Hot Stove Herping 6: Cuba

At the end of July I flew to Havana with a small group of friends to see what the fuss was all about with Cuban herps. We went there as part of a tour group (Viva Cuba), under a cultural visa, and spent nine days in various places around the western-most quarter of the island.

Near our Havana hotel

During our time in Cuba, we did a number of cultural things in keeping with our visa and tour itinerary, but to keep this post at a manageable size I’m going to skip most of that (there’s some related photos in the slideshow below) and concentrate on the herps and herp habitat.

Botanical gardens near Soroa.

First up, we visited the hilly and forested Soroa region to the southwest of Havana, and found a number of interesting herps, including this Cuban green anole (Anolis porcatus) during a gas station pit stop.

Anolis porcatus

Male porcatus of breeding size have enlarged heads, while the females look much like Carolina anoles in build and appearance. We would see plenty of porcatus during our trip.

Copulating pair of Anolis porcatus

It didn’t take long to figure out that anoles of many species were going to be a big part of the herpetofauna we encountered. Fortunately, I had schooled myself a bit on the Anolis ecomorphs of the Greater Antilles, as described and illustrated in Jonathan M. Losos’s “Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles” which only amped my enthusiasm.

We observed significant numbers of Havana white-fanned anoles (Anolis homolechis) throughout most of our travels. The males have an awesome sail tail, usually with some gnarly splits here and there.

Anolis homolechis
Anolis homolechis

A stop at a botanical garden yielded lots of anoles, and a turtle surprise – a Cuban slider (Trachemys decussatus).

Trachemys decussatus

We stopped for lunch at a stream near the Soroa waterfall, and while waiting for food we wandered around looking for herps. Joe spotted a Viñales anole (Anolis vermiculatus) along the edge of the stream, and we all went for a look, and turned up several more. This large species hangs out around water and in the water as well.

Anolis vermiculatus

On our second day in Soroa our guide Tomás (a Cuban herpetologist) took us to a forest preserve high in the hills near Soroa. Walking along the trails, we scored a number of awesome birds, including Cuban todies (Todus multicolor), Cuban trogons (Priotelus temnurus) and my favorite, Glaucidium siuu, the Cuban pygmy owl. These cute little owls would follow us through the forest, presumably snacking on any insects we might disturb into flight.

Cuban Pygmy Owl

“What the heck is that?” said Cynthia, and I thought she was talking about the millipede I was moving off the trail. Instead, she was referring to the worm lizard crossing the trail a foot away from my hand! This was Cadea blanoides, the cuban worm lizard, an amphisbaenian to be precise. Limbless and fossorial, they typically emerge from the ground at night during and after heavy rains, but here was one in a totally dry milieu, crawling along at 10:30 in the morning!

Cadea blanoides

Note the small, vestigial eyes, not capable of much more than telling light from dark. The lizard’s beaky-looking jaws can deliver a sharp pinch, and when this one got hold of my hand, it took out a small chunk of skin.

Hiking on these trails we got our first look at a giant anole (Anolis luteogularis), high up in a tree. These ‘crown giants’ spend much of their time high in the canopy, but they will come down close to the ground during the heat of the day, a fact that we profited from later.

Anolis luteogularis

A cultural visit to a botanical garden outside of Havana gave us a look at another crown giant species, the knight anole (Anolis equestris). Fortunately we would get better looks at one later on in the trip, and I was grateful to see my first equestris at home in Cuba, and not Florida!

Anolis equestris

A visit to the old fort overlooking Havana harbor (part of our cultural experience) provided us with a northern curlytail lizard (Leiocephalus carinatus carinatus). We saw several curlytails high on the walls of the fort, and they were quite wary of our approach.

Leiocephalus carinatus carinatus

From Sora we moved west to Viñales, which also featured thick tropical forest, but in a different and quite beautiful topography. The highlands in the photo below are actually an old archipelago, from a time when ocean levels were much higher. Known locally as mogotes, these massifs were islands long enough for speciation to occur in some organisms, particularly among land snails.

Hiking up to a mogote, we found an interesting rock specialist, the western cliff anole (Anolis bartschi). These lizards were similar in size and shape to the water-loving Anolis vermiculatus we saw at Soroa, but A. bartschi prefer rock faces and caves, and we even saw one hanging upside down in a crevice.

Anolis bartschi

Also present was the Pinar del Rio anole, Anolis mestrei, about the size of our Carolina anole. I also saw this species in other locales, but always in association with rock faces. Perhaps Losos needs to add saxicolous anoles to his ecomorph illustration.

Anolis mestrei

I photographed another species of curlytail up on the rocks – the beautiful mogote curlytail, Leiocephalus carinatus mogotensis. This genus is comparable in size to Sceloporus clarkii, only with a much larger tail.

Leiocephalus carinatus mogotensis.

Close to the mogote, someone spotted a giant anole on a tree trunk, close to the ground. We were able to photograph it on the trunk and also get it in hand for a closer look at the largest species of Anolis.

Anolis luteogularis
Anolis luteogularis (right)

That night we headed out to hike a trail through a forest with a substrate of porous limestone. The drive was a long one on a two lane road, giving us the opportunity to road cruise along the way (not my first time road cruising in a giant bus, either). Snake in the road! It was a juvenile giant trope (Tropidophis melanurus melanurus). Once considered to be dwarf boas (and they behave like boas sometimes), Tropidophus are now in their own family apart from Boidae (and outside superfamily Booidea).

Tropidophis melanurus melanurus

While we were photographing the trope, Cynthia spotted a sleeping lizard in a tree alongside the road – a short-bearded anole (Anolis chamaeleonides). Formerly in Chameleolis, these anoles have powerful jaws, which allow them to include land snails in their diet.

Anolis chamaeleonides

Cynthia’s find kicked off a flurry of other finds, all within a hundred feet of the boa, including this Cuban twig anole (Anolis angusticeps). Note the slender form and elongated limbs on this lizard.

Anolis angusticeps

Someone spotted a juvenile giant anole sleeping on a leaf, and I thought its gnarly armored head was wicked cool.

Anolis luteogularis

Back on the bus finally, and we made it to the trail. We weren’t walking along for more than a few minutes when I spotted a snake to my left, crawling along on the limestone. It was an adult giant trope, less than a meter in length (most Tropidophis are considerably smaller).

Tropidophis melanurus melanurus
Tropidophis melanurus melanurus

The landscape was forest growing up out of a limestone jumble – very similar to the landscape in the Yucatán peninsula, not that far away. Someone spotted an enormous west Cuba giant toad (Peltophryne fustiger), with a body as long as my hand.

Peltophryne fustiger

Another snake! A leopard trope (Tropidophis pardalis), found crawling in the open. A wee thing, with a yellowish tail tip that looked like a fat little grub, perfect for luring small lizards and frogs.

Tropidophis pardalis

Speaking of frogs, we saw a few, and managed photos of one or two. Here’s a barred robber frog (Eleutherodactylus klinikowskii), hunkered down in a limestone pocket.

Eleutherodactylus klinikowskii)

Also hidden away in a hole was this Zeus’s robber frog (Eleutherodactylus zeus).

Eleutherodactylus zeus

While I was photographing frogs, some of the gang were far ahead of us, finding all the good stuff, including a Habana island racerlet (Arrhyton dolichura) climbing a small tree.

Arrhyton dolichura

While Matt and I were futzing with the racerlet, another shout from up the trail – the gang had found a a Günther’s Island Racerlet (Arrhyton taeniatum). Fifteen minutes either I had no knowledge of the genus Arrhyton (or racerlets, for that matter), and now I had seen and photographed (they were a tough shoot) two species of the shy little dipsadidines.

Arrhyton taeniatum

The next morning, we traveled from Viñales to Guanahacabibes on the western tip of Cuba, where we stayed in small hostels right on the beach.

Sunset from my hostel.

This area along Bahia de Corrientes was part of the Parque Nacionale de Guanahacabibes, and all organisms are protected there.

A cenote close to the ocean. Fresh water in the foreground flows into the sea.

Habitat included palm trees and beach shrubs amid limestone jumbles, along with some brackish backwater swamps.

A coast road ran west along the bay, and we drove down it a ways, stopping at several points to look for American crocodiles and other herps. Crocs were sighted, but at a great distance. Cabo Corrientes curlytailed lizards (Leiocephalus stictigaster stictigaster) were abundant.

Leiocephalus stictigaster stictigaster
Curlytail keeping cool on the beach.

Peninsula anoles (Anolis quadriocellifer), a trunk species, were common on the trunks of palm trees.

Anolis quadriocellifer

Giant anoles came down in the heat of the day, their coloration matching the tree bark.

Anolis luteogularis

We visited a small cave that was a mile or so back from the beach, and found some interesting things, including this Guanahacabibes curlytail (Leiocephalus macropus koopmani) near the entrance.

Leiocephalus macropus koopmani

Further in, beyond the twiglight zone and where the cave ceiling was just four feet high, we discovered a Cuban boa (Chilabothrus angulifer), around 2 meters in length.

Chilabothrus angulifer

You hear about these things, boas being found in caves, but I never expected to have it happen to me! Cuban boas make use of caves to snaffle up bats, until they reach a certain size where bats no longer provide enough calories, and they must search for larger meals.

Our rooms each had an ashy gecko or two, hiding during the day in cracks and behind curtains and pictures. At night they would come out to hunt insects. The juveniles are simply spectacular.

Sphaerodactylus elegans
Juvenile Sphaerodactylus elegans

One afternoon I was chilling outside my room with a beer and a cigar, and watching the ocean just yards away. A few feet from me was a curlytail that occupied the high ground. I took its picture and was disappointed that its head was in shadow; then I realized what a smart lizard it was, keeping its eyes out of the bright sun, and its tiny lizard brain cool in the shade.

That night we went out on the beach with some sea turtle conservation people. The green turtles were coming in to lay their eggs, and we were allowed to watch the process as they deposited their eggs and the researchers took data. The only lights allowed was one red one, but after the turtle finished laying and was covering her eggs, I was allowed to take a flash photograph. Later, walking back down the beach in the dark, we detoured around several more turtles coming out of the surf, stopping and waiting until they passed by.

Green sea turtle (Chelonias mydas)

We had seen a few Cuban rock iguanas (Cyclura nubila nubila) crossing the road in front of the bus, but had a hard time getting any photos. Finally we spotted several adults moving about near park headquarters, and I managed a few shots.

Cyclura nubila nubila

We headed back east, and stopped at Soroa as a waypoint. That night we went out herping with some spectacular results We saw a number of western bearded anoles (Anolis barbatus), impressively large and powerful snail-crunchers.

Anolis barbatus

A Cuban brown anole (Anolis sagrei sagrei). While Florida is seemingly lousy with sagrei, we found them in smaller numbers here and there.

Anolis sagrei sagrei

Another Tropidophis melanurus melanurus, in ambush mode along a small stream.

Tropidophis melanurus melanurus

While getting closer to the stream-dwelling trope, Matt spotted this Cuban boa wedged into a stone wall.

Chilabothrus angulifer
Chilabothrus angulifer

Frogs were out in numbers, including this Cuban stream-side frog (Eleutherodactylus riparius).

Eleutherodactylus riparius

Another trope! Tropidophis maculatus, the spotted trope, and adult perhaps 20 inches in length.

Tropidophis maculatus

Trope number four for the trip was Feick’s trope (Tropidophis feicki), found patrolling for frogs and lizards atop a stone wall.

Tropidophis feicki

The next day we headed south and east towards Zapata swamp. We had hoped for an opportunity to see a Cuban crocodile, but the closest we could get was a croc farm run by the Cuban government. Cuban crocs are in big trouble in the wild, and the government farm releases a portion of the farm-raised crocs into Zapata swamp and elsewhere, while the remainder go into the hide trade.

Captive Crocodylus rhombifer

At a nearby park we got a better look at a knight anole, down from the treetops in the heat of the day.

Anolis equestris

And we scored several Allison’s anoles (Anolis allisoni), a species high on my bucket list. They did not disappoint.

Anolis allisoni
Anolis allisoni

While in the Zapata swamp area, I added some awesome birds to my life list, including American flamingos, the Cuban emerald hummingbird, and the smallest bird of all, the bee hummingbird.

American flamingo (Phoenicopterus ruber)
Cuban emerald hummingbird (Chlorostilbon ricordi)
Bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)

From Zapata we made a trip north to Varadero, a very touristy spot on a trip of peninsula along the north coast. Despite all the people, we managed to find more cool herps, including another curlytail species, the Cuban curlytail (Leiocephalus cubensis cubensis) at a local park.

Leiocephalus cubensis cubensis

The park also gave us this spectacular male Anolis allisoni.

Anolis allisoni

Wandering around a neighborhood near the park, I saw quite a few Spanish flag anoles (Anolis allogus).

Anolis allogus

We were taking photos of this curlytail in front of someone’s house, when Joe said “hey, snake!”. I was focused on the lizard and did not see the Cuban racer (Cubophis cantherigerus), which retreated into a deep crevice before we could get a hand on it.

Cubophis cantherigerus

The next day, we drove back to Havana and caught our flights back home. The Cuban people were warm and friendly, the herpetofauna was fantastic, and I only saw 15 of 64 of the Anolis found on the island!

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