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Colorful Land Snails (artist's conception)

Colorful Land Snails (artist’s conception)

There are all sorts of snails in my Brooklyn garden which range in color from, well, from medium brown to dark brown.  I guess the local mollusks don’t make for a very exciting rainbow–so today we move to the West Indies in search of the most vibrant land snails we can find.  There are numerous lovely air-breathing snails throughout (and around) the Caribbean which can be found in a variety of eye-popping colors, but two particular species outshine the others in terms of brilliant red, yellow, black and orange swirls.  These are the Cuban land snail (Polymita picta) and the Candy Stripe land Snail (Liguus virgineus) of Hispaniola.

Polymitas picta

Polymitas picta

Polymita picta lives throughout Cuba where it eats the algae, mold, and lichen from subtropical trees and shrubs.  The single species of snails appear in a dazzling array of spiral color patterns.

Polymita picta color variation (Harvard Museum)

Polymita picta color variation (Harvard Museum)

Liguus virgineus lives only on Hispaniola (the large island which includes Haiti & the Dominican Republic).  Unlike the Cuban land snail, Liguus virgineus specimens are somewhat more homogenous in color and pattern.  The Liguus genus however is broadly successful around the Caribbean and Gulf coast and the different species have different patterns (even though they are similar tree snails with similar habitats).

Liguus virginus

Liguus virginus

Liguus Map

Map of Liguus Species

Sadly, both of these snails are at risk because of their brilliant color.  The lovely bright colors have proven irresistibly attractive to the world’s most rapacious predator.   Humans use the shells as jewelry or collectibles which has led to both species being over-harvested for collectors.



Fifty years ago marked the height of the Cuban missile crisis.  The entire US military was operating at DEFCON 3–and Strategic Air Command had moved up to DEFCON 2 (a readiness condition which indicates that “nuclear war is eminent”).  As part of these protocols, the Air Force moved nuclear armed interceptor aircraft to smaller airports along the northern border in preparation for a Russian strike.

A F-106A with a Russian TU-95M

On the night of October 25, 1962, a guard at the Duluth Sector Direction Center spotted a commando stealthily climbing over the perimeter fence to sabotage the base.  The guard fired at the intruder but missed all his shots. He then sounded the alarm.  The proper alarm rang at several nearby bases, but at Volk field in Wisconsin, the alarm system was wired incorrectly.  Instead of an intruder alarm, the klaxon for nuclear war sounded.  The pilots duly got in their F106-A jets (each of which was equipped with a nuclear rocket) and prepared to fly north for the last battle.

Just as the planes were taking off, a truck sped onto the field flashing its lights.  The false alarm had been caught in time and the interceptors did not launch.  Decades later the Air Force declassified documents relating to the incident.  The shadowy saboteur was revealed to have been a bear.

American black bear (Ursus americanus)

The incident was quickly forgotten because it was only one of an astonishing number of near misses in the subsequent days of the crisis.  On October 27th, 1962 alone there were multiple live-fire accidents and misunderstandings: the world nearly ended several times that day.   That morning, a U-2F spy plane was shot down over Cuba by means of a Soviet surface-to-air missile and the pilot was killed.  Later that day a US Navy RF-8A Crusader aircraft was fired on and one was hit by a 37 mm shell.  The US Navy dropped a series of “signaling depth charges” on Soviet submarine B-59 which was armed with nuclear torpedoes (however one of the three Soviet fire officers objected to launching the weapons).   Over the Bering Sea the Soviets scrambled their MIGs in response to a U2 spy plane and the Air Force in return launched their F-102 fighter aircraft.

After a bewildering storm of desperate diplomatic negotiations which were interspersed with apocalyptic bluster, the American and Soviet administrations began to back down from the confrontation.  The Kennedy administration dispatched negotiators to meet with representatives of the Soviet Union at Yenching Palace Chinese restaurant, and a deal was reached over the fortune cookies and chopsticks.   The Soviets removed their nuclear missiles from Cuba and America, in turn, pulled nuclear weapons out of Turkey and southern Italy.

It’s easy to look at the news today and feel a sense of despair about the world and its inhabitants, but it is worth looking back a half a century to the sixties when the world was a much more stupid and dangerous place.  Everyone drove giant unsafe cars with big fins.  Lobotomy was a common medical procedure.  China and India were actively fighting a war.  But, above all other concerns, the Soviet Union and the United States eyed each other beadily and prepared to destroy the world in response to a bear or a spy plane or an insult in a Chinese restaurant.

After the Cuban missile crisis ended, the STRATCOM stood down from DEFCON 2 on November 15, 1962.  Although the armed forces have returned to DEFCON 3—medium readiness— a few times since then (notably during the Yom Kippur war and on September 11th) the nation has never again gone to DEFCON 2.

Ye Olde Ferrebeekeeper Archives

March 2023