely worthy of note. Yet note it he did, and in doing so cemented a place for his name in all of the many Solenodon history books. I guess when you have a species of worm-lizard bearing your name, then a goat smelling, venemous large shrew may actually be a step-up!
As the years passed, a few scattered records of Solenodons being captured flashed by to the ignorance of the world at large. Yet as years turned into decades, sightings became progressively fewer and farther between, until eventually, there was nothing. For the better part of a century, from 1890 right through until 1970 nothing was heard of the Cuban Solenodon- not a sighting, not a footprint, not ever a tiny bird chirp. Nothing. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature declared the species as ‘endangered.’ And that was that.
Return of the Lost World
Well… not quite. Because as the mid-part of the decade came around, three of them were miraculously caught. Being clumsy runners, the catching probably wasn’t too miraculous- but to find living, breathing evidence of the species after so long in the dark was nothing short of a miracle. Reappearing in 1999 and 2003, we now know that a small population of the animals clings on to existence within the confines of the Oriente Province, tucked away in the East of Cuba.
They are threatened by environmental pressures ranging from habitat loss to predation from invasive species (feral cats and the Burmese mongoose) to mining development. Being nocturnal, they’re near-impossible to study and aren’t most often seen as cuddly enough to get the funding for it anyway. And they reproduce so slowly it will take a long time for their populations to recover if left undisturbed. It’s not going to be easy keeping the Solenodon species alive and thriving, but that doesn’t mean we have to give up! Last year, a conservation project was launched in one of the few national parks still sporting a decent population. Hopefully this will shed some light on how best to keep this amazing species on its feet.
So yes- the Cuban Solenodon is a bit of a scientific oddity, like the last surviving remnant of some Mediaeval bestiary. It’s not beautiful; it’s not even easy to see. And yet with its unsteady, stumbling gait, its nose that’s as flexible as your shoulder, and its nasty nip of a bite, this charismatic creature is among the top ten most evolutionarily distinct mammals on Earth. And that, if nothing else, must surely make it worth saving.
- Theusch, M. 2002, Solenodon cubanus , Animal Diversity Web. https://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Solenodon_cubanus/
- Zoological Society of London. 2019, 6: Cuban Solenodon, EDGE Project http://www.edgeofexistence.org/species/cuban-solenodon/
- Bates, M. 2015, The Creature Feature: Ten Fun Facts about the Solenodon, https://www.wired.com/2015/03/creature-feature-10-fun-facts-solenodon/
- UpClosed. 2019, Wilhelm Peters, https://upclosed.com/people/wilhelm-peters-2/ (viewed 14th May 2019)