Even as President-elect Donald Trump threatens to reverse the Obama administration’s recent moves to thaw ties with Cuba after decades of frozen trade, travel and diplomatic relations, scientific collaboration is quietly steaming ahead—and many Americans are about to get their first glimpses of some of the spectacular flora and fauna that can be found nowhere else but on the giant Caribbean island. Days ago the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City opened ¡Cuba!, a nine-month bilingual exhibition starring specimens including the Cuban boa, Cuban false chameleon, Anolis lizard and Cuban tree frog.

The museum, which received 5 million visitors last year, has built dioramas recreating unique Cuban ecosystems. “You’ll be able to walk into the wetlands of the Zapata Peninsula. You’ll be able to walk into a coral reef as if you were in the Gardens of the Queen, one of the healthiest coral reefs in the Caribbean. You’ll be able to explore Humboldt National Park,” says the exhibition’s curator, Ana Luz Porzecanski. The museum organized the exhibition in collaboration with its counterpart in Havana, the National Museum of Natural History of Cuba.

Although the U.S. embargo on Cuba has not yet been officially lifted, restrictions that hampered trade and travel between the two nations were relaxed after their governments decided to re-establish diplomatic relations at the end of 2014. The changes allow scientists to travel between the countries on commercial flights and to transport research equipment.
Bureaucratic hurdles to obtaining permits and visas, as well as restrictions on bringing equipment into Cuba or taking specimens out to conduct genetic tests, were just some of the obstacles to collaboration between American researchers and their Cuban counterparts after the Kennedy administration made the embargo official in 1962.

“To do research in Cuba, with the embargo, we had to get State Department approval and arrange a charter flight and move certain supplies and materials. Everything is just that much more difficult. The embargo is economic. It’s not meant to affect science, but it makes it much more difficult,” says Porzecanski, an ornithologist of Uruguayan origin who serves as director of the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the AMNH. “We’re broadening and deepening our collaborations, and this exhibition is a huge example of that,” she says. “The museum did a small exhibit on Cuba in 1993, but I think this is going to be one of the major exhibits on Cuba ever done in the U.S.”

The exhibition is one of many ways the U.S. and Cuban science communities are quickly pulling together. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Parks Service signed a memorandum of understanding with the Cuban government in November 2015 to collaborate in scientific research, education and conservation. That same month the U.S. and Cuban governments signed a broad agreement to cooperate on environmental protection and scientific research—a deal that resulted from several years of lobbying by the New York Botanical Garden (NYBG), the Center for International Policy and several nongovernmental organizations.

Those pacts should form the backbone of a new legal framework that will let scientists use U.S. federal funds to study Cuba’s biodiversity through binational projects, says Brian Boom, the NYBG’s vice president for conservation. “Eventually, when the embargo goes away completely, it will a real boon for collaboration between the U.S. and Cuba in scientific and environmental research because we’ll be able to spend U.S. governmental funds, and currently that’s not possible,” explains Boom, who has traveled to Cuba for research more than 20 times.

After a century of collaboration with Cuban scientists, the AMNH aspires to be one of the first institutions to use federal funds to do research in Cuba. It has already applied for funding from the National Science Foundation to conduct a three-year study of Cuban biodiversity with its counterpart in Havana.
“If that’s funded—which is always a big if—to get federal funding from the U.S. government would be fantastic, and that would allow us to build a new long-term research program,” says Chris Raxworthy, curator of the AMNH’s herpetology department.

MUTUAL INTEREST

Despite a lack of resources for field research, as well as slow internet connections that prevent them from downloading large files and difficulties in accessing scientific literature, Cuban scientists have been carrying out highly regarded work for decades and regularly publish their findings in international journals. The Cuban government has put a great deal of emphasis on science, a strategy that has paid off in fields such as biomedicine and cancer research.

Still, the embargo has stymied Cuban science because it has cut the country off from the sophisticated U.S. research funding system, and from many universities that employ top-notch scientists. “The embargo—which we call a blockade because it’s a very elaborate persecution of Cuba’s entire economy—affects all aspects of our country's life, including science, all research and the conservation of our biodiversity,” says Sergio Jorge Pastrana, secretary of foreign affairs at the Academy of Sciences of Cuba.

The barriers that separated them from U.S. colleagues led some Cuban scientists to strengthen ties with researchers in Europe, Latin America and the former Soviet Union instead. However, Cuban mammologist Gilberto Silva Taboada says that the island’s relative isolation forced him to be “an autodidact,” and that he would not have been able to advance his career if it wasn’t for the help of his U.S. colleagues.

“More than 90 percent of the scientific literature about Caribbean mammals is in English and has been (written) by scientists from other countries, mainly based in North America or who work for museums in the U.S., and that’s why I had to contact these authors by mail,” Taboada told Scientific American during a recent visit to New York.

“It’d be good to have more scientific collaboration with Americans. There’s a lot to be done,” Taboada said.

FULL OF SURPRISES

U.S. biologists have good reasons to be enthusiastic about Cuba, because evolution has blessed the largest island in the Caribbean with a treasure trove of more than 6,000 species of plants, 140 species of reptiles, 1,400 species of mollusks and 70 species of amphibians—and most of these species are endemic. Also, the bulk of Cuba’s flora and fauna thrive in vast, unspoiled areas that are not under threat thanks to its low population density (most of Cuba’s 11.2 million people live along the coast of the 1,250-kilometer-long island) and the fact that there are few large-scale industrial developments. There are also 211 protected areas covering 20 percent ​​of the national territory. 

“The system of protected areas in Cuba is very good. It's weak in the lowlands that got turned into plantations, but most of the mountain areas are protected. I don’t think there is any major ecosystem that doesn't have some area protected, so it’s a pretty good system,” says Douglas Stotz, an ornithologist at the Field Museum in Chicago.

Among these ecosystems are the Zapata Peninsula, the coral reef of the Gardens of the Queen and Humboldt National Park, which contain exotic species such as the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae), the smallest bird in the world; the almiquí (Solenodon cubanus), one of the rarest mammals on Earth; and the Cuban tody (Todus multicolor), an endemic bird with an iridescent green back and a red plume below the beak.

Stotz is smitten with this bird: “If they were better known, everybody would be in love with them. They are really, really adorable birds,” he explains. “They’re cooperative nesters [in raising their offspring] so they have an interesting biology associated with them,” he says.
Stotz says he is impressed with his Cuban colleagues’ work with the country's flora and fauna, but he laments that because of the embargo “they’re kind of falling behind on some of the things we’re using to understand diversity better, especially genetic techniques.”

The improvement in relations could improve Cuba’s access to genetic techniques for taxonomic and evolutionary studies of the island’s biodiversity, and closer collaboration between U.S. and Cuban biologists could also bear fruit in areas such as botany and conservation. For example, Boom is keen to continue collaborating with his Cuban colleagues to study Melastomataceae, a plant family endemic to Cuba. Very little is known about it, partly due to a lack of funds and also because it abounds in remote areas of Cuba's far east. Boom’s team has not yet been able to collect samples or do genetic tests.
“Part of what we’re trying to do is create a modern phylogenetic tree of this family using DNA evidence, so we’re making targeted joint expeditions between the NYBG and Cuban scientists to eastern Cuba. It’s a very diverse, ecologically important family in Cuba, especially in the mountains,” Boom says.

The Cuban government will use data from this privately funded study to produce maps of the country’s biodiversity, which will be incorporated into climate models to better predict how global warming will affect habitats, Boom explains.

FRUITFUL COLLABORATION

The AMNH exhibition is partly the result of a joint expedition that the museums of natural history in New York and Havana conducted in November 2015 to Humboldt National Park—a prime example of Cuba’s scientific lure. The largely unexplored park is the largest in the Caribbean, encompassing diverse ecosystems from dry coastal areas to wet forest and high mountains. “It’s not so easy to access the park because all this requires resources, and now this expedition facilitated that, and it was very interesting for us,” says Taboada, who took part in the fieldwork.

During four weeks of exploring virgin forests, the binational team of ornithologists, herpetologists, mammologists, arachnologists and microbiologists collected numerous specimens with which they hope to identify species of insects, spiders and snails that are thus far unknown to science.

There were larger animals as well. “As for the species that I’m interested in, like lizards and frogs and snakes, we found some very rare species that have very rarely been seen before in Cuba, so that was exciting. It’s too early to say for sure, but we think we have some candidates for new species that have never been previously described,” Raxworthy says.

And that may be just the beginning. If more funding is made available for field studies and embargo restrictions continue to relax, many believe the scientific community could identify a bounty of new species and learn more about them. “It’s probably not outrageous to say that the amphibian diversity in Cuba, in terms of the number of species, could even perhaps double over the next 50 years thanks to new discoveries,” Raxworthy says.