Cuba’s lush tropical plant life includes thousands of flowering plant species, half of which may be endemic to the archipelago. Much of the original vegetation has been replaced by sugarcane, coffee, and rice plantations, made possible by the wide-scale and indiscriminate destruction of forests. However, the government has replanted many areas since the 1960s, and forests now cover about one-fourth of the surface area. The most extensive forests in Cuba are in the Sagua-Baracoa highlands, which adjoin the easternmost portion of the Cauto River valley. Among the native trees is the ceiba (kapok) tree, which plays a role in many local legends. The extremely rare cork palms (Microcycas calocoma) of the western regions are “living fossils”—representatives of a genus of cycads thought to have existed for more than 100 million years. The abundant royal palm, reaching heights of 50 to 75 feet (15 to 23 metres), is the national tree and a characteristic element of the rural landscape.
Mangrove swamps cover the lower coasts and shoals of the archipelago. Cuba’s national flower is the mariposa (“butterfly”; Hedychium coronarium Koenig), whose long, green stems can grow higher than 5 feet (1.5 metres) and produce fragrant, white, butterfly-like petals.
Animal life is abundant and varied in Cuba, which is the habitat of numerous small mammals and reptiles, more than 7,000 insect species, and 4,000 species of land, river, and sea mollusks. Sponges are found off the southwestern coast, and crustaceans abound. Tarantulas, scorpions, and other arachnids are similarly profuse.
There are more than 500 fish species and numerous types of sharks. Freshwater fishes are less abundant. About 300 bird species are found on the island, some two-thirds of which are migratory; notable indigenous birds include flamingos, royal thrushes, and nightingales.
The endemic forest-dwelling tocororo (Trogon temnurus, or Priotelus temnurus), which is similar in appearance to the Guatemalan quetzal, was designated the national bird of Cuba because its bright plumes of red, white, and blue correspond to the colours of the Cuban flag; the tocororo is reputed to survive only in the wild. Reptiles are distributed equally among sea, river, and land species. Marine species include tortoises and hawkbill turtles; mud turtles inhabit the rivers; and the marshes contain two types of rare crocodiles. Land reptiles include the iguana and the majá de Santa María (Epicrates angulifer), the largest of Cuba’s snakes, none of which is venomous. Amphibians are similarly varied, with 60 types of frogs and toads, including plantain frogs (Hyla septentrionalis) and bullfrogs.
Solenodons (Atopogale cubana), which are nearly extinct ratlike insectivores, are found only in the remotest eastern regions. Other mammals include hutias (edible rodents) and manatees, or sea cows, which inhabit river mouths. Several types of bats prey on mosquitoes and insects harmful to agriculture, and in their roosting caves the bats leave droppings (guano) that are valued as fertilizer. "Cuba" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia
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