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Herpetologist Dedicated to Cuban Boa Research at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay

11 May 2018

From Chief Mass Communication Specialist Monique K. Meeks, Naval Station Guantanamo Bay Public Affairs

Dr. Pete Tolson is no stranger to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This year marks a storied 50-year history of his interaction with the base.
Dr. Pete Tolson is no stranger to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. This year marks a storied 50-year history of his interaction with the base.

Tolson first came to the base as a Marine in 1968, and from his experience during his time serving at Naval Station Guantanamo Bay (NSGB), grew a passion that would lead to a lifelong career.

"I was interested in all of the reptiles that I saw on the station, and I didn't know what any of them were. I was very curious about them," said Tolson. "A kind librarian over in the Leeward library told me how to get in touch with a herpetologist that could help me, and I did. And within a couple weeks this gentlemen, who was a famous west-Indian herpetologist, sent me a big box of reprints all on the reptiles and amphibians of Cuba."

The Marines sponsored two subsequent visits by Albert Schwartz, an American herpetologist who had worked extensively in Cuba before the revolution, and gave Tolson time off to collect with him.

"That's when I realized you could actually make a living doing this," said Tolson. "I followed in his footsteps once I got out. GI Bill took care of everything for me, and I graduated with my advanced degree not owing anybody a dime."

Tolson left the Marines after his tour at Guantanamo, attended Michigan State University on the GI Bill and earned a Bachelor of Science in zoology. Then he received a PhD in biological sciences from the University of Michigan. Meanwhile, he took a job as curator of reptiles at the Toledo Zoo, and eventually became the zoo's director of conservation and research. Since August 2016, he has served as director emeritus of conservation and research at the zoo.

For nearly 20 years, Tolson has been making semiannual visits to the installation to study the boa population.

"Right now, we have a project that involves studying the reproductive biology of these guys [the Cuban boas]; and I come down during the mating season, which is right now, and then I come down when the females give birth, which is the September/October timeframe," said Tolson. "We've got a bunch of these big girls that we track, and fortunately we have a wonderful vet, and have had wonderful vets that help me with these transmitter implantations. We follow these girls and see what they're up to and collect basic information."

Tolson and members of the NSGB team who assist him are currently tracking more than 20 Cuban boas right now, 16 of which are over 10 feet long. Tolson noted the boa shown at Day at the Bay was one of the smaller ones, but he still took him on a "merry chase." Tolson has had several interesting encounters during this visit, one of which he recently described on the commanding officer's Openline radio show.

"We were tracking one of our big girls, and we had to dive into some high grass to get her out of there, but she was with a male," said Tolson. "I checked all the frequencies of my missing males and thought, 'Who is this?' because I didn't know who it was. It was one that had been missing over a year that I had never been able to find. The previous vet implanted him, let him go in the Cuzco area, and now he showed up on this side of the station, so it was a fun discovery."

Finding a Cuban boa in the wild is becoming a rarity as they are nearing extinction outside the gates of Naval Station Guantanamo Bay. Yet, here they thrive - thanks in large part to Tolson's research and the installation's conservation efforts.

The larger Cuban boas' diet consists primarily of hutia, or banana rats as they're commonly referred to on base.

"So those of you who are angry at the hutias for chewing your radiator hoses, and your spark plug wires, and your plantings, and your fiber optic cables in the military areas, then these guys are your best ally to reduce the hutia population," said Tolson.

Tolson held a meet and greet at the Public Works Department's (PWD) Plant Nursery, May 5. Those who attended were able to not only see a Cuban boa up close, but were also able to see the work Catherine Alvizo and a large group of dedicated volunteers have done with the nursery in partnership with the PWD.

"They're doing a really good job propagating native trees, and that's one of the things I really love about this place. It's not just the animals, but we've got a lot of really great rare trees that are found nowhere else in the world," said Tolson.

Capt. David Culpepper, NSGB's commanding officer, also pointed out that volunteers do most of the work at the Plant Nursery, which is funded to a very small degree through the PWD.

"Ultimately, the purpose is to support not only Public Works and their ability to plant native species in public areas, but also the people living in housing," said Culpepper. "Folks in housing don't exploit that opportunity nearly enough. More housing residents need to come out and visit and see what they can take from the nursery and to plant in their yard."

Some of the benefits of the native trees are they don't require as much water, so they need less watering than some of the exotics planted in the residential areas, and they are much less resistant to hutia browsing.

"They're less palatable, so they have a better chance of surviving in your yard when the dry season hits and the hutia come down from the hills looking for water and succulent plants," said Tolson. "There's really a dual purpose to this propagation effort."

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