Science Without Borders

Cuba has been called a "biological superpower"and its luster as a botanical research destination remains bright.

While leading two recent Academy-sponsored, adult education tours, botanist Frank Almeda had the opportunity to connect with two entomologists who wish to collaborate on reproductive biology studies never before undertaken. The graceful palm-like gymnosperm (naked seeds, and no flowers) that piques their interest is a cycad endemic to Western Cuba: the critically endangered and very primitive Microcycas calocoma.

The cycad is monotypic (alone in its genus) with only about 600 individuals remaining in the wild. Is it wind pollinated, or do insects play a role? Many questions remain to be answered in the little-studied ecosystem of the rich karstic forests of Pinar del Río. In an area only a few miles wide on limestone "haystack" hills known as mogotes, the tenacious and dioecious cycads are distinguished from palms (true flowering plants) by distinctive male and female cones born on separate individuals.

International politics can make mutually beneficial collaborations more challenging, but Almeda wants to interact with scientists whose access to journals and natural history collections is limited. As a result of these chance contacts, the Academy and Cuba's Museo Nacional de Historia Natural are drawing up an Agreement of Collaboration. In addition to promoting research across disciplines, this Agreement will help initiate environmental education programs, explore the development of joint natural history exhibits, and identify worthy conservation targets in Cuba.

 
Potential collaborators: (right) student Lorge Acosta Broche (who made first contact with Almeda after visiting the Science NOW Academy website) and (left) entomologist Julio Genaro of the Cuban National Museum of Natural History.

 

Academy botanist Frank Almeda with palm backdrop in Cuban countryside.
Young Microcycas plant with cone (not yet identifiable as male or female) emerging from center.
The only place to find Microcycas calocoma is in the karsts of Western Cuba. The limestone formations are full of endemic plants in open, mostly deciduous forests at about 200 m elevation.