You may not have heard of the Swan Island hutia. This obscure Caribbean cousin of the guinea pig went extinct in the 1950s. But now two South West institutions have teamed up to learn from its demise.
An article just published in the Caribbean Journal of Science describes how two previously unrecorded specimens of the creature have been discovered in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, by conservationist Simon Tonge.
Simon is Executive Director of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, the charity that runs Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts in Torquay and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall. His interest in extinct species led him to RAMM.
Simon: “I’ve spent my whole working life trying to prevent further extinctions, so I’ve tried to understand pattern and process in extinctions and as a result have become slightly obsessive about documenting them correctly. The extent of human-caused extinctions on this planet is much greater than has been recognised until very recently, particularly on islands, and we have lost so many amazing life forms that I, for one, would love to have seen.”
The extinction of the species was predicted many years before it occurred. 14 animals were brought to the UK in the 1930s, where experts attempted to set up captive assurance colonies. Primley Zoo was founded by Herbert Whitley in 1923 and it seems likely that Whitley was one of those experts, although there is no written evidence.
Sadly, the attempts failed and the Swan Island hutia went extinct in the 1950s. The two specimens were donated to RAMM by Primley Zoo (now Paignton Zoo Environmental Park) in 1939/40.
Rosie Denham, Exeter’s Lead Councillor for Economy and Culture said: “This research is an excellent example of how RAMM’s collections can add to our understanding of the world we live in.”
Holly Morgenroth, Curator of Natural History at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, added: “New extinctions are announced on a regular basis. The discovery of these specimens’ importance is an excellent example of how regional museum collections can benefit current scientific research.”
Simon: “This is an early attempt at conservation breeding, albeit a failed one. It’s too late for the Swan Island hutia, and many other species are heading the same way, which is why zoos work so hard to breed and conserve species.” The story of the Swan Island hutia (Geocapromys thoracatus) shows how conservationists need to fight every battle: “On this occasion, we were unable to save the species, but luckily two bodies were preserved. It is important to save specimens in good museums like RAMM for future work. It’s vital that we learn from extinction.”
So what have we learned from extinction? Simon: “That zoos should make an effort to preserve the bodies of rare animals that die in their collections; that successful conservation breeding programmes require high-level scientific and management skills to be successful; that island species are incredibly vulnerable; that conservation action needs to be applied very rapidly as it is frightening how quickly species decline once they are on the slippery slope; and that much of the natural glory of the world has already gone and we need to redouble our efforts for what is left.”
Most of the remaining members of the hutia family are threatened with extinction; the Cuban hutia is making its last stand at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base.