Solenodon hunt: Close encounter with a bizarre beast

By Rebecca Morelle
Science reporter, BBC News, Sierra de Bahoruco, Dominican Republic


Conservationists are in the Dominican Republic to save one of the world's strangest and most ancient mammals - the Hispaniolan solenodon.

After days of searching, the team finally tracks down one of the bizarre beasts.

A shout from the forest sounds, bursting through the night chorus of frog tinks and cricket chirrups.

"They've got one, they've got one," someone yells.

It is the middle of the night, and local research assistants Nicolas Corona and Lleyo Espinal have been trawling the dense forest vegetation, attempting to track down the elusive Hispaniolan solenodon.

They need complete silence to find the animals: they pinpoint them by listening for the sounds of rustling leaves as the little creatures scuttle across the forest floor.

With anticipation building, we head towards them, our head torches illuminating the path ahead, all the while attracting a blur of insects drawn by the light.

The solenodon has been placed in a bag, which is the best way to keep it calm while it is temporarily captured.

As the bag is opened, a pungent, musty smell - the solenodon's signature scent - seeps out.

It is carefully pulled out by its tail. And while this looks uncomfortable, the researchers say this is the least stressful way to hold the animal.

Thick gloves are donned, essential for protection against the solenodon's most ancient feature - it is the only mammal in the world that can inject venom through its teeth.

While the poison is not deadly to humans, it is far from ideal to get bitten - and this seems even more pertinent as the creature first tries to sink its sharp teeth into Dr Sam Turvey, and then, when it is my chance to hold it in my glove-covered hand, me.

At last, face to face with the animal, and it is easy to see why it has been dubbed one of the world's oddest creatures - it looks like a cross between an ant-eater, a shrew and a rat.

It has a ginger-brown coat and is about the size of a rabbit. It has a long, slender nose, which it is snuffling about with in the palm of my hand; its super-sensitive whiskers are twitching around.

And every now and then, it has a little scratch with its huge clawed feet, all the while peering at the cooing crowd with its tiny, beady eyes.

Image caption,
The animal has been around since the time of the dinosaurs

It is hard to believe that the animal I am holding would probably have looked more or less the same when it shared this land with the dinosaurs, 76 million years ago.

But while this creature has managed to survive through a whole series of major trials and tribulations - the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs, major changes to the climate and then the arrival of humans - today, the animal is under threat.

And this is the reason why we are here.

The team I am with, made up of scientists from Jersey's Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), the Hispaniolan Ornithological Society (SOH), have embarked on a project called The Last Survivors.

They say that this scheme, which is funded by the UK Government's Darwin Initiative, and is supported by the Dominican Republic's national zoo and environment ministry, could be our last chance to save the solenodon.

And from our few days in the Sierra de Bahoruco, a mountain range that straddles the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti, some of the problems facing this mammal are plain to see.

Image caption,
Haiti has suffered from heavy deforestation, which has had a devastating impact on the country

As we drive along the aptly named international road - a bumpy track that at some points, marks the border between the two countries - the differences are clear.

Where the Dominican side is mostly lush, green and vegetation covered, Haiti is dry and brown, with barely a tree in sight. And this does not just occur in the border area. While about 25% of the Dominican Republic is covered with forest, only 1% of Haiti is.

Jorge Brocca, director of the SOH, says: "It's probably impossible for the solenodons to survive in that kind of habitat."

He says that in some ways, the problems caused by deforestation in Haiti, such as the soil degradation that has left the country flash flood-prone, serve as a stark warning to the Dominican Republic - and to the rest of the world.

Charcoal problems

But the Dominican part of this mountain range is still suffering problems.

As we trek through the dense vegetation, we frequently come across patches that have been cleared of trees, the wood burnt in a pit covered with earth to create charcoal.

The SOH's Pedro Martinez tells me: "This has always happened, but we've been finding more and more of these since the earthquake in Haiti."

Poor Haitians, displaced by the earthquake, he says, are coming across the border into the Dominican Republic's tree-rich forests to make charcoal to take back Haiti to sell.

He explains: "They have no trees left in Haiti, so they come here."

Image caption,
Cats have been caught on camera coming out of solendon burrows

But loss of habitat is not the only problem facing the solenodons. Animals that have been introduced to the country over the last few hundred years are also causing problems.

Dr Richard Young, head of conservation science at Durrell, explains: "Invasive animals like rats, mongoose, cats and feral dogs have all been suggested to be major threats."

Motion-sensitive camera traps that the team have been setting outside solenodon burrows are beginning to shed light on how much of an issue this might be.

Dr Young said: "We've filmed cats and rats emerging from their burrows. And this is really worrying."

Wishful thinking

As our close encounter with the solenodon nears its end, the team record the GPS location where it has been found, measure the animal, and take some DNA samples by pulling out a tuft of hairs.

They are doing this to start to build up a clearer scientific picture of an animal that has, until now, been barely researched.

Dr Young says: "This is a mammal in a region of the world that is fairly well developed, it's not that remote - but yet, still, we know next to nothing about it, which is really quite shocking."

Over the next three years, The Last Survivors team wants to answer some of the really basic questions about solenodons - where they are found, how many there are, and how problems such as deforestation and invasive mammals might be affecting them.

And then, once they know that, says Dr Young, the conservation of the solenodon can really begin in earnest.

He says: "We are really laying the groundwork for the survival of the solenodon - what we want to do is ensure the long term survival of this unique animal."

After the tests are complete, the little creature is finally released. It scurries back into the forest - making a quick stop for an insect snack on the way.

And as it vanishes into the darkness of the night, I feel hopeful that this remarkable animal, which has managed to survive against all the odds for the last 76 million years, could somehow, with the help of these scientists, remain a weird and wonderful fixture in these forests for many more years to come.

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