GUANTANMO BAY, Cuba -- Naval Station Guantanamo Bay is the oldest overseas U.S. Naval base, the only base located in a country with which the U.S. does not maintain diplomatic relations, and is home to the Joint Task Force Guantanamo detention facility. All this information is easily found on the Internet, but there is another side to GTMO that is not as easily found by typing "Guantanamo Bay" into a search engine: The base is also a wildlife refuge, providing protection for a variety of fluffy and scaly creatures that do not have the chance to flourish on the rest of the island.
For the past 10 years, Dr. Peter Tolson, director of conservation and research at the Toledo Zoo, has been visiting Guantanamo Bay to conduct research on some of the reptile species that call the base home. His most recent trip focused on the Cuban Boa snake.
"We go out and catch wild Cuban Boas," Tolson said. "We surgically insert a radio transmitter into their body cavity using the [Naval Station Guantanamo Bay] veterinary staff. We then follow those snakes as they roam throughout the habitat on the base."
And roam they do. According to Tolson, the average range of an adult snake is approximately two square miles.
"The babies have about half an acre," Tolson said. "As they grow they expand their range as they become sexually mature and start looking for mates."
The radio transmitter inserted into the snakes includes a GPS unit and provides Tolson with information on where they go and how long they stay in one place. He uses this information to determine how the snakes interact with the humans who share the base with them. Tolson said one of his missions is to lessen the conflicts between the military and the wildlife here.
Another researcher working on helping humans and wildlife co-exist in Guantanamo is Chris Peterson, a natural resource specialist with Naval Facilities Atlantic. His research is similar to Tolson's: he's tracking one of GTMO's more popular creatures, but he's focusing on a more furry variety, the hutia. Hutia are large rodents that inhabit many Caribbean islands. The species found in GTMO is known locally as the banana rat, so named because their feces look like small bananas.
"There is an effort to control the hutia population when the numbers get too high," Peterson said. "We're trying, through the information provided with our study, to apply a little science to the control of the population here in Guantanamo Bay."
Peterson said the process of controlling the population is not cut-and-dried.
"For example, if we find that the activity range of a hutia is only a few square acres, maybe there's not a need to control the population in areas that are greater than four acres outside the housing areas," Peterson said. "The way we're doing that is through a technique called radio telemetry."
The process is similar to the work Tolson has done with the boas, only instead of inserting a transmitter into the body of the hutia it is placed around the hutia's neck on a collar. Peterson said the transmitter emits a signal which he can pick up using a hand held radio receiver.
"It's much like a radio station," Peterson said. "Each transmitter has its own unique frequency."
In addition to the radio telemetry technology, Peterson is using a mini GPS, which he said is instrumental in the field of wildlife study. It's strapped to the back of a hutia and can be programmed to turn on at various intervals. The ones used in GTMO are programmed to provide a longitude and latitude reading every five hours for 60 days, which, according to Peterson, is how long it takes for the battery to die.
When the GPS unit is collected, it is connected to a computer and the information downloaded. Peterson uses the data to calculate an activity range.
"We're getting a tremendous amount of data with little effort," Peterson said. "If we didn't have this GPS collar we'd have to send a biologist out daily."
Peterson said that not only does the GPS collar mean less footwork, it also allows the tracking of the hutia during the night, which is when they are most active.
Research and conservation efforts effecting base wildlife are not confined to Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. According to Tolson there are many programs on U.S. military bases throughout the world. He also pointed out that in many cases it is the very presence of the base that allows certain species to thrive.
The Cuban Boa and hutia research and tracking programs are ongoing projects made possible by a partnership between the U.S. Navy and the Toledo Zoo.