Advances in genetic testing have shown that some Cuban crocodiles in zoos are actually hybrids. Now, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria has given Paignton Zoo the task of sorting out the confusion
Mike Bungard Paignton Zoo’s Curator of Lower Vertebrates and Invertebrate, said: “Crocodile farms were established in the 1950s and 1960s using animals of mixed origins. It looks like some of these hybrid farmed animals made it into zoo populations and no-one realised as they do look very similar to pure Cuban crocodiles.”
Mike is to set up a European Stud Book for the species to help sort out the 60 year-old problem.
“It’s likely there are hybrid Cubans in collections across Europe. This is an important species, we need to identify a genetically true population. The studbook will mean we have full and accurate records from now on. I don’t blame anyone for not spotting it in the early days – the tests just didn’t exist. But we have them now, so it’s up to us to try and unravel the mess.”
Paignton Zoo has four Cuban crocodiles. A female that came from Skansen Akvariet in Sweden has been identified as pure Cuban. A female from Wroclaw Zoo, Poland is still to be tested. A male and female that were confiscated by HM Customs and housed at Paignton Zoo both proved to be hybrids. These have now been moved to Wingham Wildlife Park, in Kent, with the stipulation that they are for exhibition purposes only and not to breed.
The Cuban crocodile Crocodylus rhombifer is one of the most threatened crocodilians. It has a limited range, with just a few thousand animals in a few hundred square kilometres. In 2008, its Red List status was upgraded from Endangered to Critically Endangered, with an 80 per cent decline over three generations due to habitat decline and illegal hunting.
Mike: “For zoological collections to play a full role in conservation we must maintain genetically viable insurance populations, carry out active research within our collections and above all be active in-situ.
“There’s a lot to do. We plan to DNA test all Cuban crocodiles in European zoos and set up links with naturalists in the US with a view to bringing more pure Cuban crocodiles to Paignton Zoo for breeding.
“In the longer term I want to link work in zoos with in-situ projects. We know very little about wild Cuban crocodiles and there are some exciting new products which could give us a huge insight into their behaviour and ecology.”
(image: Hybrid crocodile on the move at Paignton Zoo)