So, here I am, running in a forest at night over 2,000 miles from home. This forest—dry, stout, and thorny enough to draw blood—lies just a few miles north of a rural town in the western edge of the Dominican Republic on the border with Haiti. I’m following—or trying to keep pace with—a local hunter and guide as we search for one of the world’s most bizarre mammals. It’s an animal few people have heard of, let alone actually seen; even most Dominicans don’t readily recognize its name or picture. But I’ve been obsessed with it for six years: it’s called a “solenodon,” more accurately the Hispaniolan solenodon or its (quite appropriate) scientific name, Solenodon paradoxus.
There is a sallow, overgrown path through the forest, but we don’t use it. Instead my guide—the Dominican version of Indiana Jones—quickly plunges into the forest, moving ghost-like through branches, vines, spines, up-and-down rock faces, into and out of dry ravines. I don’t move like this man—Nicolas Corona—I crash, stumble, scrape, and fall my way through the forest. Where Nicolas leaps across ravines, or simply dances across a fallen tree, I fall into the ravine and have to crawl my way out. Where he finds a way through clumps of brambles, I get stuck. One time so stuck, that every step forward I catch on another vine that just won’t budge, around my leg, around my chest. I’m a buffoon, next to some Olympian.
Despite its perils, the dry forest we’re running through is unexpectedly enchanting. A green plant, not grass but almost clover-like known as water herb, blankets the ground during this time of the year. Short, winding trees curl around us. Large rocks jut out of the soil and at times an aggregation creates a mini-mountain. There are snails in beautifully colored conch-like shells hanging from the trees. From time-to-time we hear a whirring sound as a roosting bird, somewhere near us, takes off, scared by the sound of two men running through its home. The forest is almost hobbity, as if built for small things. One could imagine old-school fairies and elves, mischievous creatures, living here, which is why it seems such a suitable place for the strange, cryptic, muppet-faced solenodon.
In Greek, solenodon means “grooved tooth.” It was given this name because it has grooves in its teeth through which it injects venom, much like a snake: the only mammal in the world that can do this. But that isn’t even the most amazing thing about a creature that many people might dismiss as a big rat. No, it’s this: the solenodon diverged from all other mammals 76 million years ago. That means, while dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus Rex and Triceratops roamed North America, the solenodon had already created its own evolutionary niche, and then survived cataclysm, invasion, and destruction to still roam the forests of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola (where I am) and Cuba today, relatively unchanged. It’s not even a rodent, but instead belongs to an order of mammals (Soricomorpha) that includes shrews and moles, but remains distinct enough to make-up its own mammal family: Solenodontidae.
Evolutionarily speaking, the solenodon is one of the oldest mammals on Earth; its present form not much different from what T-Rex would have blithely ignored 76 million years ago. Still while T-Rex vanished, somehow this little mammal—this venomous, long-snouted wonder—managed to hang on through the asteroid that took down the dinosaurs, the break-up of North America, the drift of Caribbean islands, the arrival of the first people known as Taino, the invasion of Columbus, and the subsequent transformation of the island. No wonder, this little animal has been dubbed ‘the last survivor.’
Aside from its venom, the solenodon also sports at the end of its nose a ball-and-socket joint bone (dubbed the ‘os proboscis’) that’s wholly unique in the animal kingdom. This bone allows the solenodon’s long, slender snout to move deftly as it pokes the ground searching for insects, arachnids, and grubs. Interestingly, this bone is not found in the Cuban solenodon, but only the Hispaniolan. It’s also been suggested the solenodons use their odd clicking and whistling sounds as echolocation to catch their prey in the dark.
Nicolas stops suddenly and lights a cigarette. The orange glow lights up his profile momentarily: scraggly beard, forties, fey and shining eyes, and his Che Guevara hat. In this moment, I have the bizarre sense that I’m in some Vietnam movie, just the burst of enflaming nicotine outlining a dark, tropical forest.
“Wait me here. I go. I come back for you,” Nicolas says and before I have a chance to respond he’s running off. Within moments, I can no longer even see the light of his headlamp. Despite being left alone in a forest at night, I’m not too worried; maybe it’s the adrenaline or maybe I’m just confident that Nicolas won’t lose me. I try to find a way to settle down, but there’s only undergrowth and for some reason I don’t want to sit on it, worried I’ll damage it. I squat, and wait in the dark—flashlight off. I’m not bored; I listen to the forest, look at the stars, and hear the low boom of music from the nearest town, Pedernales, only a few miles away. A few minutes pass, and Nicolas returns.
We start moving together again. At one point, Nicolas stops and aims his light just in front of him.
“Iguana,” he says. “Today.” And, as he runs his hand over the water herb, he makes a shooshing sound. I can’t see much difference, but clearly Nicolas can tell an iguana passed this way not long ago. “Big one,” he adds.
More importantly for our task, Nicolas can tell how old the solenodon nose-pokes are down to the night they were made. “These are a week old,” he tells me. Another time, breathlessly, “Tonight.”
And then he stops, listens, moves a bit, stops again, and listens. He does this a few times. Finding solenodons is not easy. Nocturnal, rabbit-sized, and easily hidden in the undergrowth, the search seems almost fruitless. But Nicolas, and other members of the team, can actually hear solenodons moving through the dry leaf litter and scraggly brush if they get close enough. If it’s wet, searches are called off, since solenodon feet fall silent on damp ground.
Suddenly, Nicolas becomes a burst of action. Plunging into the thicket, hands scrabbling, feet kicking him forward. I watch him attempt to catch one—at night, in thick undergrowth and with bare hands—and must say am not surprised when he comes up empty-handed, but still disappointed.
“Two,” he says. Then after cursing in Spanish, he explains, “Got away.”
After this disappointment, Nicolas leads me back to the road where the team is parked. There my wife, our driver, and Rosalind Kennerley, the leader of this venture, wait by the car. Kennerley is studying the solenodon for her PhD work with the University of Reading, and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for her field-work. She and her field assistants, which includes Nicolas as well as his son and cousin (it’s a family affair), do this—and by this, I mean try and catch solenodons—every few nights. Kennerley then radio-collars the captured animals so she can track their movements.
At the car, we update them on our progress and my wife hands me a bottle of water, which stupidly I forgot to bring with me. As we talk, she picks as many thorns as she can manage out of my shirt. The effort is fairly futile since after a couple minutes, Nicolas waves me on and we’re heading back toward the forest. On the road, he shines his flashlight on every tarantula we see; either to show me just how many there are, or simply so we don’t step on them. And then it’s back in the shelter of the trees, where tarantulas are not so easily sighted. Then we begin the dance again, rushing, scrabbling, breaking through the woods, trying to find our prehistoric prize.
I realize by now that I’m completely superfluous to this hunt. There’s nothing I can do, whatsoever, to help Nicolas track, find, and lay his hands on a solenodon. I’m just an observer, along for the ride, and in fact I’m probably quite a hindrance: my breathing and running so much louder than his. While such a thought should have been obvious, it takes a little while to come to me. I probably wanted to believe that I could provide some help, some service. But with this thought also allows me to let down, to speed through the forest after Nicolas, without worrying whether or not we find the mythic solenodon that I traveled so far to see—it’s quite simply out of my hands.
I become almost unthinking, just scraping, plunging, pushing, ducking as the time goes by unheeded. How long have we been doing this now? Twenty minutes? Three hours? How much longer? Shouldn’t we just call it a night by now and hope we have better luck tomorrow?
We stop; he points his flashlight to a pair of nose-pokes, which have become quite familiar, almost prosaic, in the last few hours. “Last night,” he says. Then he pauses. “No, no, no tonight. Tonight.” And with that the long, sweating, hypnotic hunt takes on a sudden intensity that lifts my flagging spirit. Nicolas tells me to wait, and he moves forward just a few steps, flashing his light here and there, listening it seems with ears that can pick up sounds I’ve never heard. Suddenly he’s crashing into brambly bushes, and yelling, “Here. Here. Here.” I can’t tell, in the moment, if he wants me to do anything. What can I do anyway? But he yells so insistently that I find myself crashing dumbly into the brambles, hoping maybe, on some off chance, my floundering scares a solenodon into his hands.
Then all of a sudden there’s the joyous sounds—in Spanish or English or some bizarre combination of the two—of success. Nicolas pops up from the brambles, where he was practically lying at the end, with something in his hand. I scramble closer, flashlight trained on him and then I see it, just as I imagined it: a ginger-colored, large rat-like beastie with beady eyes and a magnificently adept nose. In two words: a Hispaniolan solenodon, or solenodon paradoxus.
“Here,” Nicolas says holding the solenodon—the antediluvian survivor, the mammal under the feet of the dinosaurs—out to me.
“No, no, no,” I say. “It’s okay. I don’t need to hold it.”
“Yes, by the tail,” he says, his face flush with his recent success. It’s hanging upside down as Nicolas has it by the tail. Researchers always hold solenodons by their tail to avoid a nasty bite, but also because in this position the animal seems much less stressed, it flings and flails a little, but it’s noiseless and relatively docile, more bewildered than anything else. It doesn’t seem to be in pain or fear—not like when you grab it by the head or body—obviously the tail has few nerves.
“I need to put in here.” With his solenodon-free hand, he holds up the canvas bag.
I probably still look bewildered, but he coaxes, “It’s fine. It’s fine. By the tail and it’s fine.”
So I find myself doing something I swore I wouldn’t: holding a solenodon. It’s one thing to want to see an animal in the wild, another altogether to handle it—I’ve never had a course in solenodon-handling.
She—for a she, she turns out to be—is much heavier than I supposed and she wriggles as I hold her by the tail.
Nicolas scrambles the bag open and, after a few movements, he’s able to slip the bag over her. I let go and in a flash he has the bag tied. We’re ready to head back to the group, who have probably heard our victorious whooping, when Nicolas’ hand goes to his belt.
“Your machete?” I say.
“Si. Si.” It’s gone; he must have lost it in the brambles somewhere. “I go look,” he says and hands me the solenodon in a bag. As he disappears into the dark forest, only his flashlight denoting from time-to-time that he has not been swallowed up, I stand there dumbly thinking: “I’m holding a solenodon in a bag. I’m holding a solenodon in a bag. I’m holding a solenodon in a bag.” Years of obsession, months of planning, thousands of miles over land and sea, have led to this single moment.
She wiggles a few times; I can hear and see the outline of her sickle-claws as they attempt to burrow through the canvas bag, just as they would, more successfully, pluck the earth through. I’m still standing in a stupor—though I’ve wondered a couple times if Nicolas should give up the machete hunt, how much does a machete cost? maybe it has personal value?—when he returns, machete back in hand. Only later would I find out that he’s had that same machete for years and never leaves it behind. By now he’s yelling to the team on the road, who’ve been wondering what happened—given the sudden silence.
Yes, we have a solenodon. Yes, we are on our way. Just had to get my machete. I imagine his words go something like this, as he has machete in one hand and bagged solenodon in the other and he’s clearing the quickest path for us to get to the road.
When we do everyone looks much relieved and even celebratory. Ros has already opened her kit and is rifling through the equipment. We wait for her to get set up, as Nicolas tells the story of the catch in Spanish. The solenodon is kept in the bag until all is ready.
When it is, Nicolas, his son, and cousin, gingerly pull the bag off. Holding her by the tail, again, she scrabbles at the road.
“Female,” Ros says. “You can see the teats there, low on the body.”
She’s beautiful: deep, black pinprick eyes; dark brown fur progressing to sunset orange around her face and forelegs; a blonde patch, unique to her, on the right side of her head. Tiny ears, long sickle claws, and a long squiggly nose, complete this lovely little gremlin. She is covered in the same tiny green seeds that cover myself. Even my partiality aside, solenodons are quite adorable.
The whole group is in a state of delight, making jokes, and fawning over her as Ros preps her equipment. Pretty soon, the research work must begin and then men grab her, gently but firmly, around the body and head.
“Now there might be a bit of shrieking,” Ros warns.
And there is. The animal lets out an incredibly loud, high-pitched banshee squeal as Ros and the men worked incredibly quickly to put the radio collar on her neck. The sound, a piercing cry of alarm and anger, makes one realize how much, at least in comparison, the solenodon doesn’t mind being carried about by the tail. She spits out venom onto the ground and shits, while trying to get away, but then it’s over, she has the collar on her neck and it’s secure and working. Thirty seconds, maybe, have passed. They hold her up by the tail again and she calms down quickly.
We follow Nicolas as he carries the newly-collared female back into the forest. He lets her down on the ground, forelegs first and then lets her go. She waddles quickly through the undergrowth, up and over a few rocks, and then she’s gone. Free again, but now her movements will tell Ros something about this individual: how far does she roam? How many different dens does she use? How much forest is she utilizing for foraging? Although seemingly innocuous questions, there are hugely important for a species facing possible extinction, about which scientists know very little.
Once she’s disappeared, it seems almost anti-climatic. The animal I’ve dreamt of seeing for years, the rabbit-sized mammal from the Cretaceous I flew nearly three thousand miles for, has suddenly come and gone, back to her life, hopefully little worse for its sudden, brief collision with a bunch of humans. And now we must go back to our lives—it’s past midnight already. With one solenodon caught, it’s time to head back into Pedernales, eat something—since I’m famished, and then to bed. But as I sleep—not well it turns out—all night I think of her, that little solenodon, that enigmatic survivor, that beguiling creature who has the tenacity to survive numerous geologic and climatic upheavals, while still holding on against an ever-widening human footprint. I can’t help but dream of her courage until a rooster crowing endlessly at dawn for attention wakes me up.
Postscript: will the solenodon survive the Anthropocene?
Although the solenodon survived the meteor that killed the dinosaurs, it may not make it through the Anthropocene, the age of humans. The solenodon is currently categorized as Endangered by the IUCN Red List, but despite being known to science since the 1830s, these two species (one found in Hispaniola and an even more endangered one on Cuba) have seen very little scientific research and even less conservation attention paid to them—at least until the last few years.
In 2009, forward-thinking conservationists launched the Last Survivors Program, the first research and conservation program focused on the solenodon and the hutia (a tree-dwelling rodent that looks like a large guinea pig) on Hispaniola. The program was a partnership between the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Sociedad Ornitológica de la Hispaniola, the Zoological Society of London’s EDGE program, and funded by the UK government’s Darwin Initiative. Without this program, I would never have ended up in the Dominican Republic chasing solenodons.
One of the project leaders on the Last Survivors and an expert on Caribbean mammal extinction, Samuel Turvey, recently told mongabay.com that “solenodons have long been shrouded in mystery amongst the world’s zoological community, and many explorers and naturalists who visited Hispaniola in the past described them as being one of the world’s rarest mammals.”
Yet no one had really undertaken systematic studies of solenodon populations, until the project, which actually uncovered some good news for the solenodons of the Dominican Republic.
Solenodons are “not as threatened as we thought when ‘The Last Survivors’ project started,” says Jose Nunez-Mino the field manager of the project. “Solenodon are found across a much wider number of areas than we once thought […] If the evidence we have gathered is correct, this is a massive opportunity to ensure the survival of this species rather than bringing it back from the brink which is a far more desperate situation.”
Still, threats against the solenodon are multiplying and widening. The Dominican Republic has a large and extensive network of protected areas—around a quarter of the country is under some sort of protection—but these parks are being undercut by invasive species, deforestation, development, and encroaching human populations. In the future, Ros Kennerley’s findings will be vital in finding out the habitat requirements needed to keep the solenodon from extinction.
“It would be foolish to fall into a sense that [solenodon] are out of danger,” says Nunez-Mino. “The fossil evidence suggest that some of the mammal species from Hispaniola that have gone extinct were once even more common than solenodon; we don’t know why they disappeared but we think it happened relatively quickly.”
In fact, scientists have discovered that Hispaniola was once a treasure-trove for mammals, including ground sloths, several hutias (even one as large as a bear), rice rats, island shrews, a monkey, and even another smaller species of solenodon. But the arrival of humans around 6,000 years ago and the European invasion 4,500 years later brought about waves of extinction as forests fell, invasive species were introduced, and some species were quickly simply eaten to extinction. Today, just two native mammals survive: Solenodon paradoxus and Plagiodontia aedium or the Hispaniola hutia, the last of the hutia family on the island.
The Last Survivor conservationists are determined not to lose these final two. But the species have to contend with 20 million people on the island—and rising at around 1.3 percent annually. This has put remaining forests in danger, especially in the western portion of the Dominican Republic, near the border with Haiti. Desperate poverty in Haiti—the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere—has pushed immigrants into the surrounding forests, protected and unprotected.
Turvey says these forests “are under severe pressure, in particular from clearance for charcoal.”
Ros Kennerley adds that the situation is more complicated than at first it may seem.
“Within the Dominican Republic clearance of forest for charcoal, both legally on private land and illegally within national park boundaries, is often undertaken by Haitians, but there are both Haitians and Dominicans profiting from the activities,” she explains. “Money can be made not only from the charcoal itself, but also from the subsequent sowing of crops on the land after burning.”
In addition to demand for charcoal, forest is also cut down for agriculture. For example, Kennerley points to a Sierra de Bahoruco National Park, which is suffering from illegal deforestation to grow avocados for export.
Still, Kennerley says, “the land quickly becomes poor for crops, sometimes after only a few growing seasons.”
Even where solenodon habitat remains intact and well-protected, the endangered mammal still faces species it managed to avoid for over 60 million years. Since the arrival of humans, the island has become overrun with dogs, cats, mongoose, and rats.
“As is the case for many other ancient island species, solenodons originally evolved in the absence of any mammalian predators, and so the introduction of such species by human settlers has also been disastrous,” explains Turvey, adding that, “solenodons appear to be particularly threatened by farm dogs that are let loose in agricultural land to kill mongooses (another invasive mammal), but which kill native species as well.”
Like many developing countries in the world, stray dogs—which are rarely neutered—are ubiquitous in the Dominican Republic with untold impacts on local biodiversity. To better understand the impacts of these semi-wild canines, researcher Jess Knapp with the University of East Anglia recently fitted free-ranging dogs with GPS collars in the region and is currently analyzing their movements.
Cats are also common in the country, but don’t seem to pose as big of a threat to solenodon as canines.
While researchers and conservationists with the Last Survivors Program have been the first to document the solenodon’s range and its major threats, they also made a notable discovery: the solenodon still survives across the border in Haiti, but only barely. In 2007, the team discovered telltale solenodon nose pokes and three dead solenodons in Haiti’s last forests, including one solenodon that had been eaten by a farmer.
“The last known solenodon population in Haiti is found in the Massif de la Hotte, an isolated mountainous region in the far southwest of the country that contains amongst the highest levels of species endemism anywhere in the world,” Turvey explains. “However, the massif is under extreme pressure from charcoal extraction, and very little of its forest cover still remains.”
Turvey adds, “conservation in Haiti is an extremely difficult challenge, but an extremely important one.”
The solenodon is found in one final place: Cuba. Here a distinct species, the Cuban solenodon (Solenodon cubanus), is just barely hanging on: currently listed as Critically Endangered, it has already been dubbed extinct once before being re-discovered in the 1970s. Despite being family (and sharing a single genus), the Hispaniolan and Cuban solenodons are actually thought to be separated by 25 million years of evolution, making them more distant in time than the split between Old World monkeys like baboons and macaques, and great apes like gorillas, orangutans, and us.
“There is an urgent need to conduct wide-scale fieldwork to better understand the status of these populations and the primary threats that [Cuban solenodons] face,” Turvey says.
But even the Hispaniolan solenodon—which has received a brief flood of attention including landing a place on David Attenborough’s imaginary ark (where the renowned documentarian chooses the ten species he would save from extinction)—risks sudden neglect. The Last Survivors Project in the Dominican Republic came to a close at the end of 2012, culminating in a national meeting to discuss the conservation of the species.
“One of the final products of the last survivors project was a Creative Commons 3.0Species Action Plan which engaged a large number of stakeholders from governmental, non-governmental organizations and across civil society,” explains Nunez-Mino. “There are still active projects being run by several organizations that engaged in this process.”
With the close of the project, the solenodon is once again without targeted conservation action, but the project has raised awareness locally and internationally about the species. Meanwhile the Small Mammal Specialist Group, under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Species Survival Commission (SSC), will provide ongoing expertise and advice on solenodon conservation.
Nunez-Mino adds that “there is also a hope that the [Dominican Republic’s] Ministry of Environment will be even more proactive in ensuring the long term conservation of this unique species.”
However, to date the government does not appear to be taking solenodon conservation seriously. In fact, most recently the Dominican Republic’s Minister of the Environment, Bautista Rojas Gómez, sent bulldozers to destroy a portion of Charco Azul Biological Reserve, home to a Critically Endangered iguana species and a just recently confirmed population of solenodons.
“Ultimately, Hispaniola’s endemic biodiversity will only survive if the country manages to retain enough good-quality forest habitat,” notes Turvey. “Conserving the Dominican Republic’s unique and beautiful forests is a conservation priority, and it requires strong and proactive government support, otherwise these key ecosystems are in danger of being degraded and lost in the very near future.”
In the end the greatest threat to the survival of the solenodon is anonymity. If the tiger had not been universally loved and protected by laws, parks, government commitments, and hundreds of millions of dollars, it would be extinguished today. However, the tiger is one of the world’s most recognizable animals: it’s large, beautiful, and stirs the communal human imagination. Most of the world’s species can’t say the same, including the solenodon. But if we lose this muppet-faced living fossil, we will deprive ourselves of not only a distinct species, but a true wonder of our world and a flesh-and-blood testament to the tenacity of life.