Meeting the mammal that survived the dinosaurs
So, here I am, running in a forest at night over 2,000 miles from home. This forest—dry, stout, and thorny enough to draw blood—lies just a few miles north of a rural town in the western edge of the Dominican Republic on the border with Haiti. I'm following—or trying to keep pace with—a local hunter and guide as we search for one of the world's most bizarre mammals. It's an animal few people have heard of, let alone actually seen; even most Dominicans don't readily recognize its name or picture. But I've been obsessed with it for six years: it's called a "solenodon," more accurately the Hispaniolan solenodon or its (quite appropriate) scientific name, Solenodon paradoxus.
There is a sallow, overgrown path through the forest, but we don't use it. Instead my guide—the Dominican version of Indiana Jones—quickly plunges into the forest, moving ghost-like through branches, vines, spines, up-and-down rock faces, into and out of dry ravines. I don't move like this man—Nicolas Corona—I crash, stumble, scrape, and fall my way through the forest. Where Nicolas leaps across ravines, or simply dances across a fallen tree, I fall into the ravine and have to crawl my way out. Where he finds a way through clumps of brambles, I get stuck. One time so stuck, that every step forward I catch on another vine that just won't budge, around my leg, around my chest. I'm a buffoon, next to some Olympian.
Despite its perils, the dry forest we're running through is unexpectedly enchanting. A green plant, not grass but almost clover-like known as water herb, blankets the ground during this time of the year. Short, winding trees curl around us. Large rocks jut out of the soil and at times an aggregation creates a mini-mountain. There are snails in beautifully colored conch-like shells hanging from the trees. From time-to-time we hear a whirring sound as a roosting bird, somewhere near us, takes off, scared by the sound of two men running through its home. The forest is almost hobbity, as if built for small things. One could imagine old-school fairies and elves, mischievous creatures, living here, which is why it seems such a suitable place for the strange, cryptic, muppet-faced solenodon.
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Hispaniolan solenodon image via Benvironment.