Animal Named After James Bond Faces Extinction

The newly discovered cat-size critter lives in Haiti and the Dominican Republic—but maybe not for long owing to extensive deforestation in those countries.
(Photo: Jose Nuñez-Mino; courtesy the Zoological Society of London)
May 20, 2015· 2 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Superspy James Bond has gotten himself out of some pretty tight scrapes over the years, but a newly discovered mammal that shares his name may be facing the greatest threat of all: the specter of extinction.

The animal in question—named Plagiodontia aedium bondi in a paper published in the journal Zootaxa—has been both shaken and stirred in recent years. This cat-size rodent, known as a hutia, lives in Haiti and the Dominican Republic on the Caribbean island of Hispaniola. Both countries suffer from massive deforestation that could wipe out the animal’s only habitats.

Hispaniola’s deforestation and habitat loss are “an untold tragedy,” said the lead author of the paper, Samuel Turvey of the Zoological Society of London. The loss of tree cover has not only destroyed critical habitat for Haiti and the Dominican Republic’s native species but also caused the island to lose must of its topsoil, making it harder for anything to grow to replace what has been lost.

Even the two countries’ so-called protected areas offer little protection for flora or fauna. The three national parks where the Bond hutia lives have all been extensively logged, Turvey reported. Some have been cleared for agriculture, while others have been burned to make charcoal for heat and cooking.

Still, the hutias persist, although Turvey and his research team were not able to determine how many remain. “Based on our surveys it would appear that hutias are not very common and not very widely distributed,” he said.

RELATED: Saving the World’s Forests From Toilet Paper, Margarine, and Skin Cream

The team saw few of the animals. “They’re very hard to find because they’re nocturnal animals,” Turvey said. “They live in burrows or caves during the day and come out and climb trees at night. It’s hard to find them directly.” The researchers found hair and feces samples, as well as a few skeletons at the bottom of a ravine, where the rodents may have fallen from a nearby tree.

That was enough, though, to conduct genetic tests, which revealed that the Bond hutias were a different subspecies from the hutias found on other parts of Hispaniola.

“These are initial building blocks to point us in the general direction in which to conserve them,” he said. More research will be necessary to understand the rodents’ distribution, population abundance, and tolerance to habitat disturbance.

“More intensive management and mitigation strategies have to be put in place in the island as well,” he said, although he acknowledged that wouldn't be easy given the depletion of natural resources in the impoverished countries.

What has happened in Haiti and the Dominican Republic would no doubt come as a shock to the real James Bond. No, not the fictional spy. The Bond hutia was named after an American ornithologist who studied the birds of the Caribbean during the first half of the last century; his name was appropriated by 007’s creator, novelist Ian Fleming.

The real James Bond lives on not only in the name of the new hutia but also in the geography of Hispaniola. Bond discovered a biogeographic barrier that indicated Hispaniola was once three islands periodically divided by shallow seaways. Before the islands merged, the species on each side of what has since been called Bond’s Line evolved into distinctly separate lineages. That’s probably how the Bond hutia came to be so different from its relatives, Turvey said.

Regardless of which James Bond inspired the Bond hutia’s name, Turvey acknowledged that the nomenclature could have an effect on efforts to conserve the species. “It’s had some media interest,” he said.

That’s something 007 never sought, but for a rare species that doesn’t have forever, it can’t hurt.