Extinct Cuban canids and Darwin's fox

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Thanks to everyone for their comments on the previous article about island-endemic otters and canids. I was going to add a brief response to the comments section, but eventually the comments reached the length you see here, hence my decision to turn them into a brief article...

Yes, I should at least have mentioned Darwin's fox Pseudalopex fulvipes, originally described from Chiloé Island off the coast of southern Chile, and the endemic Cuban canids Cubacyon transversidens and Indocyon caribensis, both of which are now extinct. First collected by Charles Darwin in 1834 and regarded as a distinct species when named in 1837, Darwin's fox was later sunk into the synonymy of the Grey zorro P. griseus [shown in image below] and not regarded as a distinct taxonomic entity, nor one deserving of conservation priority. However, Darwin's fox and the Grey zorro are morphologically quite different (Darwin's fox is darker, has shorter legs, a broader, shorter skull, smaller auditory bullae, a more robust dentition and also differs from the Grey zorro in jaw shape and its style of premolar occlusion), and DNA work also confirms that it should be regarded as a distinct species (Yahnke et al. 1996). As Jerzy noted in the previous article, it is not a true island endemic, as Medel et al. (1990) reported its discovery at Nahuelbuta National Park on the Chilean mainland. This mainland population perhaps consists of about 70 individuals; about 250 are present on Chiloé Island [the Darwin's fox image used above is borrowed from Lioncrusher's Domain].

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The temperate so-called Valdivian coastal forest inhabited by Darwin's fox on both Chiloé Island and in Nahuelbuta National Park was more extensive during the Pleistocene (when Chiloé Island was connected to the Chilean mainland), suggesting that Darwin's fox was previously more widespread. The possibility therefore exists that the species might still exist in remote parts of the remaining Valdivian forest, and Vilí et al. (2004) interviewed local people, used live traps and other techniques to test for its presence. They didn't capture any foxes, but they did report evidence for a previously undiscovered population at Punta Chanchán in southern Chile.

Then there are the two endemic, recently extinct Cuban canids: Cubacyon transversidens Arredondo & Varona, 1974 and Indocyon caribensis Arredondo, 1981 [UPDATE: make sure you read the comments!!]. Cubacyon is poorly known and was described on the basis of a partial lower jaw (Arredondo & Varona 1974). Indocyon was first collected in 1956 but not named as a new species until 1981 (Arredondo 1981a): it was originally named Paracyon caribensis but Paracyon was used by Gray for the thylacine in 1827, so Arredondo (1981b) then coined the new generic name Indocyon. In contrast to Cubacyon, Indocyon is known from numerous specimens, but virtually all are lower jaw fragments. In fact we know very little about these canids: their jaw bones suggest that they were small, fox-sized forms (McKenna & Bell (1997) regarded both taxa as part of Canis), but their origins and extinction dates are mysterious. They're both missing from various works on the extinct mammal fauna of Cuba, and from papers that discuss recently extinct island endemic carnivorans (Alcover & McMinn 1994). Presumably these canids were contemporaneous with Cuba's fantastic fauna of giant rodents, diverse sloths, giant owls and huge, remarkable raptors. And what's that you say? Giant raptors?

Holy crap it's December 22nd. Oh well, so much for getting all that other stuff done before Christmas.

PS - some time yesterday, Tet Zoo had it's 500000th hit: err, does anyone want to see if they can get it over one million? Let me know :)

Ref - -

Alcover, J. A. & McMinn, M. 1994. Predators of vertebrates on islands. BioScience 44, 12-18.

Arredondo, O. 1981a. Nuevo género y especie de mamífero (Carnivora: Canidae) del Holoceno de Cuba. Poeyana 218, 1-28.

- . 1981b. Reemplazo de Paracyon por Indocyon (Carnivora: Canidae). Misc. Zool. Acad. Cien. Cuba 12, 4.

- . & Varona, L. S. 1974. Nuevos género y especie de mamífero (Carnivora: Canidae) del cuaternario de Cuba. Poeyana 131, 1-12.

McKenna, M. C. & Bell, S. K. 1997. Classification of Mammals: Above the Species Level. Columbia University Press, New York.

Medel, R.G., Jimenez, J. E., Jaksic, A. M., Yanez, J. L. & Armesto, J. J. 1990. Discovery of a continental population of the rare Darwin Fox, Dusicyon fulvipes (Martin, 1839) in Chile. Biological Conservation 51, 71-77.

Vilí, C., Leonard, J. A., Iriarte, A., O'Brien, S. J., Johnson, W. E. & Wayne, R. K. 2004. Detecting the vanishing populations of the highly endangered Darwin's fox, Pseudalopex fulvipes. Animal Conservation 7, 147-153.

Yahnke, C. J., Johnson, W. E., Geffen, E., Smith, E., Smith, D., Hertel, F., Roy, M. S., Bonacic, C. F., Fuller, T. K., Van Valkenburgh, B. & Wayne, R. K. 1996. Darwin's fox: a distinct endangered species in a vanishing habitat. Conservation Biology 10, 366-375.


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Wow, I was aware of the existence of giant hutias, giant owls, giant raptors, ground sloths, and even monkeys, all of which died out relatively recently, but Cuban canids are another entirely new bunch to me.

I am wondering how they got there in the first place, and whether other islands in the West Indies might have had their own endemic canids. I'm also intrigued as to why Cuba in particular had canids; what was the history of the island? I'm pretty sure it was never connected to the mainland.

At the same time, I'm wondering as to why canids made it and not other carnivoran groups that are also found on some other islands in the region, such as procyonids. And then again, what is it about canids and procyonids that seems to predispose them towards dispersing to offshore islands, but not other groups such as mustelids, mephitids or felids?

Remembered "singing dog" from New Guinea, and random question:

What pleistocene megafauna was on New Guinea? And Celebes & Indonesia?

Stuck me that Australian megafauna should occur on New Guinea, too. Then - parts of New Guinea remain really uninhabited by people and unexplored by Westerners. Including Fakfak Mts in West Papua. Three unknown bird species were seen over a decade ago on the brief (and only ever) visit by ornithologist. They remain undescribed until today. There IS a non-zero chance for live Megalania or Diprotodon there. Cryptid fans, beware (!).

By Jerzy or Jurek (not verified) on 22 Dec 2007 #permalink

Again, thanks to all for comments. On the Cuban canids: given that there is so little in the literature about them, and given the fact that they do seem to be a biogeographical enigma in view of other Antillean mammals, I would like to be sure that they definitely aren't old domestic dogs that have been misidentified. Their describers were sure that they weren't but, well, I'd like to be absolutely sure. Anyone?

On New Guinea singing dogs, I went to some trouble to collect a lot of information on these in 2006. Those who think that they're a distinct taxon require there to be wild individuals somewhere in the world, and apparently there are sightings of wild individuals from New Guinea. They still must be feral though: all of New Guinea's mammal fauna is essentially Australian, with the same murid and macropod genera found in both places. New Guinea does have mammalian cryptids, including thylacine-like animals, and of course it has produced new living large mammals in recent years: the Dingiso Dendrolagus mbaiso was only named in 1995. By the way, I recently wrote an article on the ropen which I'll recycle here in due time.

There is some doubt about those cuban canids. They have apparently been found mostly in archaeological contexts but not certainly together with other extinct fauna. Early spanish chroniclers mentions a "perro muda", mute dog, kept by the natives on Cuba, so they might actually be an aberrant variety of Canis familiaris.

The pleistocene megafauna of New Guinea is not at all well known, but it is generslly australian in character, but contains a number of unique rainforest taxa, tree kangaroos, large echidnas, an extinct cassowary etc. More species will almost certainly be found with further research.
Actually Jared Diamond was hoping for Diprotodonts when he visited the Foja mountains, but alas no. The problem is that they are almost inaccessible now that was not so during the Pleistocene, so there was probably people there then. Still, who knows? There has been rumors of thylacine-like animals in New Guinea.

By Tommy Tyrberg (not verified) on 22 Dec 2007 #permalink

Thanks for info!

Singing dogs - sorry - it was just a mental leap. Certain Canis familiaris with history similar to dingo.

I thought Jared Diamond travelled in remote areas with native tribes. There are also whole mountain ranges really unpopulated (zero native people).

There are good reasons to think that parts of New Guinea are continously uninhabitable since Pleistocene. Extreme topography without ground or river access, and tropical climate supporting dense vegetation but with few wild edible food species was likely present in Pleistocene.

I once even hatched a mad plan to make New Guinea trip and collect environmental DNA samples. Then PCR looking for unmatched DNA similar to varanids. All this to let the likes of Discovery Channel finance your holiday. Never since had time & alcohol content to follow it. But when somebody brings a big crate to London's Zoological Society meeting ;) with live NG Megalania or other cryptid, name it after Jerzy, please! ;)

By Jerzy or Jurek (not verified) on 22 Dec 2007 #permalink

Flannery and Roberts list three species of late Quaternary Diprotodons in Late Quaternary Extinctions in Australia, from the book Extinctions in Near Time.

As for cryptids, Cryptomundo.com posted a PDF of an old newspaper story of a giant diprotodon:


By Kevin Stewart (not verified) on 23 Dec 2007 #permalink

I never knew about the two different species of extinct canids from Cuba, but there are historical records that the earliest Spaniards found "perros mudos" or barkless dogs with the Arawak indians. They were surely brought along by the indians on their migration from northern South America.
But the enigma still remains...what type of canids were they?.

By paco gutierrez (not verified) on 13 Feb 2010 #permalink