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Animals of Cuba: Endemism Explained

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Because of their isolation, islands make for natural experiments in evolution, with many hosting species that are found nowhere else on the planet. The phenomenon is known as endemism, and Cuba is a prime example.


On Cuba, as on other islands, endemic plants and animals can evolve in parallel and play a major role in one another’s life cycles. A 2012 study found that Cuba’s bee hummingbirds—the smallest birds in the world, which live only on the island—visited just 10 species of flowers looking for a nectar meal. Of these plants, nine are either native or endemic to the island.

While islands face many of the same conservation challenges as the mainland, the effects can be more pronounced due to the sharp boundaries of life there. Island species are also particularly vulnerable to the threat of invasive species. These relatively isolated ecosystems aren’t used to new arrivals, and their introduction can spell disaster for native species.


Overhead view of catfish swimming in clear, shallow water over a pebbly bottom.
The African sharptooth catfish, Clarias gariepinus, has been introduced to Cuba where it threatens native species.
Creative Commons/P. Asman and J. Lenoble

Dr. Gilberto Silva Taboada, curator emeritus at the Cuban National Museum of Natural History, says the giant catfish Clarias gariepinus is a particularly destructive example of invasive species, and not just in the Zapata wetlands where they were introduced.

 “This large fish can survive outside water for days,” Silva Taboada says. “It regularly climbs onto dry land, wandering and feeding on all kinds of endemic animals, even inside caves.”


Learn more about amazing Cuban wildlife in the special exhibition ¡Cuba!, now open to the public and free for Members.

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