Castro’s Cuban Crocodiles At Risk Of Interbreeding

A baby Cuban Crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer). Josh More/Flickr (CC By-NC-ND 2.0)

Cuban crocodiles were the favorite emblem of Fidel Castro's socialist state. During the 1960s, in the years following the Cuban revolution, Castro set up conservation programs to lend them a hand and often used them as diplomatic gifts to send to cosmonauts and his communist comrades.

The species’ future has been a cause for concern for 50 years and has been declared “critically endangered” for 20 years. But now, the species of small spiny crocs are in more trouble than ever.

Just a few hundred of the crocodiles live in the wild, limited to just two separate populations. A genetic analysis study from October 2015 showed that wild Cuban crocodiles are rampantly interbreeding with another species – the tougher and more common American crocodile. The number of hybrids within a certain population of wild Cuban crocs could be as high as half.

Conservationists are now tied into a dilemma of how to tackle their decline, Nature reports. Do they attempt the save the tiny gene pool of pure Cubans or simply let the interbreeding take its course?

Practically speaking, letting the Cuban crocodile slip into hybridization could be the best card to play. The American crocodile is a much hardier species and far better equipped to deal with salt water, which is fast becoming the best option for surviving as deforestation and infrastructure projects take over the swamplands. Those saltwater-friendly genes from their American cousin could be exactly what they need.

Some may feel it's a sad thing to watch a symbol of national pride fade away into obscurity. But others think it might be the only option. 

“Do you want to be judgemental about a species getting by by accessing the genomic resources available to it by hybridization?" Evon Hekkala, a conservation geneticist at Fordham University in New York City, told Nature.

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