American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) scientists Ana Porzecanski and Angelo Soto-Centeno present the findings of their recent expedition to Cuba and the new avenues for scientific collaboration on the island.
Here is an excerpt from the video:
All right, so the first question and what I really wanted to start with is why Cuba. Why were we interested in going to Cuba? And without question a lot of eyes on Cuba right now, and it is an island nation that had an outsized role in world history and politics. It is also interesting to many because of its old cars, its big cigars, beautiful architecture, amazing music, dancing on the streets. This is the Cuba perhaps that many people expect; the kind of postcard view of Cuba.
We were interested in Cuba because of its biodiversity. And perhaps want to show you some of the Cuba you may not expect today. A Cuba that has incredible landscapes, starting with amazing mountains, which some people don’t expect in the Caribbean like Pico Turquino, the highest point in the eastern side of the island. Incredible ecosystems on land like the limestone mogotes formations of Vinales Valley and other rock formations in Guantanamo. Incredible ecosystems on the coasts, wonderful wetlands, mangroves, amazing Zapata Swamp where many, many birds migrate to and, of course, incredible ecosystems underwater and also underground because Cuba is full of caves. Really amazing caves, I think. Angelo will definitely be speaking more about that.
It’s area, at 42,000 square miles or so, about the size of Tennessee. This is a pretty large island. And so we have this incredible diversity of landscapes. Also because it has had this amazingly dynamic geologic history. We can’t go into it today. It’s fascinating.
More than 4,000 islands and keys is what composes the Cuban archipelago. And this incredible diversity of geology and ecosystems and landscapes created over time—gave rise to this unique biodiversity in Cuba, especially remarkable were some of its giant animals that lived there 30 to—1 million to 10,000 years ago. For example, the Cuban ground sloth, which was fairly large and was the size of a bear or even bigger.
— Ana Porzecanski
As part of a formal Memorandum of Understanding signed in Havana on July 9, the AMNH and Cuban National Museum of Natural History (Museo Nacional de Historia Natural de Cuba, MNHN) will collaborate on research, exhibitions, and education.
The July 9 agreement follows a century of scientific collaboration between AMNH and Cuban researchers, including biologists from MNHN since that institution’s founding in 1960. AMNH also announced that on October 24, MNHN Curator Emeritus Gilberto Silva Taboada—a world-renowned expert on Caribbean bats—will receive an honorary degree from AMNH’s Richard Gilder Graduate School.
As the first initiative under the agreement, the American Museum of Natural History announced that this fall it will present a bilingual exhibition, ¡Cuba!, about the Caribbean island nation. In addition to the two natural history museums, the MOU was signed by the Cuban Environmental Agency (Agencia de Medio Ambiente).
¡Cuba! will explore the extraordinary biodiversity across the island’s remote forests, deep caves, expansive wetlands, and dazzling reefs through immersive exhibits that have been developed with colleagues at MNHN. In addition, the exhibition will highlight Cuba’s culture, its peoples, and its history.
Cuba is the largest island in the Caribbean region, technically an archipelago made up of more than 4,000 islands and cays. It is known for its exceptional biodiversity: about 50% of its plants and 32% of its vertebrate animals are endemic, species that are found only on the island. ¡Cuba! is co-curated by Dr. Ana Luz Porzecanski, director of AMNH’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, and Dr. Chris Raxworthy, curator-in-charge in the AMNH Department of Herpetology.
It will include live animals and specimens as well as artifacts and lifelike models representing the island’s distinctive wildlife, from a venomous mammal to the world’s smallest bird. Highlights include a re-creation of Zapata wetlands, home to the endangered Cuban crocodile; a reconstructed cave environment where visitors can examine fossil remains of extinct species such as Megalocnus rodens, a giant ground sloth once common to the island; and live lizards, boas, and frogs.
In addition to focusing on Cuban biodiversity, the exhibition will showcase Cuban culture and life—including art, music, spiritual traditions, celebrations, food, and farming. A long, open boulevard evoking the street life one might find in a Cuban city will invite visitors to stroll, sit, and discover Cuban culture through music, dance performances, and a variety of interactive experiences. Other highlights include a re-creation of a throne used for orisha worship, an Afro-Cuban spiritual tradition known as Santeria; a gallery showcasing contemporary Cuban art; and a room revealing the craft of cultivating one of Cuba’s most famous crops, tobacco. An introductory film about Cuba’s history, from its first peoples to the 21st century, will provide visitors with historical context for contemporary realities.
As a leader in science and conservation, the American Museum of Natural History has long-standing research and capacity development collaborations with Cuban scientists at a number of institutions, including the MNHN, the University of Havana, the Cuban Botanical Society, and the National Enterprise for the Protection of Flora and Fauna. Museum scientists have led nearly 30 expeditions and field projects to Cuba over the last 120 years.
Building on this long legacy, the Museum recently launched a new research collaboration with Cuba under the banner of Explore21—a comprehensive Museum initiative that began in 2013 to foster a series of innovative scientific expeditions to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century. The Explore21 program, which previously sent teams to the Solomon Islands and to Papua New Guinea, supports exploratory fieldwork that is multidisciplinary, heavily integrated with emerging technologies, and focused on delivering real-world applications by discovering new species, conserving biodiversity, and uncovering new knowledge about the natural world and humanity’s relationship to it.
In the fall of 2015, the Explore21 Expedition to Cuba sent a team of Museum and Cuban scientists to Humboldt National Park, one of the most remote and biologically important areas of the country, to advance the understanding of Cuban biodiversity, its evolution, biogeography, and conservation. Led by Dr. Porzecanski, Dr. Susan Perkins, a curator in the AMNH Division of Invertebrate Zoology, and Dr. George Amato, director of the AMNH Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics, the research team included conservation biologists, ornithologists, herpetologists, mammalogists, arachnologists, and microbiologists from the AMNH, MNHN, and Humboldt National Park. ¡Cuba! will feature footage from the expedition’s 2015 survey of Humboldt Park. In the coming year, AMNH and MNHN plan to collaborate on a second Explore21 Expedition to Cuba.
Dr. Silva Taboada, MNHN Curator Emeritus and bat expert who participated in the 2015 Explore21 Expedition, will be awarded the Doctor of Science degree, honoris causa, by the AMNH Richard Gilder Graduate School at its 2016 commencement on October 24, in recognition of his distinguished career and extraordinary contributions to science.
¡Cuba! will be open to the public from Monday, November 21, 2016, to August 13, 2017. Museum Members will be able to preview the exhibition on Friday, November 18, Saturday, November 19, and Sunday, November 20.