Cave Hunting



I HAVE often dreamed of the pleasure I might have had exploring the Cuban caves with Don Felipe Poey. Poey, who was born in Havana the twenty-sixth of May, 1799, and died there the twenty-eighth of January, 1891, was one of those old-fashioned naturalists with a curiosity about every living thing. He was a friend and correspondent of Professor Louis Agassiz, and I have in the archives of our Museum any number of letters written by him to Professor Agassiz, demonstrating his widespread interest in natural history.

Poey wrote in French as if it were his mother tongue; and better than that, he consented to deposit in the Agassiz Museum in Cambridge a great number of the types of his new species of fish. He collected insects of a number of different orders. He made one of the first really great collect ions of land mollusks and was the first person to point out the prodigious number of species represented in Cuba.

Poey was a teacher as well as an investigator, and although he did not have a doctor’s degree, an exception was made in his case, and he was allowed to hold a professorship in the University of Havana. Under Spanish law, possession of a doctorate was supposed to be a sine qua non for holding such a position. I have heard many a story about Poey from his favorite pupil, Dr. Carlos de la Torre, who later occupied Poey’s position in the University with great distinction.

The modesty and unbelievable industry of Poey are bywords with us. His two-volume work entitled Memorias sabre la Historia Natural de la Isla de Cuba appeared in Havana in 1851. The book is beautifully illustrated with colored plates depicting the new fish, butterflies, land shells, and other discoveries which he made known for the first time. His second outstanding work, Repertorio FisicoNatural de la Isla de Cuba, is the rarer of the two, though both are extremely difficult to obtain — probably because the great majority of copies were in Cuban libraries and so were singularly liable to attack by termites.

Don Carlos de la Torre has told me so much about Don Felipe Poey that I feel as if I had known him. He had a real and firm desire to make known the natural wonders of the island where he lived. From the letters that have gradually fallen into our hands, it is apparent that he was better known to the great naturalists of the continent of Europe than he was to his colleagues in the United States. Nevertheless, he had firm friends and admirers in Spencer Baird and George Lawrence, as well as Professor Louis Agassiz. It was his keen intelligence that caused him to deposit his specimens in the museums outside of Cuba, for he knew perfectly well that the time had not yet come in Cuba when such things as specimens of natural history would be appreciated.


THERE are two sorts of blind fish to be found in the caves in western Cuba and they belong to two distinct genera, the one called Lucifuga and the other Stygicola. They were first described by Felipe Poey in 1860, but he must have known about them for some time before he actually got around to giving them names, for he lists a very considerable number of caves in which they had been found up to that time. All of them were in the general vicinity of what was then the jurisdiction of San Antonio, near the present towns of Guira de Melena and Alquízar in Havana Province.

In only one case, in the Castle Cave near the plantation La Industria, does he mention both fish being found in the same cavern. My experience bears out this fact that both fishes do inhabit some of the same subterranean waterways. In the great cave at Unión de Reyes, of which I shall speak a little later, we found that both forms were about equally abundant. They are good valid genera as we interpret such matters now, although Poey thought them congeneric. They are both derived from marine forms of the family Brotulidae, a family of somewhat cod-like affinities.

I wanted to secure specimens of these cave fish for the Museum of Comparative Zoology very much indeed, and I visited many caves whence they had been reported as having been found in the past, but without success. Finally my friend Dr. Victor Rodríguez of the University of Havana and I found a cave located in the black belt of the southern part of Matanzas Province near the little town of Unión de Reyes, where we were to have good luck.

The way leading into this cavern was through a great arched portal, and the entrance passage sloped gently downward. We went in with our electric torches and our dip nets ready; and after walking some distance, we came to a wide body of water which seemed to be covered with thin ice. The water was supercharged with lime, and evaporation had left a film on the surface. We cracked this film very carefully and slid the sheets aside, one under the other. Peering down into the absolutely clear water, we saw a great number of our fish.

They are so extremely sensitive to any disturbance in the water that they are not easy to catch with a net. Ultimately, however, after wading about and after much effort — and, I may add, much perspiration — we garnered a rich booty. Then we gathered together our gear and prepared to make our way back to the railroad station.

To get to the cave, we had chartered a funny old broken-down victoria, which we found at the station. Evidently we had no sooner entered the cavern than our jehu had hastened back to town and reported our strange actions to the officer commanding the local post of the rural guard. As we walked out of the cave, a sergeant and a platoon of guards on horseback promptly surrounded us. We had wisely provided ourselves, before we left Havana, with the most excellent credentials and as a result were very courteously treated by the sergeant. He, however, begged us if we ever again came back, or went elsewhere cave hunting, to go first to the officer of the rural guard and report what we were about.

Apparently the impression we made on the populace by appearing from nowhere was bewildering, but our immediate disappearance into a cave indicated quite certainly a search for buried treasure. Naturally, all and sundry wanted to be in on this hunt. Legends regarding buried treasure to be found in the caves of Cuba are as numerous as they are improbable. We were amazed by the episode, but profited by the good advice we had received. On many subsequent occasions we often got much help from the rurales.


SUCCESS does not crown every hunt for blind fishes. Here now is the story of one which brought no results and pretty nearly ended my career. Dr. Felipe García, the Port Medical Officer of Matanzas, once was kind enough to lend me his launch to go to La Maya Point. There, in a deep well near the lighthouse keeper’s house, blind fishes are to be seen. I saw one on the day when I went there, but it was too deep to take with my net.

We started homeward in the afternoon and were on our return trip across the great wide-open bay when a norther suddenly began to blow great guns. Before we had gone very far, the engine of our launch stopped and the sea fast grew rougher and rougher. I thought that we were surely done for, but one of the Negroes on board was a first-class seaman and with a single oar he at last brought us safely to town.

I may add here that the Bay of Matanzas has a wide, open mouth and is very deep. Most of the harbors of Cuba, like Havana, Santiago, Banes, Cienfuegos, Guantánamo, and several others, are “bottleneck harbors” and represent drowned valleys which were cut out and flooded when the water which was tied up in the great polar ice cap was returned to the ocean at the end of the last glacial period. This raised the level of the surface of the ocean. If a little more water had been returned to the sea, the famous Yumurí Valley near Matanzas would be another perfect bottleneck harbor.

The Bay of Matanzas, as I have just said, is very deep and does not afford much holding ground for ships; it is not like Cienfuegos, for example, which could shelter all the navies of the world and provide holding ground to anchor all. Matanzas Bay opens almost directly northward; hence it is very unsafe when heavy northers blow. To be sure, as long as the wind is from the northwest, and not from due north, there is a certain amount of shelter. But northers begin in the northwest with the wind always swinging through the north to the northeast, and so finally back to the normal southeast wind which prevails a good part of the year.

The water of the harbor is so deep that the local fishermen have developed special methods of taking fish from great depths, and for this reason Matanzas Bay is famed throughout the world among students of fishes for the many rare and peculiar forms which it has produced.

The Kentucky fish, Amblyopsis, is evidently derived from a normally formed stream inhabitant called Chologaster, which is found in the southeastern part of the United States. A still more remarkable case is that of a species which has recently been discovered in Mexico, called Anoptichthys jordani. A stream, really a small river, in the state of San Luis Potosí, Mexico, enters a large, dark cave. In the waters of the stream outside, before the river enters the cavern and out in the open air, fishes of the genus Astyanax occur. These are quite commonplace little minnows, as far as appearance goes. Near the mouth of the cave, however, individuals are found in a modified form showing distinct evidence of a tendency toward becoming blind; then deep in the cave, where it is really dark, still others occur in a completely blind state. This wonderful little creature, named in memory of Dr. David Starr Jordan, is certainly the most remarkable case of the sort ever recorded.

Off the shores of Southern California, one encounters occasionally a blind fish which lives in cavities of rocks and under stones right alongshore in shallow water. This is Typhologobius — and why on earth it ever saw fit to become blind is most difficult to understand. It has innumerable allies all over the world, for the gobies are a most abundant cosmopolitan family and many live in exactly this same sort of situation. But everywhere else they are perfectly normal in every respect.

In the Old World, in the caves of Carniola and Carinthia in the Alps of Austria, two forms of blind amphibia are found. They are long, slender, pallid, newt-like creatures which have been known to science for many years.


OF ALL the cave-inhabiting creatures of the world, Cuba has more than its share. There are almost as many species found in Cuba as there are in all the Old World, and I suspect that very many more remain to be discovered. The little I have done in cave exploration has been a source of great interest and stimulation to my imagination.

The first blind shrimps to be found in Cuba were collected by the late Professor C. H. Eigenmann, of Indiana University. He was searching for blind fish with the idea of making a microscopic study of their degenerate eyes. This he did and the paper he wrote is a classic. As a by-product of his collecting in the caves, he found that blind shrimp which has turned out to be the most common and widely distributed species known to the present day. He took specimens in four caverns in the general vicinity of San Antonio de los Baños in western Cuba.

In 1912, my wife and I were at Madruga with our friends Professor and Mrs. J. Lewis Bremer, he of the Harvard Medical School. We annexed a local guide named Serapio Hernández. One day he said, “I will take you to a cave where I am sure you will find something interesting.” We all rode on horseback out on the highway leading toward Matanzas. When we came to where the road leading to Aguacate branches off, we turned to the north. We had proceeded only a mile or so towards Aguacate when we saw, beside the roadway, the tops of some tall trees reaching just about to road level. These obviously grew up from the bottom of a deep sinkhole, and this one had steep rocky sides. Finding that we were able to scramble down one of the trees to the bottom of the sink, we discovered the entrance of a cave. It was apparent that we were not by any means equipped to explore this. So we went home and returned the next day with candles, a ball of heavy string, nets, and containers for whatever specimens we might find. Then we climbed down the same tree and again entered the cave.

Bremer and I, with the help of our friend the late Elliot Bacon, who had just joined us from Havana, were girding our loins for the task ahead, while my wife and Mary Bremer found a flat rock in a shady spot and sat down to play a game of cards. They had not been playing very long before our guide Serapio, who turned out to be a bit light in the upper story, strode up to them and began striking what appeared to them to be most belligerent, attitudes, brandishing his machete. He had a so-called war machete, which was quite a fearsome-looking weapon. The girls spoke little Spanish, but soon realized that all he wanted was to have his photograph taken. Rosamond accommodated him, taking his picture over and over again to please him — even long after the film in the camera was all run out. Finally contented, he Went to sleep in the shade.

The cave which my companions and I were now entering was indescribably foul and stinking. Sometimes the gallery was very narrow, and at other times the roof was low and the bat dung was so deep that we sank over our shoes in the unsavory material at every step. Even so, progress was infinitely more unpleasant when we had to crawl. We pushed on and on, unwinding our twine as we crept along, so that we should surely be able to find our way back.

At last we came to a subterranean river and here, to our joy, we saw any number of pale, delicate little shrimps. These had appendages so fine and so slender that they looked almost like threads. The antennae particularly were long and so extremely sensitive that it really was difficult to bring a net near one of the little beasts without its scooting away, but we managed to catch several specimens.

We had hoped to find blind fish but did not, and finally we made our way back out of the cave. On the return trip I had another bit of luck, for I found several pure white, blind, and happily very slowmoving pill bugs. I caught them easily and found that they had become highly modified for life underground. The shrimps were new. The pill or sow bugs had been taken but once before.

To this very moment, I can recall how inexpressibly pleasant was our emergence into the fresh air. It was a very hot day outside, but in comparison to the heat in the cave, it seemed when we emerged like coming into another fresh, cool world. We were thoroughly tired.

I must say Elliot Bacon was a sad sight to behold when we all crept out. He had on really high-class store clothes. My wife tells me that I looked like a terrible tramp. She reminded me the other day of what I had forgotten. The containers which we took into the cave were all filled with blind shrimp in water to keep them alive and I had managed to pick up a lot of mollusks — and some very good ones, too — as well as other odds and ends. Whenever I found a handful of specimens which I wanted to keep separate, I would cut off a large piece of what I was told afterwards was a very expensive linen shirt, for material in which to wrap them. With the bat guano in which I had waded up to my waist and with my shirt pretty well cut away, for not much of this was left except what was on my arms, I must have been a dreadful-looking object. Finally, sweaty and tired, we climbed up the tree and out of the sink, mounted our horses, and returned to Madruga well pleased with our day’s collecting.

To sum up what we know about these creatures to the present time, there are twelve species of blind prawns known from the Americas. One is from Kentucky, one is from Texas, and two are from South America. Two more come from Yucatán, a limestone country, in many respects like Cuba. There are five Cuban forms of the eleven species mentioned which are Palaemonids, the pale white species; to these, of course, the red Hippolitid is to be added. Thus as many cave dwellers have been found in Cuba as in all the rest of the Americas put together, and I’ll bet anyone a hat that there are a number of new forms still to be discovered in the island.

I wish I could rewrite this essay some fifteen or twenty years from now, for we are on the verge of great additions to our knowledge. A group of young men affiliated with the Geographical Society of Cuba in Havana have formed themselves into a union called the “Speleologists.” These wise and fortunate young people have started a systematic study of the caves of the entire island; they have already entered and studied more than one thousand caves of which we have hitherto known little or nothing, and they are only beginning.

There is good reason to believe not only that additional cave dwellers may be found, but that a vast amount of new material is going to be added to our knowledge of the distribution of life in the caves. It is not fair even to talk about the rumors which I have heard concerning the discoveries, but little birds — no doubt cluttering little sparrows throughout the scientific world — have begun whispering the news hither and yon that a good many of the cave creatures have a considerably wider distribution than we have ever dreamed in the past. The story of the distribution or the scattering of blind creatures beneath the territory of Cuba is in for a great amplification before long.