Guantanamo Bay: Safe haven
7 November 2014
The discovery of two specimens of the extinct Swan Island hutia (Geocapromys thoracatus) in RAMM’s collection has renewed interest in the plight of extant hutia species. Populations are declining throughout their Caribbean range and several species are threatened. Hunting and habitat loss are mainly responsible for the decline but the Cuban hutia (Mysateles prehensilis) is thriving at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base where their predators are few and food in ample supply.
Nine of the 22 hutia species have become extinct in historical time. The surviving species of hutia are short-limbed and stout with a large head, small eyes and ears, prominent claws, and long whiskers. They range in size from 20 to 60cm (between 8 inches and 2 foot).
Although RAMM was well aware that there were two Swan Island hutia specimens in its collection, their presence was recently brought to the attention of the international community by local conservationist Simon Tonge. Simon, Executive Director of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, the charity that runs Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts in Torquay and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, explained: “I’ve spent my whole working life trying to prevent further extinctions, so I’ve tried to understand pattern and process in extinctions and as a result have become slightly obsessive about documenting them correctly. The extent of human-caused extinctions on this planet is much greater than has been recognised until very recently, particularly on islands, and we have lost so many amazing life forms that I, for one, would love to have seen.” His interest in extinct species led him to RAMM.
Sadly, the extinction of the Swan Island hutia was predicted many years before it occurred. 14 animals were brought to the UK in the 1930s, where experts attempted to set up captive breeding colonies. Primley Zoo (now Paignton Zoo Environmental Park) was founded by Herbert Whitley in 1923 and it seems likely that Whitley was one of those experts, although there is no written evidence. Sadly, the attempts failed and the Swan Island hutia went extinct in the 1950s. The two specimens were donated to RAMM by Primley Zoo in 1939/40.
The published research
The complete paper, Additions to the hypodigm of the extinct Swan Island Hutia (Geocapromys thoracatus, Capromyidae; Rodentia), was published in the Caribbean Journal of Science, Vol. 48, No. 1, 63-65, 2014.
Research opportunities at RAMM
Rosie Denham, Exeter’s Lead Councillor for Economy and Culture said “This research is an excellent example of how RAMM’s collections can add to our understanding of the world we live in.” Holly Morgenroth, Curator of Natural History at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, added: “New extinctions are announced on a regular basis. The discovery of these specimens’ importance is an excellent example of how regional museum collections can benefit current scientific research.”
Find out more about research opportunities at RAMM. RAMM’s collections contain over one million objects and academic research is actively encouraged.