Thespesia cubensis: a new beginning

We are expanding our conservation efforts to another threatened Cuban species. Thespesia cubensis grows in several Cuban sites, with the biggest population reported at Cay Conuco. For years, Cay Conuco has been connected to the main island by a rocky bridge crossing areas of mangroves. It was probably one of the first bridges connecting touristic cays to the main island.

 

Date: 14/07/2020

 

Project: Conservation of threatened trees: Thespesia cubensis (Malvaceae)

 

How many species of Thespesia cubensis are growing at Cay Conuco? To answer this question, we arrived at the site, eager to work with the biggest population reported for the species. Thespesia cubensis is an exclusive Cuban species and also a threatened one.

Thespesia cubensis, commonly known as “majagua prieta".

The trees of “majagua prieta” can reach up to 17 meters in height. Flowers vary in color from yellow to red in a single tree. Even though it’s rare, other species of the genus are present in Asia, the Pacific islands, Africa, and the Caribbean. It is a close relative of the hibiscus plant and the cotton tree, as seen in their flowers. However, as its name suggests, Thespesia cubensis is exclusive of Cuba.

A world beyond the rocky bridge

We traveled 5 Km, crossing the rocky bridge, to Cay Conuco. It was our first expedition to this site, and our goal was to count every tree of the species. To the north, the vegetation is the typical coastal vegetation; the middle of the island has thickets and forests, and mangroves are very abundant to the south. All of these areas already show signs of human impact. Nowadays, the site is used daily by fishermen that sometimes even spend the night there. There is a camp for national tourists, a languished nursery, and some underused trails.

The shelter of Thespesia cubensis

A map of the area and previously located individuals gave us an idea of the extent of the work ahead. We started searching in the unexplored region of the island. Eventually, our goal is to cover 100% of the area.

A technician had already warned us about how difficult it was to walk through the forest, but only when our search started did we realize just how difficult it was. We could barely go forward. The affectations caused by the hurricane Irma in 2017 were still visible. Many fallen trees were blocking the way, with vines braided between their branches, creating an almost impenetrable network.

Over and over, we found pieces of a stone wall that goes across the cay. Curiously, several of the trees we were looking for were growing very close to this wall. Is it possible that the builders have helped to plant Thespesia cubensis? Perhaps the seeds that germinated by the rocks were better protected. Maybe it was just fatigue deceiving us after a long day.

Our goal is to search the entire forest looking for this tree.

A promise for the future

For three days, we counted trees of Thespesia cubensis. We found both adults and juveniles. Finding juveniles, in particular, are excellent news for us, since one of the main threats for the species is a plague that damages their flowers, therefore hindering pollination and seed production. Finding juveniles tell us that the plant’s natural life cycle is still complete.

We found 31 trees in about 10% of the area, almost as many trees as those located before our trip. Given that we worked in an unexplored area of the cay, we firmly believe that there are many more trees to be found.

Over time, perhaps we can restore part of the cay’s previous routine, reviving the nursery with new plants of “majagua prieta” and filling the trails with visitors amazed by this natural marvel.

We found 31 trees in about 10% of the area, almost as many trees as those located before our trip.

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