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Polymitas: A Cuban Miss Universe

Polymitas: A Cuban Miss Universe

by Victoria Alcalá

Photos: Courtesy of Julio Larramendi

Whoever knows them and loves them, emphatically declares them to be the beauty queens of Cuban nature. Over the course of many years, countless scientists, photographers and just the curious have fallen in love with them and tracked them through the countryside, in the midst of an abundant land snail population made up of 79 genera and 130 sub-genera which are exclusive to the Island.

Although people talk about “polymitas” and the uninitiated among us think they all look alike, the genus Polymita Beck, 1837 has six clearly differentiated species for the connoisseurs: Polymita brocheri, Polymita muscarum, Polymita venusta, Polymita sulphurosa, Polymita versicolor and Polymita picta. When you investigate into the etymology of the genus’ scientific name (and not in Wikipedia which only mentions a homonymous plant), you will discover that it clearly describes the diversity of its shells: in Greek, polýs means numerous, abundant, and mítos means thread or weave. The Royal Spanish Academy dictionary, which does not include the lovely Cuban mollusk, does find room for the rarely used adjective “polímita”, applicable to clothing “woven from variously colored thread”.

In his essential book for anybody wanting to study these tiny fascinating animals (Las polimitas, Guatemala City-Havana, Ediciones Polymita-Ediciones Boloña, 2013, beautifully illustrated with photographs by Julio Larramendi), mollusk expert and marine ecosystem specialist Dr. José Espinosa characterizes polymitas by their many different bright colors. He describes their sub-globular and often cone-shaped shell, the fact that they reproduce by laying eggs, their diets based on lichen, mushrooms and moss (which “cleans” the host plants and facilitates their photosynthesis), and their life expectancy of around a year and a half. They live in different plants including Jagueyes, palm trees, coffee bushes and coconut trees, both on the leaves when the humidity and temperatures are favorable and on the trunks and branches during their rest period in the dry season.


I read the rigorous and yet enjoyable book by Dr. Espinosa to find some of the distinctive traits of the six species. The shell of the P. picta is bright and highly colored, ranging from white to yellow, red, orange, brown and black, in multiple combinations (pictum in Latin means “painted”) and is obviously the most beautiful one. Called the National Snail of Cuba, it presents six subspecies, which can be found in a restricted geographical area taking in the municipalities of Baracoa and Maisí in Granma Province and in some areas near Holguín Province. P. venusta is also very beautiful (in Latin venustus means “beauty, charm”). For a long time it was considered to be a variety of the P. picta and it can be found distributed throughout the central part of the eastern extreme of Cuba.

P. sulphurosa can only be found in Sagua de Tánamo and Moa on the northern coast of Holguín Province. It owes its name to the sulfurous yellow color present on many of its shells, especially in the P. sulphurosa sulphurosa sub-species. P. sulphurosa flammulata can be distinguished by light lines over a background color. The P. muscarum is clearly identifiable for its black dots scattered all over its surface, looking very much like fly droppings; it can be found on the coast from Sagua de Tánamo to the Sabinal Cay in northern Holguín and Las Tunas provinces and in northeastern Camagüey. P. versicolor has a white background with striking colored spiral lines (in Latin versus means “contrasting”). It is not as brightly colored as other species and can be found on the southern strip of coastline of Santiago de Cuba and Guantanamo provinces. Last but not least, P. brocheri (in this case the name is not descriptive but is dedicated to a Spanish general who lived in Cuba, Gregorio Brochero) has a more elongated shell with more muted colors usually on a white background and it can be found in three small locations in the Maisí municipality of Guantanamo Province.

These jewels of Cuban wildlife, unique in the world and typical of specific areas in the eastern provinces and some special spots in nearby Camagüey Province, are species at high risk of extinction. The use of land for agriculture and livestock, forestry exploitation, human settlements, the building of highways and roads, and illegal trade that goes back for over one hundred years and hasn’t been able to be eradicated, has put the snails’ existence in danger. Even though just recently some specimens of P. picta were successfully bred in a laboratory in Havana’s Quinta de los Molinos, nothing beats the pleasure of seeing them in their natural habitat, on a leaf or grouped around a tree trunk, “posing” for some photographer to immortalize their exceptional beauty.