Invasion of the banana rats

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The Department of Defense has given $97,102 to Texas A&M AgriLife Research to study the Cuban hutia at the U.S. Naval Base at Guantanamo, Cuba.
Hutias are called banana rats because their bodily waste resembles little bananas. And the creatures are big – the size of small dogs. They can grow nearly two feet long and weigh up to 19 pounds.
Some Cubans eat them. They are “often cooked in a large pot with wild nuts and honey,” according to Wikipedia.
Cubans overhunted hutias during the economic crisis of the 1990s, according to a 2017 paper called “The Last Survivors: current status and conservation of the non-volant land mammals of the insular Caribbean.”
The study said:

Indiscriminate hunting in this period led to extirpation of some formerly abundant subpopulations such as the Najasa sub-population (Sierra de Chorillo, Camagüey Province). This was considered to be the densest hutia subpopulation in Cuba with an estimated 100,000 individuals in 1989–1990 but was rapidly eliminated… No animals were detected during a survey in 2002, and locals reported that hutias disappeared several years earlier.
The species is partly terrestrial, so may be vulnerable to predation by feral dogs. Subpopulations on Cayo Blanco, Cayo Mono, and neighboring islets in Matanzas Province have been extirpated by dogs brought by fishermen to hunt hutias and then abandoned on the islands.

Hutias found a refuge at Gitmo, according to a 2002 paper called “Assessment of Potential Cuban Hutia Management at U.S. Naval Base, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.”
Most kinds of hutias in the Caribbean were “rare or extinct,” but banana rats were “very common” at Gitmo, the paper said, and that was a problem.

Conflicts with humans include damage to landscaping, gnawing through cables, damage to vehicles, and the accumulation of large amounts of feces in residential areas. 

The Defense Department wants Texas A&M to carry out “a population estimation methodology and spatial ecology assessment for the Cuban hutia” at the Naval Base.

The DOD awarded the grant in September.

Chris Petersen, a natural resource specialist with Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic, fits a GPS harness equipped on an anesthetized hutia, colloquially known as a banana rat, at the Guantanamo Bay Veterinary Treatment Facility, April 13. The purpose of the GPS unit is to track the migration patterns of the local hutia population. The hutia, nicknamed “Thor” during the procedure, will be tracked for the next three to four months before being recaptured to gather the information stored in the harness. Photo: Petty Officer 3rd Class Joshua Nistas. Caption taken verbatim from Defense Visual Information Distribution Service.

Other non-native species at the base include “feral cats and dogs, chickens, goats, white-tailed deer, guinea fowl, and pigeons.”
The study said:

The Cuban hutia is primarily nocturnal, spending the days in trees, inside hollowed-out tree trunks, in dense grass, in rocky areas, or underground in natural openings. They forage on a variety of plant parts (bark, stems, leaves, flowers, fruit) of many species and may consume lizards. Presumably, they do not require free water. The chief predators of hutia are humans, large birds of prey, boas, and introduced dogs and cats. The Cuban crocodile may have been a significant predator of hutia, but that species is now very rare in Cuba. Hutia may feed on the bark that they strip from trees and may feed in gardens, but are not considered an agricultural pest, perhaps because of their rareness throughout most of Cuba.

Some people report they’ve purchased banana rat plush toys at the Naval Base. Here’s one on eBay that had a starting bid of $12.50.

When authors of the study went to the Naval Base they found hutia everywhere – “ocean cliffs, mud flats, grasslands, forest, and residential areas” on both sides of Gitmo.
The study said:

The animals were observed ‘resting’ in trees during the day and foraging on the ground at night. Their signs (tracks, droppings, and incisor marks on trees) were visible just about everywhere. They appear to live in extended family groups of 10 or more individuals (adults and young of both sexes).
Culling operations (conducted from a pick-up truck mostly at night with .22-caliber rifles and spotlights) were used to collect specimens for necropsy. Necropsies were performed on 57 hutia.
All animals appeared healthy and no external or internal parasites were noted. A few animals were missing a portion of their tails.
Twenty-two of 26 adult females (84.6%) were pregnant, averaging 1.7 embryos per pregnant female.

Photo: Pinterest

Getting rid of the animals isn’t easy, the study said.

Kill traps probably could not be used on the ground without significant hazard to non-target species such as land crabs, boas, birds, and lizards, including the Cuban ground iguana.
Physical barriers are being used to a limited extent to reduce hutia problems. Hutia are capable climbers, which makes effective barriers more difficult to devise. On the other hand, we do not know how well hutia can dig; a few simple trials with captive hutia could provide that information.
… Current policy calls for all live-trapped hutia to be euthanized to avoid “moving the problem elsewhere” – a common problem with relocation.
There has been discussion about donating captured hutia to the Cuban people to restore populations of this mammal, which is rare in other parts of its range.
Studies should be conducted to determine how to make this efficient and humane…

Banana rat diplomacy. That would be a first.

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