Andros Island in Cuba
Chuck Kopczak, Ph.D.

Conversations with the Curator

Dr. Chuck Kopczak's Trip to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba

In the summer of 2009, I went on a 7-day collection trip to the US Naval Station Guantánamo Bay located on the southeast side of Cuba. I was joined by Lyssa Holmes, our Senior Herpetology Keeper. Lyssa is responsible for collecting animals, and also caring for them once they’re here at the Science Center. Here are some interesting facts and photos from our trip:

Anolis smallwoodi lizard
Chuck Kopczak, Ph.D.

Anolis smallwoodi lizard

What was the goal of the trip?

The goal was to collect three different species of lizards found on Cuba. We were able to collect just about all of the lizards we were planning to get. These lizards all belong to the same scientific grouping. All of these lizards are in the genus called Anolis and that makes them sort of like cousins. The three different species spend most of their time in very distinct parts of the tree they live in. The largest species we collected lives in the tops of trees and they are big enough to eat other lizards and small birds. These are known as the Oriente Knight Anole (scientific name Anolis smallwoodi).

The medium-sized species is the Cuban Green Anole (Anolis porcatus) and they live up in the tree canopy and down on the upper parts of the trunk. They probably mostly eat insects and smaller lizards. The smallest species is the Trunk Anole (Anolis argenteolus) and they live on the lower parts of the tree trunk. They probably eat only insects. These species are all very abundant and are not endangered or threatened.

Banyan tree in Cuba
Chuck Kopczak, Ph.D.

What was the weather like? What is the environment like?

The weather was hot and humid. It was typically in the mid 90s during the day and high 70s at night. Humidity ranged from bearable to oppressive. We saw lots of lightning every night, but had virtually no rain. Even though Cuba is in the tropics, Guantánamo is located on the dry side of the island.

Even though I knew we were going to the dry side, I was surprised to find no real rain forest habitat at Guantánamo. Instead, there were isolated large tropical trees like figs with either small trees and shrubs, or open grassy areas in between. From a distance it sort of looks like Southern California.

Iguana in Cuba
Chuck Kopczak, Ph.D.

Did you see any other animals/plants besides the lizards you were looking for?

Cuba has a unique species of iguana. They are protected on the base and they are everywhere. There are so many of them and since the people like to feed them, there are signs at the parks and beaches that say “don’t feed iguanas.” In places where people frequently feed them, the iguanas have become aggressive and actually demand food from people. The speed limit on the base is 25 mph, to protect the iguanas from getting hit by cars.

The other incredibly abundant animal that we saw is called the banana rat by the locals. It is a rodent, but the real name, in Spanish, is Hutia (hoo-TI-a). They are related to the capybara in South America and are pretty big for rodents – about the size of a basketball. They are nocturnal and herbivores. When we were out at night looking for lizards we would shine out lights across open grassy areas and see herds of them out feeding. They spook easily and all of them would head for the bushes.