Friday, July 17, 2015

Cuba to Yellowstone

by Bob Unnasch director of science

During the past several weeks I had the opportunity to take a break and travel some. At the end of May I traveled to the Archipiélago de los Jardines de la Reina, a cluster of islands off the southern coast of Cuba. Two weeks later I spent a few days in Yellowstone. 

While honestly, the main reason for my visit to the Caribbean was to catch large fish on flies, I was also excited to see the island’s biodiversity. Cuba is only 90 miles south of Florida and 140 miles east of the Yucatán. At times the Gulf of Mexico Loop Current sweeps past the Yucatán peninsula and turns due east brushing the northern coast of Cuba. Other times the current flows north through the Gulf of Mexico then south along the western coast of Florida before flowing east through the Straits of Florida. It seems like the ideal conveyor to carry critters to the island. I anticipated the fauna of Cuba to be an amazing collection of North and Central American critters. 

Going Fishing © Bob Unnasch

My trip to the Jardines involved flying into Havana and then driving ~300 miles to the small town of Júcaro. We then boarded a boat for a 60 mile trip to the islands. To my great disappointment I saw no mammals, nor any evidence of mammals. Similarly, I saw few bird species — even remarkably few individual birds. I was dumbfounded; my daydreams of a biologically diverse paradise, shattered. Maybe it was time to get my eyes checked.

Upon my return, I did a bit of research and discovered that it wasn’t my eyes. Cuba's native land mammals include two insectivores, one coney, and twelve rodents. Of these, five are extinct, including the coney, and five are critically endangered. By comparison, Yellowstone has 67 native mammals in the park, (Idaho has 107).

Cuban hutia © Bob Unnasch

Our visit to Yellowstone National Park was a typical driving tour over a few days with a couple of stops at the Conservancy’s Flat Ranch. We saw all the charismatic mega-fauna that make Yellowstone famous and lots of small and medium mammals. It was fun, as always, to see the abundance and diversity of the park, and to imagine what the Rocky Mountains were like a millennium ago.

During my drive home, I started to think about the contrast between Yellowstone and Cuba. What would Yellowstone, or Idaho, be like if we only had a handful of native mammals? It would certainly feel different... and empty. Conservation biologists have described many tropical forest parks as suffering from an “empty forest syndrome”. The forests still have their trees, but all the large mammals are gone; typically the result of market hunting.

Yellowstone bison © Alan W. Eckert

We are seeing dramatic changes in the Rocky Mountains. Warmer winters have released mountain pine beetles which are now decimating our forests. Our whitebark pines, which play a keystone role in these ecosystems is disappearing. Whitebark pine nuts are a crucial food resource for a diversity of animals, including the Clark’s nutcracker and grizzly bears. We don’t know what will happen when those pine nuts are no longer available. Climate change rather than market hunting may well be emptying our forests. While we cannot predict how the future will unfold, we can build on what we do know to hopefully minimize the impact of the changes we see coming.

Ecologists use the word niche as a catch-all term that means “all the biological, ecological, and physical constraints on a species’ range”. Physical constraints include climate, geology, soils, hydrology, etc.  In 2010, two TNC scientists, Mark Anderson and Charles Ferree proposed a unique strategy for biodiversity conservation in light of climate change. Rather than focus on the species, we should focus on maintaining those geophysical features that ultimately control species distributions. This idea has taken hold and the strategy is now called “Conserving Nature’s Stage”. Click here for more information.


Flat Ranch bluebird © Marilynne Manguba

TNC has embraced this idea and is now mapping the geophysical diversity (Nature’s Stage) across North America. We completed this assessment for the Pacific Northwest late last year, and are now identifying key areas for conservation. The Doris Duke Charitable Foundation recently granted The Nature Conservancy $6,000,000 for land conservation work within these areas.  I’m hopeful that by conserving the diverse ecological stage we’ll be able to ensure that the actors will always find a home.


Ken Miracle said...

Cool story .... hope the fishing was great. Just got back from CA and their Reservoirs make ours look positively full.

Alexia Cochrane said...

As a retired Botanist/Ecologist with USFS and BLM in Idaho and Montana (after retirement I also produced an EDR for TNC Idaho in the Pahsimeroi Valley), I have been to Cuba 3 times. Comparing Cuba's fauna to Yellowstone is like comparing mangoes to whitebark pine. The endemic plant and insect diversity is enormous in certain areas of Cuba. I suggest you do some research before visiting Cuba again.

Arul said...

great post.. greeting from indonesia :)