The American Museum of Natural History Showcases a 100-Year-Old Partnership With Cuba

A diorama of Jardines de la Reina, a coral reef south of the main island.EXPAND
A diorama of Jardines de la Reina, a coral reef south of the main island.
©AMNH/D. Finnin; R. Mickens

In 1910, a renowned Cuban scientist named Carlos de la Torre y la Huerta ventured into the Ciego Montero hot springs region of the island nation and found the fossilized remains of a giant Cuban ground sloth, extinct for thirty thousand years at least. The sloth was the size of a bear. Wanting to find more, de la Torre contacted the fledgling American Museum of Natural History in New York. At the time the AMNH was pouring its resources into wildly ambitious expeditions: Between 1880 and 1930, museum staff were venturing to the North Pole, exploring unmapped areas of Siberia, and traversing the Gobi desert, where a team from the museum was credited with discovering the first nest of fossilized dinosaur eggs. Upon receiving de la Torre's invitation, they dispatched Barnum Brown, who'd become the museum's most famous paleontologist for his discovery of the first Tyrannosaurus rex bones less than ten years prior.

Together, the Cuban-American duo pieced together two composite skeletons of the giant mammals: one for Cuba's National Museum of Natural History in Havana, and the other for the AMNH, where it has been on display in the museum's hall of primitive mammals for much of the past 100 years.

Their collaboration was among the first of the nearly thirty joint expeditions AMNH and its Cuban counterpart would pursue, the most recent taking place just last year; ¡Cuba!, AMNH's newest offering, is a showcase of that century-old partnership, which has managed to endure every crest and trough of Cuba-U.S. relations in that time. The giant sloth, along with a model of Cuba's other extinct giant, a three-foot-tall owl that roamed the island until seven thousand years ago, sits prominently at the center of the fully bilingual exhibit, which not only celebrates the vast range of lifeforms native to the island — the largest and most biodiverse of any in the Caribbean. It is also part of a larger five-year commitment to continue joint work and extend AMNH's research into Cuban society itself — something that would have been much more difficult two years ago, and may become difficult again, if Trump has his way.

Water on all sides meant that evolution in Cuba progressed cut off from the rest of the world. The island had no major land-dwelling carnivores, allowing some prey species with mainland varieties to evolve into giants, and others to become highly specialized, free to find a very specific ecological niche and adapt exclusively to it. This yielded a kaleidoscopic menagerie found nowhere else. Some creatures look like they've leapt from the mind of Hieronymus Bosch; on display is a Cuban solenodon, for example — a tawny, round-rumped two-pound relative of the shrew that secretes venomous saliva from its front teeth. A hutia, a massive, twenty-pound rodent, sits beside it. A few native frogs and Technicolor lizards are also housed in the exhibit, beside a live iridescent Cuban boa coiled demurely in its tank. In the same room, a taxidermied bee hummingbird, smaller than any other bird — and, in fact, some bees — is perched daintily on a branch.

"I've done a lot of work in Madagascar, and I think of Cuba as the Madagascar of the Caribbean," says Christopher Raxworthy, a curator of the museum's department of herpetology and of the new exhibit. This summer, he spent a month alongside Cuban researchers in the remotest parts of Humboldt National Park, a 275-square-mile rainforest on the easternmost end of the island full of undescribed creatures. "To a biologist, it's like being a kid in a candy store," Raxworthy says.

The exhibit delves into Cuban cultures as deeply as into wildlife. It opens with large photographs of the many Cubans interviewed for it, the accompanying wall text expressing hope or affection for their resilient homeland. The very first is a portrait of a Cuban tattoo artist: "I would define the Cuban as a brave person who has learned to live with many problems, who laughs at all those problems, who lives each day in order to try to live the next." Another area is dedicated to Cuban graphic art, and another to Cuban food; when the Voice visited, a blonde elementary-school-aged girl sat down at one of the display tables and stared at a plate of rice and beans sealed under a plastic case. "You're so lucky to be Cuban. This food looks so good," she said to another grade-schooler, a boy who'd taken a seat beside her in front of a plate of fried malanga root. "I've never been, though, but my dad has," he replied.

The Cuban knight anole, a large and territorial tree-dwelling lizard.EXPAND
The Cuban knight anole, a large and territorial tree-dwelling lizard.
©AMNH/D. Finnin; R. Mickens

The young attendees likely don't know about the Cold War, or that Cuban relations have been a talking point for every White House in the past half-century. They don't remember the Bay of Pigs, the causes of the embargo, the deportation of Elián González. And yet the exhibit comes just as international affairs threaten to seesaw yet again: just over a year after President Obama restored diplomatic ties with Cuba, and just before the inauguration of a president who promises to abridge them, wielding vague threats about extracting "better deals" from Havana.

But the ambient optimism of the exhibit has managed to infect some scholars' view of the political situation. Julia Sweig, a scholar on U.S.-Cuban relations at the University of Texas at Austin, said she is betting that the sheer velocity of the past year's changes, including easier travel between the two countries, will be enough to make them unstoppable. "We will hope that they will continue to go forward, she says, "and [that] the momentum of connectivity is inexorable."

For now, the business of enumerating Cuba's natural wonders continues apace.

The final papers from last summer's expedition won't be ready for publication until next year, but Raxworthy, the herpetologist, is confident that trip will have found and named more than a hundred new species of frogs, lizards, and invertebrates. "We might even have a new species of mammal," Raxworthy says, grinning. This is the kind of thing biologist dreams are made of. And the discovery is not about to stop: Raxworthy says the next joint research expedition is being planned for summer 2017.

"This is really the start of a much longer period of engagement," he continues. "Cuba's such a big place — it's the kind of country you can spend your whole lifetime studying."


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