Though many of us think of Cuba as one island, it’s actually an archipelago made up of more than 4000 islands and keys—20 percent of which is protected area. In its new bilingual exhibition “¡Cuba!”, the American Museum of Natural History looks at the cultural history of the country as well as its natural history, showing everything from how Cuban cigars are made to the endemic creatures that can be found only on Cuba. AMNH scientists have been working in Cuba for more than a century—their first expedition was made in 1892—and this exhibition was created in partnership with scientists at the Cuban National Museum of Natural History. “¡Cuba!” opens to the public on Monday, November 21; here are few things we learned at the preview.
1. Cuba is home to some 372 species of bird, 24 of which are endemic. One such bird is the Cuban parakeet, whose numbers have been depleted by the pet trade; one of the only places you can see big flocks of the birds is in Cuba’s Zapata National Park.
Of the 190 species of butterfly that can be found in Cuba, at least 35 species are endemic to the island, including the clearwing butterfly (Greta cubana). Though it could once be found all across the island, these days its range is restricted to protected areas of humid forests.
3. Want to tell a Cuban crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) from an American croc (Crocodylus acutus)? Look for bony ridges behind the eyes, which American crocodiles lack.
In prehistoric times, Cuba was home to the largest owl that has ever lived: Ornimegalonyx. AMNH’s exhibition has the first scientifically accurate rendering of this enormous bird, which was more than 3 feet tall.
5. Solenodon cubanus—a venomous, 2-pound mammal endemic to Cuba and commonly known as almiqui—was once believed to be extinct. Then, in the mid-1970s, scientists discovered one of the animals in Humboldt Park; today, scientists know of 11 individuals, though evidence suggests there may be more out there.
The patterns and colors on the shells of Polymita land snails vary widely even within the same species; scientists theorize this diversity is an adaptation the snails use to confuse predators.
7. Like the other armored fishes in its genus, the Cuban gar (Atractosteus tristoechus) has adapted to breathe air.
Take a trip to “¡Cuba!” and you’ll see a Cuban boa (Epicrates angulifer), a mostly ground-dwelling snake that hangs out around the mouths of caves—the better to grab bats from the air when they fly by.
9. Cuba is home to the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), the smallest bird in the world. It weighs just one-twentieth of an ounce.
Millions of years ago, Cuba was home to primates, the last of which, Paralouatta varonai, weighed up to 20 pounds and may have been related to howler monkeys. When it was discovered, the skull above was missing large sections; scientists used modern monkeys to reconstruct its face.