James Bond: Rodent of Solace
In the dense jungle of Hispaniola, a plump brown rodent peers down from the trees.
The size of a well-fed guinea-pig, the James Bond hutia (plagiodontia aedium bondii) is an elusive creature. In fact, only in 2015 was it recognized as its own subspecies, by a group of researchers intent on saving the hutia from extinction.
The Hispaniolan hutia (plagiodontia aedium) is a species of tree-dwelling rodents. They are named after Hispaniola, the island made up of the Dominican Republic and Haiti which they call home. Unlike the related Cuban hutia, the Hispaniolan hutia is smaller and rarer. Until the beginning of 1900’s they were thought to be extinct and sadly, their situation has not yet improved much.
The original Bond
In the first half of the 20th century there was a famous researcher of Caribbean birds named James Bond. He became famous in his field, even publishing a book: Birds of the West Indies.
Ian Fleming, the author of the famous spy novels, was himself an avid bird-watcher. One day, while reading his copy of Birds of the West Indies inspiration struck. He realized the “brief, unromantic, Anglo-Saxon, and yet very masculine” name of James Bond was the perfect name for his protagonist in Casino Royale.
The James Bond hutia is also named after the original Bond, not the smarmy, martini-driven secret agent.
The original Bond discovered distinct differences between birds on two sides of Hispaniola. It turns out that the island was once two land masses, with the southern mass separated again by a sea channel. During this time birds evolved into separate subspecies on either side of what is now called “Bond’s line”.
This sea channel also explains the different subspecies of the hutia on the island. The James Bond hutia is a fitting name for the little rodent found to the west of Bond’s line.
The Hispaniolan hutia has only recently become the centre of a sustained attempt to save it. The species faces many challenges, including loss of its forest home and the threat of dogs.
Luckily, unlike in Cuba, where the local hutia is often eaten, the Hispaniolan fellow is not widely hunted by humans—perhaps there just isn’t enough meat on a 1 kg rodent.
After decades of extinctions, there remain only two species of land mammals on the island. As well as the hutia, a small venomous shrew-like critter called the solenodon (solenodon paradoxus) lives on the island. Like the hutia, it has many subspecies across the island.
A group of researchers with the Hispaniolan Endemic Land Mammals Project began a study of the two mammals in 2009 to improve their chance of survival. This led to the discoveries of the new subspecies and where they lived. Hopefully the project has also increased awareness of the little critters.
Both animals will be difficult to save. While they live in both Haiti and the Dominican Republic, the two countries are vastly different, even speaking different languages. Haiti is much poorer than the Dominican Republic, with 80% of the rural population living in poverty. As well as this, it has lost massive amounts of forest in the last century. It seems obvious that a large-scale attempt to save the two species will need different tactics in the two countries.
Indeed, saving the James Bond hutia, found in only a few forested areas of Haiti, will be perhaps the most challenging. Luckily the rodent has a memorable name.
Hopefully, with increased conservation efforts, this cute little guy will live to gnaw another day.
Read more about saving the hutia and solenodon at The Last Survivors blog