Rapid Biological Inventories: Results from the Field: Cuba 08

Cuba: Camagüey, Sierra de Cubitas

Report at a glance | Downloadable files | Acknowledgements

Report at a glance

Dates of field work
16–19 September 2002

Reserva Ecológica Limones-Tuabaquey (Limones-Tuabaquey Ecological Reserve) and adjacent areas in the Sierra de Cubitas and the Sabana de Camagüey (also known as the Sabana de Cubitas or the Sabana de Lesca), in central-eastern Cuba, approximately 20–25 km northeast of the city of Camagüey. Together, the Sierra and Savanna occupy approximately 1,000 km2 of Camagüey Province (Fig. 2A). The Reserve, 22.8 km2 in size, was proposed for protection in 1998 by the Consejo de la Administración del Poder Popular Provincial. At present, its approval as a Reserva Ecológica at the national level is under review by the Consejo de Ministros (Cuban Council of Ministers).

Sites Surveyed
The inventory team visited various localities in the Sierra de Cubitas, before and during the inventory: Cerro Pelado, Cerro Tuabaquey, Cerro Mirador de Limones, Paso de Lesca, Paso de Los Paredones, Paso de La Vigueta, Cueva de María Teresa, and Hoyo de Bonet. The inventory team also devoted much attention to accessible savanna habitats on the plain with serpentine soils immediately south of the Sierra.

Organisms surveyed
Vascular plants, mollusks, cockroaches, butterflies, ants, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals. Our collaborators provided additional data, from previous studies in the area, relevant to relief, geology, soils, climate, vegetation, non-vascular plants, mammals, history of indigenous peoples, and current human communities.

Highlight of results
Vegetation: The region is a mosaic of vegetation types. The Sierra de Cubitas mainly contains two types: a complex of cliff and rock wall vegetation (farallones vegetation) and semideciduous forest on limestone. Farallones vegetation is generally open, with xerophytic shrubs, and is found on the steepest and most eroded limestone slopes (Fig. 2B). Semideciduous forest occupies various elevations, slopes, and flat areas (Fig. 3A); in parts of the Sierra it has been degraded by intensive and selective cutting of trees. Also of note are evergreen forest, gallery forest, and three types of vegetation that originate from human activities (degraded scrub, human-generated savanna, and cultural vegetation.) On the ophiolitic plain to the south of the Sierra, another type of vegetation, cuabal (spiny xeromorphic scrub) has developed on serpentine soils. The plain is dominated by this type of scrub, and degraded scrub, with abundant palms and low vegetation (Fig. 2C, and inside cover).

Flora: During the inventory we registered 250 taxa of vascular plants in the Sierra and the savanna immediately to its south (Fig. 3 and Appendix 2). Of these 250 taxa, 86 were not previously registered in the Sierra. Including the species newly observed in this inventory, 751 species, subspecies, and varieties of plants are registered from the Sierra and the adjacent savanna. (Appendices 1 and 2). Of these, 656 are seed plants (Spermatophyta), 60 are mosses and liverworts (Bryophyta), and 35 are ferns and fern relatives (Pteridophyta, Lycopodiophyta, and Psilophyta). Approximately 80–85 of the species are endemic to Cuba and 8 are considered globally threatened.

Mollusks: The Sierra de Cubitas stands out as one of the regions in Cuba with many species of terrestrial mollusks. We observed 16 species and registered 2 species (Liguus fasciatus and Steatocoptis bioscai) for the first time in the Sierra. With these, 50 terrestrial and fluvial mollusks have been registered for the Sierra and surrounding areas (Fig. 4A and Appendix 3).

Insects: Our inventory of cockroaches was the first in the region. We registered 12 species, of which 5 are Cuban endemics, 5 are native but not endemic, and 2 are introduced (Fig. 4C and Appendix 4). One species, Nesomylacris fratercula, is known only from Camagüey Province, and before the inventory was not documented from any specific locality. The introduced species can be used as bioindicators of human disturbance in the area.

We registered 44 species of butterflies in the Sierra (23) and the adjacent savanna (32), including 3 relatively rare species that are forest specialists and 1 endemic species that is a savanna specialist (Figs. 4B, 4D, and Appendix 5). We also observed 22 species of ants, including 4 species endemic to Cuba (Appendix 6). In general, the ant fauna was depauperate, perhaps due to the great abundance of a very aggressive species, the little fire ant (Wassmannia auropunctata).

Amphibians and Reptiles: We registered 13 species of amphibians and 27 of reptiles (Figs. 5A, 5B, and Appendix 7), of which 6 are new records for the localities visited and 32 (80%) of which are endemic to Cuban. Species with distributions limited to certain habitat types (e.g., Eleutherodactylus thomasi, a frog in caves or rocky habitats), and species endemic to the Sierra de Cubitas (Sphaerodactylus nigropunctatus lissodesmus, a gekko), are notable here. The rare, endemic Cuban false chameleon (Chamaeleolis chamaeleonides; Fig. 5A) was frequently observed during the inventory, which is unusual.

Birds: We registered 74 species of birds during the inventory (Appendix 8). Of the 23 endemic species of birds in Cuba, 10 to 12 live in the Sierra and the adjacent savanna. We have one new record for the Sierra, Swainson’s Warbler (Limnothlypis swainsonii), a migrant species. When compared to the Sierra de Najasa—the other massif in Camagüey Province—the Sierra de Cubitas has a significantly higher species richness of North American migratory species. Yellow-throated Vireo (Vireo flavifrons) and Worm-eating Warbler (Helmitheros vermivorus; Fig. 5D) were unusually common. The population of Cuban Trogon (Priotelus temnurus; Fig. 5C) was remarkably dense. During the inventory, we did not observe two of the rare and threatened species, Cuban Parakeet (Aratinga euops; Fig. 5E) and Cuban Parrot (Amazona leucocephala), but they have been documented by recent observations in the Sierra.

Mammals: Considering living species (18), and extinct species or species extirpated from the region (7), 25 native mammal species have been registered in the area. Of these, 17 are bats (16 living species and 1 fossil), and 2 are hutias (Figs. 6A, 6B, and Appendix 9). During the inventory, we observed only individuals of Cuban hutia (Capromys pilorides), the most common of the hutias. This species, and the prehensile-tailed hutia (Mysateles prehensilis: Fig. 6C), are poached, and 7 species of the bats are considered threatened.

Human history: In the olden days, the Sierra de Cubitas and neighboring plains were occupied by indigenous groups who practiced farming and pottery making. The area’s caves shelter some of their paintings and sculptures, including representations of reptiles, hutias, and birds.

Human communities: We did not carry out a rapid social assessment. The Sierra de Cubitas has a population of 2,584 and a population density of 11.6 inhabitants/km2, distributed in 12 settlements and approximately 649 houses. The human population structure is young, and 65% of the immigrants to the region are female. The greatest rates of growth correspond to the towns with the largest number of residents, which are Vilató (with 986 or more inhabitants), Paso de Lesca (303), and La Cantera.

The Sierra de Cubitas is used for agriculture, cattle ranching, silviculture, gravel mining, military training, and tourism. Most of the labor force in the territory is dedicated to farming in the Sierra, and to a lesser degree, to mining activities. Agriculture is the fundamental activity, surpassed only by silviculture.

Main threats
The size of the proposed Reserva Ecológica Limones-Tuabaquey (22.8 km2) is very small in comparison to the area occupied by the Sierra de Cubitas (approximately 400 km2). As a consequence, large areas in which live many rare, endemic, and/or threatened species, are vulnerable to human activities not compatible with conservation. There is no comprehensive conservation plan for the extensive savanna immediately south of the Sierra de Cubitas, which also shelters rare, endemic, and/or threatened plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. Although an area has been proposed with a degree of protection, the Área Protegida de Recursos Manejados Escarpa y Humedales de San Felipe (Fig. 2A), it is not yet approved and it is not a large area (27.8 km2). Species of exotic, non-native plants and animal animals constitute serious threats, e.g., the expansion of an extremely aggressive, leguminous shrub, marabu (Dichrostachys cinerea), in the southern savanna. Populations of feral dogs and pigs harm populations of native species, especially of birds and mammals. Some furtive hunting of birds and mammals occurs. This results in population reductions or movements to other areas (which are becoming less and less available) that offer better shelter. Grazing in poor soils of the savanna, and forestry practices that are incompatible with conservation of native species, can severely reduce or eliminate populations of rare plants and animals adapted to the types of vegetation present in the Sierra.

Principal recommendations for protection and management
  • 01 Officially approve Reserva Ecológica Limones-Tuabaquey, 22.8 km2 in size, at the federal level (Fig. 2A).

  • 02 Expand the area managed for native biodiversity. Federal ownership of the land, combined with a sparse human population in the area, can facilitate an expansion of the proposed limits of Reserva Ecológica Limones-Tuabaquey and the Área Protegida de Recursos Manejados Escarpa y Humedales de San Felipe (Fig. 2A). Other types of conservation management also can be used outside of the boundaries of these two reserves, with the overall goal of connecting the two reserves to make a larger conservation area that protects a significant portion of the Sierra and the adjacent savanna. To accomplish this, work through the normal legal processes governing protected areas, together with all parties interested in the natural resources of the Sierra and southern savanna.

  • 03 Develop effective means of controlling populations of exotic species, e.g., feral dogs and pigs in the forests and, especially, the very aggressive leguminous shrub, marabú (Dicrostachys cinerea).

  • 04 Increase the number of forest rangers, and develop training programs that will increase the level of expertise of guards and other personnel and help them overcome obstacles they may face.

Long-term conservation benefits
  • 01 Existence of a large protected area of national and international significance because of the biological, geological, paleontological, scenic, and historicalarcheological treasures it holds.

  • 02 A natural redoubt in Camagüey Province that safeguards particularly fragile ecosystems with species exclusive to them, including plants and animals, for the long term.

  • 03 Undisturbed caves that retain their cavernicolous flora and fauna, and cultural artifacts of the Arawakan people who once lived in the area.

  • 04 A local human population that benefits, tangibly and intangibly, from their participation in the conservation of the region’s natural resources.

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