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Natural Treaures

Like any great crossroads, the land and islands of Central America and the Caribbean have witnessed the coming and going of a dizzying array of animals. People and jaguars, for instance, crept south across the land bridge from North America, while monkeys and anteaters migrated north from their South American territories. Other pioneers pushed outward from their historic homes only to find the new lands too cold, hot, wet, or dry, and eventually retreated.

Monkeys in tree

Monkeys migrated north from South America.

Today, the ebb and flow of life continues to wash to and fro across Central America and the Caribbean Islands. Over millions of years, however, many transients have gained a toehold and remained, helping to make the region's wildlife community one of the world's richest and most diverse. Indeed, it is a land of contrasts that harbors natural treasures both great and small.

Cuba, for example, is home to the world's smallest bird: the inch-long Bee hummingbird featured in the first installment of SPIRITS OF THE JAGUAR. Weighing less than a tenth of an ounce, the Bee lays a pea-sized egg in a miniature nest woven together with harvested spider web -- assuming the hummingbird doesn't get caught in the process of gathering the material. Like other tiny animals that lose heat easily, the Bee lives in the fast lane: its heart beats more than 1,000 times per minute, and it must eat nectar and small insects virtually constantly to stoke the fires of its rapid-fire metabolism.

The Bee isn't Cuba's only claim to miniature fame, however. It also boasts the world's smallest lizard; in 1996, biologists discovered that the island also shelters the world's tiniest frog. The black amphibian, about half the size of a nickel, sports bright orange stripes and lives under fallen leaves and ferns in the rainforests of Cuba's Iberia Mountains. Ironically, when written in typescript, the frog's scientific name, Eleutherodactylus iberia, is more than three times longer than the animal!

In other parts of the Caribbean and Central America, however, a few other record-setting animals easily grow larger than their names. For instance, the Queen conch -- featured on the third installment of SPIRITS OF THE JAGUAR -- is one of the world's largest marine snails. This slow-moving plant eater, which lives in the shallow sea grass beds along the islands, lives inside a sturdy pink shell that can grow to be a foot long. Inside, the snail itself can weigh up to three pounds, a fact that made it a popular source of food for the Taino people, who first colonized the islands thousands of years ago.

Indeed, the conch makes an ideal meal: easy to catch, tasty, and housed inside a shell that makes a handy cooking pot. The huge mounds of conch shells that archaeologists have found near ancient settlements are impressive evidence of just how important the giant snail was to the Taino diet. In addition to food, conchs provided material for knives, hooks, and tools, as well as buttons, necklaces, and earrings.

Native islanders weren't the only ones captivated by the conch. When Columbus arrived in the region, he quickly seized on the huge shells as one of the new world's natural treasures. Before long, conch shells were turning up as prized decorations in many European palaces and gardens.

The Bee hummingbird's heart beats more than 1,000 times per minute.

Depletion, however, has put the Queen conch in danger. Collecting the snails is no longer allowed in Florida, for instance, and they have virtually disappeared from many parts of the Bahamas and Cuba, though they still are commercially collected in other areas. In an effort to replenish the wild population and provide an alternative source of the popular dish, biologists have begun raising conchs in captivity.

Restocking efforts have proven unsuccessful so far, however -- largely because baby tank-raised conchs have proven easy meals for predators.

While the Queen conch may "rule" the Central America's seas, two birds can claim to be kings of the sky. One is the world's largest eagle: the magnificent crested Harpy eagle, seen in the second installment of SPIRITS OF THE JAGUAR. This 20-pound giant is a champion flyer, swerving between branches in the rainforest to snatch monkeys and sloths from their treetop lairs. While a few eagles may have longer wingspans, none have more powerful or massive talons, capable of literally squeezing the life from large prey.

Harpies can also be gentle, however. Mother birds must nurture their young for up to two years. One problem: keeping insects off the young birds, who live in nests surrounded by the raw animal remains that the parents bring for food. The mother's ingenious solution is to pad the nest with fresh leaves that carry a natural insecticide, creating a green barrier to the pests.

To many rainforest residents, including the ancient Mayans, the mighty Harpy was a sacred animal celebrated in story, art, and song. The Mayans considered it the Lord of the Air; others called it "the spirit protector." Even today, the brave young men of some tribes are given the task of finding and capturing a Harpy, then taming it to become a fierce winged watchdog guarding the spiritual life of the community. Unfortunately, like the conch, Harpy populations are dwindling as the rainforest retreats in the face of expanding farms and settlements. It is considered one of the world's most endangered eagles.

Luckily, populations of another aerial giant remain relatively healthy. The Caribbean's Crested oropendula, featured in the third installment of SPIRITS OF THE JAGUAR, is one of the world's largest songbirds.

It is also a champion nest builder, capable of constructing remarkable hanging nests up to 150 feet off the ground, far above most predators' reach. But oropendulas have another strategy for protecting their eggs: colonial nesting. Dozens of birds will build their nurseries in the same tree, their ball-shaped hanging nests giving it the look of having been decorated with giant Christmas decorations. Together, the colony of parents keeps a close eye out for threats.


The oropendula builds a distinctive nest.

Like the tiny hummingbirds, lizards, and frogs of Cuba, giant conchs, eagles, and oropendulas probably first arrived in their present homes in the New World as random immigrants. Together with other strangers in a strange land, however, they have helped remake their homesteads and in turn been changed by them. It is a process that will continue so long as Central America and the Caribbean continue to be a crossroads between North and South.

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