In 1861, Wilhelm Peters set sail across the Atlantic Ocean for the Caribbean Sea to explore the Spanish island colony of Cuba. When he arrived and began exploring the eastern regions of the island, trekking through thick vegetation in tropical humidity, the German naturalist encountered a small mammalian creature scurrying across the forest floor. Upon its capture, further examination showed the animal to be a previously unidentified species - and an odd one at that.
Classified as Solenodon cubanus - more commonly called the Cuban Solenodon - Peters' discovery displayed one particularly intriguing adaptation: venomous saliva. Poison proved an invaluable asset in making the Cuban Solenodon a skilled predator, making up for its unintimidating stature - on average, 48 centimeters (19 inches) long and no more than 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds). After scouring the forest floor for its food, sifting through leaves with its five-fingered foreleg claws and slender snout, the small hunter would inject invertebrate prey with toxins stored in its salivary glands through grooves on the second lower incisors.
Most mammals whose ancestors possessed poisonous capabilities lost that attribute millions of years ago; evolution enhanced ingenuity and intelligence, rendering the capacity for venom obsolete. Today, no more than a handful of mammals still store toxins of any sort. In a way, the Cuban Solenodon's venom captures its essence as an anachronistic scientific specimen.
Long before humans appeared - in a time when dinosaurs ruled the land - the Earth's original mammalian inhabitants displayed many of the same characteristics as the modern day Cuban Solenodon. They were small and hairy creatures, using shrewd and evasive tactics to survive the toothy mouths of giant reptilian predators. Whereas dinosaurs disappeared with continental shifts and climate changes, these mammals found ways to adapt, ultimately emerging as the dominant class of animals on the planet.
Over tens of millions of years, most mammals evolved into larger and smarter species; increased intelligence complemented the brawn of carnivorous predators in hunting, and enhanced ingenuity allowed herbivorous prey to grow and prosper. Meanwhile, the Cuban Solenodon - isolated on its Caribbean archipelago - retained many of its ancient features and habits.
During the reign of dinosaurs, nightfall presented Mesozoic mammals with the prime time to hunt. While most modern day mammals secured safer positions on the food chain - emerging from the darkness of night to lead lives in daylight as diurnal species - the Cuban Solenodon remained nocturnal. Jurassic raptors no longer presented a threat, but snakes, rats, and various species introduced by humans continue to plague an already small population. Resting in underground burrows during the day, the hairy insectivore only emerges at night to hunt on the forest floor - a buffet of spiders, worms, and an assortment of six-legged critters.
Like its ancestors, the Cuban Solenodon is not naturally built for hunting, yet continues to thrive in spite of its unassuming attributes. Small eyes yield poor vision, so tiny hairless ears and an elongated, whiskered snout compensate with acute senses of hearing and smell. Bodies covered in dark brown and black hair blend in with the surroundings in the dark of night, and a long, scaly tail provides balance for running and climbing. While some island animals - isolated from external threats for millions of generations - have grown to unusually large proportions through an evolutionary process known as island gigantism, the Cuban Solenodon has remained small throughout the years, and thus continues to feast on smaller morsels for meals. Given its hunting techniques - rummaging under leaves and scraping away tree bark with its snout - insects remain ideal prey, plentiful in numbers and easy to subdue with venom.
Fossils have revealed that ancestors of the Cuban Solenodon once inhabited regions of the modern day United States, but not anytime within recent history. While any ancestors that remained on the North American mainland succumbed to changes in their ecosystem, those individuals that floated away from the continent on the Cuban archipelago survived in limited numbers. With limited land to inhabit, the species never had enough real estate to prosper with a large population.
Nevertheless, the Cuban Solenodon survived with sustainable numbers well beyond the vast majority of its historical relatives contemporaries. It was not until the arrival of Spanish conquistadores and settlers in the sixteenth century that the species first faced a serious threat to its continued existence. The destruction of habitat and introduction of unfamiliar predators made an immediate and dramatic impact on the ecosystem, and - unbeknownst to the new colonists - the Cuban Solenodon began to disappear.
No one knew how many individuals remained by the time Peters first identified the species in 1861 - but based on the fact that a mere 36 specimens were caught over the three subsequent decades, it can be assumed that the population had already reached dangerously low numbers. In fact, when the Cuban Solenodon was classified as endangered on June 2, 1970, most scientists already presumed the species to be gone forever. Their reasoning was sound: there had been no recorded sightings since 1890.
Any thoughts of extinction quickly turned into those of conservation, however, when a Cuban Solenodon was caught in the Oriente Province in 1974. Over the next two years, scientists captured two more individuals. The Cuban Solenodon still hovered on the brink of extinction, but it had somehow managed to continue thriving in small pockets of forest.
There are no guarantees, but there are reasons to be hopeful for the future well being of the Cuban Solenodon. The threat of deforestation no longer exists, as the plots of land where individuals have been sighted since 1974 are protected as parts of Alenjandro de Humboldt National Park and Sierra del Cristal National Park. Furthermore, a high reproductive rate can help the species restore its population to a sustainable level in a short amount of time; Cuban Solenodons mature after just one year, and produce litters of as many as three on an annual basis. While much remains unknown about this mysterious species, if conservationists continue to remain vigilant, humans will have the time to study it for many years to come.
41-56 centimeters (16-22 inches) from nose to tail
0.7-1 kilogram (24 ounces - 2.2 pounds)
Dense forests and brush with high humidity
The Oriente Province in eastern Cuba
Primarily insects, occasionally fruits, roots, and small reptiles
1-3 per year
Cuban Solenodons communicate with each other through various squeals and squeaks. The animals have been observed approaching each other with mouths gaping open, leading some scientists to believe that they can also interact through high-frequency noises.
While it primarily feeds on insects, the Cuban Solenodon will sometimes tackle larger prey such as small reptiles - and other times simply munches on roots and leaves.
The Cuban Solenodon's closest living relative, the Hispaniolan Solenodon, also possesses venomous capabilities. Together, the two species are the only members of the Solenodontidae family still alive today.
When moving around, only the Cuban Solenodon's toes ever come into contact with the ground.
The Cuban Solenodon consumes so many insects that it actually plays an important role in controlling the local population of numerous invertebrate species. It also plays an integral part in seed dispersal.