Talking Taino

Banana Rats for Lunch?

The “tail” of the hutia.

By Bill Keegan and Betsy Carlson

We were sitting under a scrubby tree at the long-abandoned North Base at US Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (GTMO). The Cubans were blaring a speech by Fidel Castro from their observation posts across the perimeter fence. It’s not clear whether any of the young Marines in the juxtaposed MOPS (Marine Observation Posts) comprehended any of it. As we finished our lunch, someone on the team noticed a baby Cuban hutia (Capromys pilorides) fast asleep in the crook of the tree only two feet from us but oblivious to our presence. It was a thrill to see for the first time such a shy and rare (by TCI standards) creature up close, especially after writing for years about their use as food by Caribbean Islanders. Large military reserves throughout the Caribbean have had at least one positive impact — allowing local plants and animals to survive unmolested in relatively isolated refugia.

Hutias are common on Cuba.

Hutias were everywhere at GTMO. They also proved to be a huge pest. The undercarriages of the Humvees that patrolled the base had to be outfitted with chicken wire cages (chickens are a European introduction) to prevent hutias from biting through coolant hoses and electrical wiring. In return, Humvees were the hutias’ main predator. Attracted to their headlights at night, hutias race into the roadway, committing what the Marines call “Banana Rat suicide.” (The Marines call hutia “Banana Rats” because their scat is shaped like a tiny black banana.) Every morning the road was littered with hutia roadkill. Flocks of vultures circled overhead, with their daily feast completely clearing the road by the time we returned to the Navy Lodge in the evening. Hutias are abundant on GTMO because no one hunts them. Outside the base’s perimeter fence, hutias are less common due to predation by feral dogs and the rural Cuban population. 

Hutia (or Jutía) is their Taíno name. In the absence of nonhuman predators, hutias reproduce like rabbits, with up to four young born after a four-month gestation period. They even look very much like a rodent version of a rabbit. Adults reach up to two feet in length, have a short tail, brown to black fur, and weigh in at about 10 pounds. They are one of the few mammals common in the pre-Columbian Caribbean Islands, and the only indigenous land mammal (except for bats) in all of The Bahamas and the TCI. The racoons on Grand Bahama, and the feral donkeys, cattle, and horses on Grand Turk, are all recent introductions — the rats and mice arrived first as stowaways on Columbus’ voyages. 

There were once at least 13 species of hutias distributed across the West Indies. The Bahamian hutia (Geocapromys ingrahami) first arrived during the last ice age. They were castaways on trees or vegetation mats that floated from Cuba and washed ashore on islands of the Great Bahama Bank. Such natural “rafts,” composed of vegetation eroded from riverbanks during tropical cyclones and washed out to sea, are not extraordinary. In fact, rocks in the root ball of a tree that washed up at Southeast Point, Great Inagua, were identified mineralogically as originating on the north coast of the Dominican Republic.

Hutia bones are found in paleontological deposits, often in caverns where owls once roosted to eat their prey. Today, both owls and hutias are mostly gone from the Bahamian chain. The last remaining native colony of hutia lives on East Plana Cay — a small, uninhabited, arid, and mostly deforested islet off the northeast coast of Acklins Island. This remnant population was scientifically reported in 1891. The biologist Garrett Clough rediscovered the East Plana Cay colony and studied them in the 1960s. In 1973, he released eleven hutias (six males, five females) on Little Wax Cay (a small cay in the Exuma chain) in an effort to save the Bahamian hutia from extinction. This translocated population proceeded to grow at an alarming rate, with almost zero mortality over the first ten years. The cay’s vegetation was decimated by their voracious feeding on the bark of trees, effectively “girdling” the tree and causing it to drop its leaves. The cay today stands out from its green neighbors as a brown, barren landscape.  

Owls were likely the main predators for hutia populations in pre-Columbian Caribbean Islands.

Historically, what predators would have kept populations of Bahamian Hutia in check? Owls were likely their main predator. The most unusual of the many extinct owls from The Bahamas is a three-foot tall flightless owl (Tyto pollens) known from bones in cave deposits in the northern Bahamas, dated prior to the arrival of humans. The legend of the “chickcharny,” a large mythical owl said to live on Andros Island, may originate with this extinct bird. Crocodiles once lived throughout the archipelago and caught most of their prey on land. And last but not least, large snakes were once far more common. We were told that the best way to attract a Bahamian boa was to have a litter of kittens. In the presence of these predators, hutias would not have been as numerous as their potential reproductive rate would allow.

Although hutias can climb trees, they mostly forage on or close to the ground, and eat primarily leaves, shoots, fruit, nuts, and bark. Bahamian hutia is described as nocturnal, remaining underground in rocky crevasses during the day, but daily activities have been observed for the East Plana Cay animals, and we saw lots of Cuban hutias during the daylight hours of our survey in Cuba. Male and female hutias form life-long pair bonds and their average life span is nine years. Although some Cuban species aggressively defend their territory, the East Plana Cay hutias were described as “most peaceable rodents.”  

Hutias were eaten by Indigenous Caribbean peoples from their earliest arrival, as witnessed by the discovery of their bones at archaeological sites. While paleontology has shown that hutias were present on Great Bahama Bank for thousands of years, the available evidence suggests that humans moved hutias to the southern Bahamian islands (south of Long Island). A recent DNA study showed a direct genetic connection between the hutias on Abaco Island and those on Eleuthera. The islands are separated by a water passage that they are not likely to have crossed on their own.

There is other evidence of Indigenous Caribbean peoples moving hutias from island to island. The “Puerto Rican” hutia (Isolobodon puertoricensis) was introduced in pre-Columbian times (likely 2,000 years ago) to Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands from Hispaniola, where, unlike in Puerto Rico, they occur in pre-cultural paleontological sites. Not only were these animals moved, they were likely managed in captivity (perhaps even domesticated). Evidence for this management is the age structure of the archaeological hutia populations, which are overwhelmingly young adults. At Ciboney (pre-Taíno) sites in Cuba, there is even earlier evidence for possible management of hutias, dating to around 3,000 years ago. While there is no direct connection between Indigenous Cuba or Puerto Rico and the Lucayans, the situations in both are similar enough to consider domestication in the Bahamian chain an option.

Archaeologists are reluctant to claim that certain Caribbean animals were fully “domesticated.” Nevertheless, genetic differences between northern and southern hutias in the Bahama archipelago apparently reflect human intervention, which probably took the form of keeping animals with particular characteristics in pens where they were allowed to breed. It could have begun as simply as a child keeping a young animal as a pet.

Hutia bones were found at the Palmetto Junction site in Providenciales.

Let’s look at the hutia populations of the TCI. There never were any hutias living on the Turks Bank. Present evidence suggests that hutias were not living in the Caicos Islands either until around AD 1400, when they were introduced by the Lucayans. Only one hutia is reported from the ceremonial center MC-6 on Middle Caicos, and she may have been an exchange item brought from elsewhere. No hutia bones were found at the other three excavated sites on Middle. The only significant record of hutia in the Caicos occurs at the Palmetto Junction site on the west coast of Providenciales, where they occur in surprisingly large numbers. The site dates to the fifteenth century. The only other Lucayan sites with larger quantities of hutia bones are on Crooked Island, also located in their southern range. 

Hutias are either very abundant or virtually absent in Lucayan archaeological deposits. This is most likely the result of humans keeping groups of hutias as a ready protein source. An isotopic analysis of hutia bones showed at least some were eating maize. Did they raid Lucayan gardens, or did the Lucayans feed them? (A new type of “corn fed” meat!) Indigenous gardens are known to attract a variety of animals, and garden hunting is a common activity in native South America. 

We know that the Bahamian hutia reproduces quickly and abundantly. Thus, we might expect them to be present in such large numbers that they were easy prey. However, on small islands these mammals could have been overhunted quickly by the first people to reach the island. The larger islands of the Greater Antilles are different. Indigenous sites in Jamaica have dense middens with nearly 90% hutia bones (far outnumbering even fish bones). And several hutia species survive in Cuba today. Island size matters!

Humans have a taste for red meat, even in small packages. Lucayan sites with small quantities of hutia bones probably reflect small numbers of hutias in the area, resulting from few encounters and even fewer captured. We see similar patterns in the distribution of bones from other wild game, including iguanas, crocodiles, sea turtles, and birds. All of these would have been widely sought, but infrequently captured. In contrast, Lucayan sites with large quantities of hutia bones reflect their management and possible domestication. Hutias were moved south, as the Lucayans moved north. Eventually they reached the Caicos where we now have the best evidence that hutias became the local equivalent of guinea pigs (Cavia porcellus), which were domesticated in pre-colonial Peru. In fact, guineas pigs were actually brought into the Caribbean islands as an exchange item about 1,000 years ago. 

While hutias once were abundant throughout the islands, and early European explorers saw them often, they are today a threatened species protected under the Wild Animals Act of 1968. There is talk of reintroducing them to other Bahamian islands, but in the absence of their natural predators such action could prove devastating. Nevertheless, there are a few remote cays in The Bahamas (but not TCI) where you can still lunch with a hutia.

Dr. Bill Keegan is Emeritus Curator of Caribbean Archaeology at the Florida Museum of Natural History (University of Florida). Dr. Betsy Carlson is Senior Archaeologist at Southeastern Archaeological Research (SEARCH, Inc.) in Jonesville, FL.

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