Mangroves are one of the Least Known and MOST fascinating ecosystems of Cuba. Here live creatures capable of supporting strict salinity and oxygen conditions.
We come to the mangrove kingdom, the place where other travelling seeds struck land. It is the end of the journey of our seed and the beginning of our journey around one of the least-known and most fascinating ecosystems in Cuba: the mangrove swamp.
Though it is a coastal ecosystem, the substratum of the mangroves has its origins in the interior of the island.
The dense jungles that cover the high regions of the interior retain the rain water. This water gradually filters through the lateric soil of the jungles and forms rivers that descend and grow until they reach the sea.
The water that fell in the highlands erodes the land surface, carrying minerals and organic matter in suspension, and when it reaches the coast, the contact with the salt of the sea water causes sedimentation of this silt rich in nutrients.
It is a strange, sinister world. The silt condenses forming a viscous mud, corrosively acid due to the lack of oxygen. Strange forms emerge form the aquatic half-light.
There is little light, due to the suspended particles and a growing salinity which changes with the tides. But it is here, where conditions would appear to be precisely the opposite of those needed for life, that the different types of mangrove settle and grow.
To anchor themselves to this poisonous bed, the mangroves have developed special roots; a horizontal binding system which turns the mangrove swamp into an impenetrable labyrinth.
These extraordinary roots manage to extract the nutrients from the surface layer of the mud, while their intricate interweaving retains the silt coming from inland, preventing it from being carried out to sea with the tide. To achieve this miracle in a fatally toxic substratum, the aerial roots of the mangroves either have spongy tissue which absorbs oxygen from the air, or they generate roots which rise up from the bottom like snorkels till they emerge above the surface of the water.
The result is that any seed deposited in these noxious muds rapidly germinate, and the mangrove forest grows inexorably, progressively gaining ground on the sea.
At the surface, the mangrove swamp is a jungle of survivors. Few vegetable species can cope with the restrictions of this saline substratum lacking in oxygen, but those that can rapidly proliferate and provide shelter for a complex zoological community.
For the hutias the tops of the mangroves are an inexhaustible larder. In Cuba, there are ten different species, and one of them is this, the Desmarest hutia or Conga hutia, the largest of all.
Generally, the hutias are nocturnal, but here, in the mangrove swamps of the north of the island, they spend the daylight hours hidden among the mangroves, eating leaves, bark, fruits, and even the occasional small lizard.
Like all inhabitants of the mangrove forest, the hutias remain permanently on guard. No one is safe in this shadowy maze. Down in the water lurk terrible crocodiles, while among the branches and roots of the mangrove labyrinth there are boas that eat hutias. So, at the slightest movement they immediately go on the alert and flee in search of refuge.