A Cuban Crocodile Crisis
June 22, 2011
Cuban crocodiles are a spunky sort. Compared
to other crocodilians, Cuban crocs are aggressive, distinctively colored, and
amazing leapers. Unfortunately, rampant hunting nearly wiped them out last
century, and today, poaching and habitat destruction continue to threaten their
small populations. As a result, the species is now considered critically endangered.
Still, a more insidious danger looms:
American crocodiles living in Cuba are
breeding with Cuban crocs. Over time, these courtships could squeeze out
genetically pure populations of Cuban crocodiles, which are much more rare. Scientists
estimate that just 3,000 of these crocs remain in the wild, where they live in Zapata Swamp on the Cuban mainland and Lanier Swamp on the Island of
Conservationists had suspected for some time
that the two types of crocodile were coupling up. But DNA evidence would expose
these match-ups for certain. So WCS scientists and partners collected samples
from 89 wild Cuban and American crocodiles and two samples from zoo crocs. Their
studies revealed that American crocodiles living in Cuba were more closely
related to Cuban crocs than American crocodiles on the mainland.
The discovery means that the island’s crocs
represent two distinct populations from the mainland reptiles. And though each population
is evolutionarily significant, unfortunately, one could essentially extinguish
the other, through breeding its cousins out of existence.
The study authors advise wildlife managers in
Cuba to put the brakes on such reptile romances, for the crocs’ own good.
For more information, see press release.