Crocodile Conservation on Wetlands Day

On Exhibit posts

Today is World Wetlands Day, so we're inviting you to join Dr. George Amato of the Museum's Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics as he travels to Cuba's Zapata Swamp, one of the island nation's largest and most important wetlands.

While the swamp is home to the largest remaining wild population of Cuban crocodiles, estimated to be about 3,000 individuals, the species has vanished from other parts of the island due to habitat loss and is considered critically endangered.

 

Cuban crocodile emerges from the water and walks onto the sandy, rocky shoreline.

Habitat loss has taken a toll on populations of the Cuban crocodile, Crocodylus rhombifer.

Creative Commons/G. Zambonini


Those crocodiles that remain are targets for poachers, but the species also faces a far more insidious threat: hybridization. When they interbreed with larger, saltwater-dwelling American crocodiles—a process that has likely been going on for decades—the gene pool of pure Cuban crocodiles gets diluted. Because wild populations of Cuban crocodiles are now so small, the presence of hybrids presents a serious problem.

 

American crocodile, with feet submerged, rests in shallow water.

Hybridization with the American crocodile, Crocodylus acutus, threatens Cuban crocodile populations.

Creative Commons/T. Castelazo


In recent years, Dr. Amato has worked alongside Cuban colleagues, including Dr. Roberto Ramos of the National Enterprise for the Protection of Flora and Fauna and Dr. Yoamel Milian-Garcia of the University of Havana, to study the genome of Cuban crocodiles. This collaboration has helped scientists and veterinarians develop their capacity for DNA testing and analysis, key tools in ensuring this charismatic species’ survival.

 

Two researchers in an outdoor, wetlands environment hold a baby crocodile.

Researchers are introducing captive-bred Cuban crocs to Zapata Swamp.

© G. Amato


One tool researchers and conservationists are using to improve the animals’ odds is a farm in Zapata Swamp, which has been raising Cuban crocodiles and studying them in captivity for decades. Recently, the first captive-bred population of Cuban crocodiles was released into the wild, deep in the interior of Zapata Swamp.

When they breed, these newly released Cuban crocodiles will reproduce only with other Cuban crocs, replenishing the numbers of pure Cuban crocodiles in the wild.

“The release of Cuban crocodiles from the managed population represents the success of many years of hard work by dedicated Cuban biologists,” says Amato. “More importantly, it’s a significant step to a more secure and hopeful future for the species.”

 

Links to landing page of the !Cuba! exhibition

A model of the Cuban crocodile is part of the Museum’s ¡Cuba! exhibition, open now.

©AMNH/D. Finnin


See the crocodile model—and other amazing Cuban wildlife—in ¡Cuba!

A version of this story originally appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.