In a BBC programme shown last week, David Attenborough chose the ten creatures he would take on his ark and save from extinction. They weren’t quite what you’d expect, so I’m therefore taking a closer look at each of them over ten days.
Today’s Ark Animal: The Solenodon
Lives in: Haiti, Dominican Republic, Cuba
Population: No estimates, but listed as Endangered. The Cuban species was once believed to be extinct.
The first thing you’re probably wondering is how on earth to say that word. Assuming Mr Attenborough’s pronunciation was correct, it’s roughly ;so-LEE-nodon’. It’s a name that sounds like those given to ancient dinosaurs…….which in fact isn’t too far from the truth.
You could certainly be forgiven for never having heard of this one though. Even the programme’s producer was originally in the dark, saying in a BBC interview:
One of the most intriguing animals for me is the solenodon. Before making this film I hadn’t even heard of it! It has such a remarkable history with ancestors that can be traced back 76 million years and yet very little is known about it.
Frequently described as one of the world’s weirdest mammals, the solenodon is a shrew like mammal found only on two islands in the Caribbean: Cuba and Hispaniola (the island containing Haiti and the Dominican Republic). They are however two different species that were separated 25 million years ago.
Together they are one of only a few species of mammal capable of producing toxic saliva, which it injects into its prey through special grooves in its lower incisors, a method of delivery more common in reptiles.
The solenodon has a long shrew-like nose, but this has a ball & socket joint that gives it extreme movement. Very useful for foraging:
And weirdest of all, the female’s teats are located practically on her backside, right by the groin. That’s something that has never been found in any other mammal species living today or from the fossil record.
Its oddness and uniqueness among mammals is attributed to the fact that it became separated from other mammals around 70 million years ago. And more amazingly, the solenodon is believed to be virtually unchanged from its ancestors that were fossilized some 30 million years ago. It certainly is a ‘dinosaur’ if you regard that word as being an indication of age.
And yet, despite this unfathomably long family history the solenodon is facing a very real threat of extinction. Surprise surprise :-(
With the European expansion into the West Indies came cats and dogs. But the new colonialists also brought the small Asian Mongoose over in an attempt to control the exploding rat populations.
The damage was done. Before Europeans arrived the solenodon was, despite its small size, one of the top predators on Hispaniola and as such hadn’t evolved any defence mechanisms to protect it from creatures that might want to eat it. It is vulnerable to predation by all of the introduced animals, not least because it is small and rather slow. A point illustrated by the BBC programme where a wild solenodon was easily captured and then just sat there passively in someone’s hands.
That’s a familiar and common story told all around the world, of historically isolated islands having their ecosystems turned upside down by human settlers. New Zealand is the obvious example of this with its flightless birds, evolving with no land-based predators to fend off and therefore having no need to take to the air. Then suddenly having to contend with everything the Maori and Europeans brought from elsewhere: dogs, cats, rats, mice, hedgehogs, possums, stoats, weasels.
Owing in part to its secretive, nocturnal nature, very little is known about the solenodon or its population size. Consequently no conservation plan has been effected. Thankfully there are people out there trying to rectify that situation.
The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, ZSL, Sociedad Ornitológica de la Hispaniola and the Dominican Republic National Zoo recently set about studying the solenodons and their habitat, trying to find out how much of an impact human use of their habitat is affecting their population and distribution.
Radio-tracking of solenodons is underway to find out what their habitat niche is, but interestingly the study is also radio-tracking domestic dogs:
This will reveal where dogs are wandering at night, whether they are foraging in solenodon habitats and therefore enable the conservationists to see how much of a threat dogs pose to the solenodon population.
Interesting stuff. And an interesting creature. More than worthy of a place on the ark by virtue of its uniqueness.
See the other animals on Attenborough’s Ark
- Black Lion Tamarin
- Sumatran Rhino
- Marvellous Spatuletail Hummingbird
- Darwin’s Frog
- Sunda Pangolin
- Priam’s Birdwing Butterfly
- Northern Quoll
- Venus’ Flower Basket
You can also read my review of the Attenborough’s Ark programme shown on the BBC.