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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/April 1899/The Physical Geography of the West Indies: Mammals I


THE study of the geographical distribution of plants and animals has revealed facts almost as enigmatical as the origin of life itself. Water barriers, as broad as that of the Atlantic, have not prevented the spontaneous spread of some species, while others limit their habitat to narrowly circumscribed though not geographically isolated regions.

Tapirs are found both in the Amazon Valley and on the Malay Peninsula; the brook trout of southern New Zealand are identical with those of the Austrian Alps. Oaks and Ericacea (heather plants) cover northern Europe from the mouth of the Seine to the sources of the Ural; then suddenly cease, and are not found anywhere in the vast Siberian territories, with a north-to-south range rivaling that of all British North America.

But still more remarkable is the zoölogical contrast of such close neighborhood countries as Africa and Madagascar, or Central America and the West Indian archipelago. The Madagascar virgin woods harbor no lions, leopards, hyenas, or baboons, but boast not less than thirty-five species of mammals unknown to the African continent, and twenty-six found nowhere else in the world.

Of a dozen different kinds of deer, abundant in North America as well as in Asia and Europe, not a single species has found its way to the West Indies. The fine mountain meadows of Hayti have originated no antelopes, no wild sheep or wild goats.

In the Cuban sierras, towering to a height of 8,300 feet, there are no hill foxes. There are caverns—subterranean labyrinths with countless ramifications, some of them—but no cave bears or badgers, no marmots or weasels even, nor one of the numerous weasel-like creatures clambering about the rock clefts of Mexico. The magnificent coast forests of the Antilles produce wild-growing nuts enough to freight a thousand schooners every year, but—almost incredible to say—the explorers of sixteen generations have failed to discover a single species of squirrels.

The Old-World tribes of our tree-climbing relatives are so totally different from those of the American tropics that Humboldt's traveling companion, Bonplant, renounced the theory of a unitary center of creation (or evolution), and maintained that South America must have made a separate though unsuccessful attempt to rise from lemurs to manlike apes and men. Of such as they are, Brazil alone has forty-eight species of monkeys, and Venezuela at least thirty. How shall we account for the fact that not one of the large West Indian islands betrays a vestige of an effort in the same direction?

More monkey-inviting forests than those of southern Hayti can not be found in the tropics, but not even a marmoset or squirrel-monkey accepted the invitation. In an infinite series of centuries not one pair of quadrumana availed itself of the chance to cross a sea gap, though at several points the mainland approaches western Cuba within less than two hundred miles—about half the distance that separates southern Asia from Borneo, where fourhanders of all sizes and colors compete for the products of the wilderness, and, according to Sir Philip Maitland, the "native women avoid the coast jungles for fear of meeting Mr. Darwin's grandfather."

The first Spanish explorers of the Antilles were, in fact, so amazed at the apparently complete absence of quadrupeds that their only explanation was a conjecture that the beasts of the forest must have been exterminated by order of some native potentate, perhaps the great Kubla Khan, whose possessions they supposed to extend eastward from Lake Aral to the Atlantic. The chronicle of Diego Columbus says positively that San Domingo and San Juan Bautista (Porto Rico) were void of mammals, but afterward modifies that statement by mentioning a species of rodent, the hutia, or bush rat, that annoyed the colonists of Fort Isabel, and caused them to make an appropriation for importing a cargo of cats.

Bush rats and moles were, up to the end of the sixteenth century, the only known indigenous quadrupeds of the entire West Indian archipelago, for the "Carib dogs," which Valverde saw in Jamaica, were believed to have been brought from the mainland by a horde of man-hunting savages.

But natural history has kept step with the advance of other sciences, and the list of undoubtedly aboriginal mammals on the four main islands of the Antilles is now known to comprise more than twenty species. That at least fifteen of them escaped the attention of the Spanish Creoles is as strange as the fact that the Castilian cattle barons of Upper California did not suspect the existence of precious metals, though nearly the whole bonanza region of the San Joaquin Valley had been settled before the beginning of the seventeenth century. But the conquerors of the Philippines even overlooked a variety of elephants that roams the coast jungles of Mindanao.

Eight species of those West Indian incognito mammals, it is true, are creatures of a kind which the Spanish zoölogists of Valverde's time would probably have classed with birds—bats, namely, including the curious Vespertilio molossus, or mastiff bat, and several varieties of the owl-faced Chilonycteris, that takes wing in the gloom preceding a thunderstorm, as well as in the morning and evening light, and flits up and down the coast rivers with screams that can be heard as plainly as the screech of a paroquet. The Vespertilio scandens of eastern San Domingo has a peculiar habit of flitting from tree to tree, and clambering about in quest of insects, almost with the agility of a flying squirrel. There are times when the moonlit woods near Cape Rafael seem to be all alive with the restless little creatures; that keep up a clicking chirp, and every now and then gather in swarms to contest a tempting find, or to settle some probate court litigation. San Domingo also harbors one species of those prototypes of the harpies, the fruit-eating bats. It passes the daylight hours in hollow trees, but becomes nervous toward sunset and apt to betray its hiding place by an impatient twitter—probably a collocution of angry comments on the length of time between meals. The moment the twilight deepens into gloom the chatterers flop out to fall on the next mango orchard and eat away like mortgage brokers. They do not get fat—champion gluttons rarely do—but attain a weight of six ounces, and the Haytian darkey would get even with them after a manner of their own if their prerogatives were not protected by the intensity of their musky odor. The above-mentioned hutia rat appears to have immigrated from some part of the world where the shortness of the summer justified the accumulation of large reserve stores of food, and under the influence of a hereditary hoarding instinct it now passes its existence constructing and filling a series of subterranean granaries. Besides, the females build nurseries, and all these burrows are connected by tunnels that enable their constructors to pass the rainy season under shelter. They gather nuts, belotas (a sort of sweet acorns), and all kinds of cereals, and with their penchant for appropriating roundish wooden objects on general principles would probably give a Connecticut nutmeg peddler the benefit of the doubt.

They also pilfer raisins, and a colony of such tithe collectors is a formidable nuisance, for the hutia is a giant of its tribe, and attains a length of sixteen inches, exclusive of the tail. It is found in Cuba, Hayti, Jamaica, Porto Rico, Antigua, Trinidad, the Isle of Pines, Martinique, and two or three of the southern Bahama Islands, and there may have been a time when it had the archipelago all to itself. The Lucayans had a tradition that their ancestors found it on their arrival from the mainland, and in some coast regions of eastern Cuba it may still be seen basking in the sunlight—

"Sole sitting on the shore of old romance,"

and wondering if there are any larger mammals on this planet.

Its next West Indian congener is the Jamaica rice rat, and there are at least ten species of mice, all clearly distinct from any Old-World rodent, though, it is barely possible that some of them may have stolen a ride on Spanish trading vessels from Central America.

Water-moles burrow in the banks of several Cuban rivers, and two genera of aquatic mammals have solved the problem of survival: the bayou porpoise and the manatee, both known to the Creoles of the early colonial era, and vaguely even to the first discoverers, since Columbus himself alludes to a "sort of mermaids (sirenas) that half rose from the water and scanned the boat's crew with curious eyes."

Naturally the manatee is, indeed, by no means a timid creature, but bitter experience has changed its habits since the time when the down-town sportsmen of Santiago used to start in sailboats for the outer estuary and return before night with a week's supply of manatee meat. The best remaining hunting grounds are the reed shallows of Samana Bay (San Domingo) and the deltas of the Hayti swamp rivers. Old specimens are generally as wary as the Prybilof fur seal that dive out of sight at the first glimpse of a sail; still, their slit-eyed youngsters are taken alive often enough, to be kept as public pets in many town ponds, where they learn to come to a whistle and waddle ashore for a handful of cabbage leaves.

Fish otters have been caught in the lagoons of Puerto Principe (central Cuba) and near Cape Tiburon, on the south coast of San Domingo, the traveler Gerstaecker saw a kind of "bushy-tailed dormouse, too small to be called a squirrel."

But the last four hundred years have enlarged the list of indigenous mammals in more than one sense, and the Chevalier de Saint-Méry should not have been criticised for describing the bush dog of Hayti as a "canis Hispaniolanus." Imported dogs enacted a declaration of independence several centuries before the revolt of the Haytian slaves, and their descendants have become as thoroughly West Indian as the Franks have become French. A continued process of elimination has made the survivors climate-proof and self-supporting, and above all they have ceased to vary; Nature has accepted their modified type as wholly adapted to the exigencies of their present habitat. And if it is true that all runaway animals revert in some degree to the characteristics of their primeval relatives, the ancestor of the domestic dog would appear to have been a bush-tailed, brindle-skinned, and black-muzzled brute, intermittently gregarious, and combining the burrowing propensity of the fox with the co-operative hunting penchant of the wolf.

Fourteen years of bushwhacker warfare have almost wholly exterminated the half-wild cattle of the Cuban sierras, but the bush dog has come to stay. The yelping of its whelps can be heard in thousands of jungle woods and mountain ravines, both of Cuba and Hayti, and no variety of thoroughbreds will venture to follow these renegades into the penetralia of their strongholds. Sergeant Esterman, who shared the potluck of a Cuban insurgent camp in the capacity of a gunsmith, estimates the wild-dog population of the province of Santiago alone at half a million, and predicts that in years to come their raids will almost preclude the possibility of profitable cattle-breeding in eastern Cuba.

Still, the perro pelon, or "tramp dog," as the Creoles call the wolfish cur, is perhaps a lesser evil, where its activity has tended to check the over-increase of another assisted immigrant. Three hundred years ago West Indian sportsmen began to import several breeds of Spanish rabbits, and with results not always foreseen by the agricultural neighbors of the experimenters. Rabbit meat, at first a luxury, soon became an incumbrance of the provision markets, and finally unsalable at any price. Every family with a dog or a trap-setting boy could have rabbit stew for dinner six times a week, and load their peddlers with bundles of rabbit skins.

The burrowing coneys threatened to undermine the agricultural basis of support, when it was learned that the planters of the Fort Isabel district (Hayti) had checked the evil by forcing their dogs to live on raw coney meat. The inexpensiveness of the expedient recommended its general adoption, and the rapidly multiplying quadrupeds soon found that "there were others." The Spanish hounds, too, could astonish the census reporter where their progeny was permitted to survive, and truck farmers ceased to complain.

In stress of circumstances the persecuted rodents then took refuge in the highlands, where they can still be seen scampering about the grassy dells in all directions, and the curs of the coast plain turned their attention to hutia venison and the eggs of the chaparral pheasant and other gallinaceous birds. On the seacoast they also have learned to catch turtles and subdivide them, regardless of antivivisection laws. How they can get a business opening through the armor of the larger varieties seems a puzzle, but the canis rutilus of the Sunda Islands overcomes even the dog-resisting ability of the giant tortoise, and in Sumatra the bleaching skeletons of the victims have often been mistaken for the mementos of a savage battle.

Near Bocanso in southeastern Cuba the woods are alive with capuchin monkeys, that seem to have escaped from the wreck of some South American trading vessel and found the climate so congenial that they proceeded to make themselves at home, like the ring-tailed colonists of Fort Sable, in the Florida Everglades. The food supply may not be quite as abundant as in the equatorial birthland of their species, but that disadvantage is probably more than offset by the absence of tree-climbing carnivora.

Millions of runaway hogs roam the coast swamps of all the larger Antilles, and continue to multiply like our American pension claimants. The hunters of those jungle woods, indeed, must often smile to remember the complaint of the early settlers that the pleasure of the chase in the West Indian wilderness was modified by the scarcity of four-footed game, and in the total number (as distinct from the number of species) of wild or half-wild mammals Cuba and Hayti have begun to rival the island of Java.


[To be continued.]