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In spring 2019, our team will embark on our first program in Cuba to investigate the unique ecosystems, diverse marine and terrestrial life, and rich culture of the largest island in the Caribbean archipelago. Through field studies, independent projects and seminars, participants will engage in a field study across one of the most biodiverse and unspoiled islands in the world. We will travel from coast to coast, traversing emerald green mountains awash with virgin forests, meet local communities and learn about the unique traditions of one of the most culturally rich nations on the planet. It will be a journey of learning and exploration—ecologically and socially—as we delve into a country caught in a time warp, where the amenities of the western world are but an unattainable dream. We will evaluate how the imminent economic changes Cuba faces could threaten both its wildlife through increased tourism and consequent wealth and development.  

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Background Information

Cut off from the western world for decades, with its unparalleled culture and unique history, Cuba is an unexplored gem in the Caribbean archipelago. Historically forbidden to citizens of the United States, only recently are Americans beginning to set foot on one of the most biologically diverse islands in the world. The country is a melting pot of cultures, whose people, culture and customs derive from aboriginal Taino and Ciboney peoples, Spanish colonialism, African slaves and close ties with the Soviet Union. 

Cuba boasts an extraordinary array of landscapes, from remote jungles and dazzling reefs to pristine beaches and mountainous forests. With low populations levels and over 211 protected areas, covering 20% of the country, Cuba remains largely unspoiled. It is a place where still today exploration in virgin forests unearths new species. Its vast wetlands are home to manatees and crocodiles, its untouched coral reefs house sharks and turtles, and the endemic Cuban pygmy owl (Glaucidium siju) and the Cuban tody (Todus multicolor) reside in its isolated forests. We will travel throughout the country, from coast to coast, exploring remote and uninhabited parts of the country, learning about the wildlife and ecosystems. Through visiting and interacting with local communities, we will learn from the Cuban people about their relationship with the land and sea. On the cusp of significant economic development, Cuba is at a critical point in its history. We will discuss how such economic change could influence the biodiversity of this island nation and evaluate the steps the Cuban government is putting in place to protect its wildland environment. 

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Program Goals and Activities

During this program, students will study the main principles of island biogeography and tropical ecology, learn ecological field sampling techniques and experience the unique and rich culture of Cuba. Through working in a variety of habitats, including fringed coral reefs, mangrove forests, isolated deserts, a unique limestone forest, tropical rainforest and mountainous cloud forest, we will cover the following three biological topics: island biogeography and biodiversity, Cuba as a laboratory for evolution, and elevational gradients. 

Island Biogeography and Biodiversity  Cuba is a biologist’s dream with over 6,000 species of plants, 300 species of birds, 140 species of reptiles and seventy species of amphibians of which most are endemic. We will discuss how this incredible species richness depends on the island’s isolation, its size and climate, the complexity of its habitats and specialized species movement patterns. The effect of immigration, emigration and extinction on Cuba’s biodiversity will be explored. We will briefly discuss how isolation and habitat complexity can give rise to speciation.

Cuba as a Laboratory for Evolution  As the largest island in the Caribbean and a hotspot for biodiversity, Cuba boasts a myriad of endemic species, from the smallest bird in the world—the bee hummingbird (Mellisuga helenae)—to the rare and endangered almiquí (Solenodon cubanus). We will learn about the different modes of speciation though visiting remote and isolated field sites as we will explore Cuba’s diverse habitats. We will compare biological environments of these unique habitats and think about how heterogeneity and habitat complexity provide room for specialization and speciation. 

Elevational Gradients  We will explore the heterogeneity of Cuba’s habitats by traversing an elevational gradient from the rich coastal ecosystems to the high-elevation cloud forest of the infamous Sierra Maestra mountains. We will see how the island’s alpha and beta diversity change along a gradient and look at the factors that determine these distributional patterns. Largely untouched, Cuba’s coral reefs are a last refuge for the abundant and diverse fauna of the Caribbean Sea. With over 700 species of fish and crustaceans, endangered hawksbill turtles, resident dolphins and protected reef sharks, Cuba’s marine life is one of the most species rich and abundant on the planet. We will undertake snorkeling marine surveys, learn about reef biological functions and species interactions and become familiar with the life histories of some of the common marine species. 

The above three topics will be explored through learning key ecological sampling and monitoring techniques such as scientific observations, ecological transects, coral reef assessments and biological surveys. 

The final part of the program will focus on Cuba’s rich and diverse culture and how the local people interact with the environment. As a laboratory for evolution, with its high level of endemism, Cuba is particularly vulnerable to invasive species and species extinction. Some of the environmental and socio-economic threats to Cuba’s unique ecosystems will be explored, such as: the impact of growing tourism on the islands wildlife and the environment, the effect of poor water quality on Cuban coral reefs, the threat of construction and development to Cuba’s mangrove ecosystems and illegal fishing in Cuban waters. Through field trips and interacting with local people, students will be encouraged to debate and explore the socio-economic implications of conservation efforts in Cuba and the future challenges that Cuban flora and fauna will face as the country opens up to the west. We will visit a local farming family, providing students with the opportunity to see how Cubans interact with the land. 

No prior field research experience is required. All field methods and skills for data acquisition will be taught on this course. We expect students to have a positive and engaging attitude throughout the course. In exchange, they will be rewarded with an incredible experience, exploring a country whose unique culture has touched those who visit the country and whose ecosystems remain largely unexplored.

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Academic Credit

Students will receive 15 quarter credits/10 semester credits from Western Washington University. Our staff will be happy to explain the program in further detail to the applicant’s advisor, if necessary. This field studies program gives credit in three courses: 

ESCI 437A, Environmental Wildlands Studies (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)
ESCI 437B, Environmental Field Survey (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)
ESCI 437C, Wildlands Environment and Culture (5 quarter credits/3.35 semester credits)

Students will be evaluated on the basis of: 1) active participation in our learning process and activities; 2) examinations and other graded assignments; and 3) implementation and presentation of an independent research project.

Team members are expected to conduct themselves in a mature and responsible manner. Wildlands Studies reserves the right to require any student to withdraw from the program if their conduct is detrimental to or incompatible with the interests, safety, or welfare of any course participants. We ask all students to read the Student Program Manual before joining the program on-site.

 

Team Logistics

Participants will fly into Havana and meet at Havana Airport. If you are traveling in advance of the program, you can arrange to join the group at Havana Airport when the recommended flight arrives at the airport. At the end of the program, you can decide whether you want to fly home on the scheduled date or remain in Havana to travel on your own. Within Cuba we will be traveling on both public and privately chartered transport (examples include minibus, colectivo [local car shares] and local buses). We may charter private boats when undertaking marine aspects of the course in order to access the most ecologically interesting field sites. 

All reasonable efforts will be made to follow the activities outlined above. However, please understand that on our program in Cuba, travel arrangements can remain tentative until the traveling actually takes place. Weather conditions, road closures, and political and bureaucratic considerations may affect our plans. Wildlands Studies has put together an innovative, unique program in Cuba, and team members need to be flexible, patient, and prepared to adapt to unexpected situations. Being flexible also allows us to take advantage of unique opportunities that inadvertently arise during our journeys, often producing some of the program’s most memorable moments. Participants are required to provide their own tent and tropical camping gear, including a mattress pad and blanket or lightweight sleeping bag. Cooking equipment is not necessary on this program.

 

Accommodations

Primarily camping, occasional youth hostel or rural lodge.

 

Official Documents/Visa/Insurance

You will need a current passport that is valid for a minimum of six months after the end date of the program. The laws for travelling to Cuba as citizen of the U.S. have changed a lot over the last couple of years and future changes are unpredictable. The most up-to-date information regarding the travel laws will be provided closer to the start of the program. 

 

Language

The course will be taught in English. Spanish is the official language of Cuba.  

 

Pre-Program Mailings

Detailed information regarding travel and visa information, equipment requirements, food costs, meeting plans, group expenses payment, medical and vaccination recommendations, and academic preparations will be sent to all team members in a logistics letter emailed about ten to twelve weeks before the start of the program.