Zapata Wetlands

Part of the ¡Cuba! exhibition

Crocodile Country

The Zapata peninsula contains the largest and most important wetlands in the Caribbean. Covering 1.5 million acres (6,000 square km), the immense Zapata Biosphere Reserve includes marshes, peat bogs, mangroves, coral reefs, and forests that support a complex web of life, including frogs, turtles, fish, shellfish, crocodiles, birds, and countless plants and insects, making its conservation a top priority for the entire region.

Cuban crocodile lifts its head out of the water.

Cuban crocodiles are threatened by habitat loss and interbreeding with American crocodiles.

© Shutterstock


Crocodile Cousins

Cuba is home to two species of crocodiles—the Cuban crocodile and the American crocodile. Both have suffered steep declines from overhunting and habitat loss. But the Cuban crocodile, with its more restricted distribution, is now critically endangered. Cuban scientists, collaborating with researchers around the world, are now using DNA sequencing tools to help understand and conserve these ancient species.

American crocodile sits on grass and looks up.

An American crocodile in Cuba.

© J. Cancalosi/AGE Fotostock


A Walk in the Wetlands

All too often, wetlands and marshes are ignored, forgotten, or drained for development. But in Cuba’s Zapata National Park, a vast wetland ecosystem supports many important species and diverse habitats. This unique setting is home to many plants and animals found nowhere else.

The sepals and petals extend from the stem and have the appearance of a jumble of spider legs.

Orchids in the genus Brassia, like this one, are known as "spider orchids," due to their long, slender petals.

© MAP/A. Descat/AGE Fotostock


Migration Way Station

The protected wetlands of the Zapata peninsula attract hundreds of thousands of migrating birds. Many birds winter in Cuba, and many more use the island as a stopover when migrating between North and South America.

Bird Sanctuary

The Zapata Reserve is a haven for birds not just from Cuba but throughout the Caribbean and beyond. A whopping 372 bird species can be spotted on the island, including 24 species that live only in Cuba—and several of these live only in Zapata.

Close-ups of the trogon and tody sitting on branches.

Both the Cuban trogon (left) and Cuban tody (right) are endemic to the island nation. The trogon is also the country's national bird.

© G. Bartley/AGE Fotostock; © G. Bartley/AGE Fotostock


Check out more of the exhibition—explore Cuban art. 

Top photo: ©AMNH/D. Finnin