With only a few thousand specimens remaining, the Cuban crocodile is classified as “critically endangered.” As the Cuban croc has discovered, being a highly sought-after mating partner can have negative consequences for a species on the verge of extinction.
The island species‘ existence has been hampered by its amorous American counterpart’s relentless pursuit, with its numbers already decreasing and hybridization posing a further concern.
The population of Cuban crocodiles has decreased by more than 80% over three generations, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).
Crocodylus rhombifer is a black-and-yellow freshwater reptile that is classified as a “critically endangered” species by biologists.
According to the IUCN, hybridization is one of the greatest risks to its existence, along with hunting for meat—in big extent for tourist restaurant menus.
The scaly predator’s island-wide territory is now mostly restricted to the Zapata Swamp, 150 kilometers southeast of Havana.
But it isn’t the only one.
A freshwater and saltwater species of the American Crocodylus acutus is also present here, and it appears to enjoy the company of its Cuban counterpart—perhaps a bit too much.
Conservationists believe that one in every two crocs in the Zapata nature reserve is a hybrid.
The Cuban croc is smaller and more dangerous than its American counterpart and lives in freshwater.
Is it natural or not?
However, gene mixing may not always be a negative thing.
“It’s important to remember that hybridization plays a role in the evolution and the emergence of new species,” said Etiam Perez-Fleitas, a Zapata reserve exotic species specialist.
Scientists are currently debating whether this specific mixing of the gene pool is beneficial or harmful.
If the phenomenon is caused by human-caused stress, it must be addressed, according to Perez-Fleitas. However, if the well is natural, it may be preferable to leave it alone.
Hybridization might result in a more resistant species, combining the aggressiveness of the smaller Cuban croc with the adaptability of its more timid American relative, as it often does in nature.
The IUCN has classified the American croc as “vulnerable.” It is found in northern South America, the Caribbean, Central America, and the southern tip of Florida.
Perez-Fleitas stated, “Our study is focused on determining if this is natural hybridization.”
Meanwhile, a genetic research published in 2008 has allowed scientists to differentiate Cuban crocodiles from hybrids, allowing them to be excluded from captive breeding plans.
Crocodile egg collection is a dangerous business.
No other like it.
Every year, 500 to 1,000 young Cuban crocs are born in semi-captivity in the Zapata reserve, with around a hundred being released into the wild.
Workers were collecting eggs from crocodile nests to be placed in an incubator, which greatly enhances their chances of hatching when AFP visited the project.
It’s a hazardous job, so five men encircled the nest mound with huge sticks while another dug for eggs, ready to fight a surprise toothy attack from the water or adjacent tall grass.
Each female produces around 20 to 40 eggs, which take 80 to 85 days to incubate.
Jorge Luis Monero, 56, a Zapata reserve employee, holds a juvenile specimen measuring approximately half a meter in his arms, insisting that its profile is evocative of the island of Cuba’s characteristic elongated form.
“There is no other crocodile in the Americas like the Cuban,” he added.
Despite the animal’s distinctiveness, Perez-Fleitas emphasized that conserving a pure breed is not always the best option, and advised against making hasty decisions.
It is preferable to have “extremely long-term planning” when dealing with a species that may live up to 70 years in captivity, according to the specialist.
“Perhaps in a hundred years, it will be the hybrids who need to be protected,” he continued.
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