The famed American Museum of Natural History opens an exhibition this fall that its scientists say breaks new ground on multiple fronts.
Live reptiles, models of species — some scary — from a misty primordial past, but all evidence of an end to a deep, and decades-long geopolitical divide fostered by governments, not scientists will be displayed.
In keeping with the newly relaxed relations between the United States and Cuba, scientists from both countries have broken through more than a half-century of restrictions in place since the Cold War.
The project, its curators say, will be one of the largest exhibitions of Cuban wildlife, cultural artifacts and species ever assembled in this country. They will include the re-creation of a short-winged, flightless 3-foot owl — a heavyweight prehistoric thug — notorious for stomping its prey to death.
Chris Raxworthy, co-curator of the upcoming bilingual exhibition to be titled “¡Cuba!” said the collaboration is a major milestone for scientific diplomacy.
“We are definitely the first in terms of natural history museums to do this,” Raxworthy said of an exhibit that presents a view of the island through the broad lens of science.
The extinct giant owl, he said, has nothing on the bee-sized hummingbird, the smallest hummingbird in the world, a minuscule hovercraft that is alive and thriving today.
“People think they know Cuba, but when they come into the exhibit there will be so much more about it they didn’t realize,” said Ana Luz Porzecanski, director of the museum’s Center for Biodiversity and Conservation.
Cooperative research between the museum and Cuban scientists began six years before President Barack Obama formally normalized relations in December with the island nation only 90 miles from the United States.
“In 2009, the museum started its first collaborative agreement with the natural history museum in Havana. That involved working on jade deposits, and actually, a number of us went to Cuba at that time while a number of Cuban scientists came to New York and worked on our collections,” Raxworthy said.
Over the years, the Americans continued meeting with their counterparts in Havana at the Museo Nacional de Historia Natural de Cuba. Then, last month, the two institutions signed an agreement to continue collaborating on research, exhibitions and education.
“We are very excited about this because there are so many rich stories to be told about Cuba,” Raxworthy said. “There are things about it that are still very surprising to us.”
For scientists whose laboratories are the great outdoors — the rain forests, deserts, mountain ranges and oceans of the world — open borders are vital.
Alan Turner, a professor of anatomical sciences at Stony Brook University’s medical school, moonlights as a paleontologist. His work hinged on discoveries in Liaoning province in northeastern China. In 2014, Turner and his team found that the world’s earliest birds glided but didn’t fly. Another moonlighting paleontologist from the medical school’s anatomy department, David W. Krause, discovered that one of life’s earliest rodents was a huge 20-pound creature larger than today’s house cats. The discovery was made in Madagascar.
Porzecanski said because Cuba is an island, it has species not seen elsewhere. That’s why it is important to go there.
“Islands in general are not as rich [in biodiversity] as large continental areas,” Porzecanski said, comparing Cuba to the Amazonian rain forest. But she underscored that an appreciable amount of its prehistoric fossil evidence has been surprisingly preserved.
“Fossil remains don’t last long on tropical islands, but Cuba has a lot of caves and these remains do survive in cave deposition and that has allowed us remarkable insight into the island’s paleobiology.”
The upcoming exhibition, which opens Nov. 21, will feature lizards and snakes, including the knight anole, a bright-green, lighting-fast reptile that is native to the island. Experts are still working on taxidermied animals as well as models of a giant venomous sloth and a Cuban leaping crocodile.
Despite its proximity to the United States, Cuba seems a landscape lost in a time warp. It is noteworthy for the 1950s cars its residents drive, products of the last decade U.S. automobiles were shipped there.
Yet even as its street traffic recalls a bygone era, its scientists across a wide swath of disciplines have stayed in step with the rest of the world.
Cuba’s medical researchers have developed cancer drugs and vaccines that are licensed in dozens of countries, except the United States.
A genetically engineered medication called Heberprot that effectively treats diabetic foot ulcers and prevents amputation is considered a breakthrough drug but is not available here.
Cuban medical researchers are trying to reach detente with the United States in alliances on par with the collaborative agreement signed by the museum’s researchers and their counterparts in Havana.
The sharp divide between the United States and Cuba began in the late 1950s and worsened by the early ’60s.
“The two countries developed acrimonious relations after the triumph of Fidel Castro’s revolution in January 1959,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University in Miami. “The United States broke off diplomatic relations with Cuba in January 1961.”
Cuba aligned itself at that time with the Soviet Union and its Eastern European bloc, he said.
“The detection of Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba led to the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962, putting the world on the brink of a nuclear war. Because of that, the United States and Cuba deepened their adversarial relations,” Duany said.
Duany, who holds a doctorate in anthropology, said scientific endeavor suffers when researchers are barred from freely exchanging ideas.
He was invited to attend a briefing on the museum’s exhibit last fall and sees the collaboration as having deeper meaning for the two countries.
“I feel it’s a significant first step in a larger set of research and educational possibilities,” he said. “There are many areas of potential collaboration between Cuban and U.S. scientists.”
The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest organization in this country representing scientists across dozens of disciplines, encourages global scientific collaborations through its Center for Science Diplomacy.
The center has long encouraged scientific exchanges between the United States and Cuba as well as other countries, such as Iran, whose governments are at odds with U.S. policies.
“Collaboration is very, very important and not just for scientists — the public benefits,” said Raxworthy, a herpetologist — a biologist who specializes in the study of reptiles and amphibians.
In Chicago, William Simpson, who heads the geological and vertebrate fossil collections at the Field Museum, said collaboration is the lifeblood of science.
“Working with scientists around the world allows us to pool our resources and our knowledge in a way that we become greater than the sum of our parts,” Simpson said.
“Plus, different areas around the world are obviously home to different species, and by collaborating with scientists in other countries, we’re able to learn about plants and animals different from the ones that live near us.”
The Field Museum is also interested in Cuba. Its researchers have compiled reams of data about the island and its species.
“Cuba is hugely important because of the number of endemics — species that occur nowhere else,” said Debby Moskovits, the museum’s vice president of science education.
Raxworthy said even with an exhibition as large as the one that opens in the fall, he and his colleagues have only scratched the surface of the island nation’s biodiversity.