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.