Amphibians and Reptiles
The most common reptiles you’ll see are any of 46 lizard species, especially the bright green lagartija lizard with its vermilion wattle, the comical curly-tailed lizard, and geckos. Dragonlike iguanas, which can grow to two meters in length, can be seen on the cays crawling through moist deciduous forest leaf litter or basking on branches that hang over water—its preferred route of escape when threatened. Its head is crested with a frightening wig of leathery spines, its heavy body encased in a scaly hide, deeply wrinkled around the sockets of its muscular legs. Despite its menacing One Million Years b.c. appearance, it is a nonbelligerent vegetarian.
Aquatic turtles (terrapins) are also common, particularly in the Zapata Peninsula.
The amphibians are primarily represented by the frogs and toads, most of which you’re probably more likely to hear than to see. Spelunkers might spot the axolotl, a blind, albino cave-dwelling newt.
Cuba is also home to 14 species of neotropical snakes. None is venomous. Among the more common snake species are the wide-ranging boas. The majá, or Cuban boa, can grow to four meters in length and proves adept at slithering up trees. Its converse is the 20-centimeter-long pygmy boa, found solely in the caves of the Valle de Viñales.
Crocodiles and Caimans
The speckled caiman is common lowland wetlands and can grow to more than two meters long. Another species, the nonnative caiman or babilla, is found on the Isla de la Juventud. Its scales take on the blue-green color of the water it slithers through.
The endemic yellow and black Crocodylus rhombifer, is found only in the Zapata Peninsula but is being reintroduced to the Lanier swamps, Río Cuato estuary, and other native areas. The crocodile was hunted to near extinction during colonial days and today has the most restricted geographical range of any crocodile species in the world. Lagarto criollo (as the Cuban croc is colloquially known) is much more aggressive than its cousin, the American crocodile, which inhabits many of the estuaries and coastal mangroves around the island and which interbred with the Cuban crocodile. Since the Revolution, Cuba has had an active and highly successful breeding program to save the indigenous species. Today the population is abundant and healthy (about 6,000 exist in the wild). In 1995, the Cuban government was authorized by the Convention of International Trade in Endangered Species to market the skins of the animals worldwide to be turned into shoes and handbags, with the money to be plowed back into conservation—only crocs in the captive-breeding program are culled.
The creatures, which can live 80 years or more, spend much of their days basking on mud banks. At night, they sink down into the river for the hunt. While the American species is a fish eater, the omnivorous Cuban crocodile occasionally likes meat—wild boars, deer, unsuspecting anglers. Crocs cannot chew. They simply snap, tear, and swallow. Powerful stomach acids dissolve everything. A horrible way to go!
Marine turtles, notably the hawksbill and, to a lesser degree, the green, nest on Cuban beaches, mostly on Isla de la Juventud and southern cays. Most of the important nesting sites in Cuba are now protected, and access to some is restricted. Despite legislation outlawing the taking of turtle eggs or disturbance of nesting turtles, however, adult turtles continue to be captured for meat by Cuban fishermen. Hawksbills are also hunted illegally in Cuba (which lobbies to reopen international trade in hawksbill shell products) for the tourist trade—one often sees stuffed turtle specimens for sale, and shells are used in jewelry and ornaments.
Of the hundreds of eggs laid by a female in one season, only a handful survive to maturity. Cayo Largo has Cuba’s only turtle farm.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition