A Close Look at the Cuban Boa of Guantanamo Bay

By: Desiree Bowie  | 
A brown snake coils on rocky terrain the same color as its scales
The coloration of the Cuban boa (Chilabothrus angulifer) makes the snake an expert at blending into its natural habitat. R. Andrew Odum / Getty Images

Out in Guantanamo Bay, Dr. Pete Tolson is spearheading an effort to understand and conserve the striking Cuban boa. With a history to the base that stretches back 50 years, Tolson found his passion for herpetology (the study of amphibians) during his time there as a Marine in 1968.

Today, as director emeritus of conservation and research at the Toledo Zoo, Tolson's dedication is pivotal in the study of the boa's habitat, diet and mating behaviors. His research, conducted through semiannual visits over nearly two decades, focuses on the reproductive biology of this enigmatic creature and helps us understand how the snake manages to sustain its population.


In this article, we will explore the unique aspects of this boa's habitat, specialized diet and mating rituals, all of which are integral to the conservation efforts led by Dr. Tolson and his team.

Introducing the Cuban Boa to the Scientific Community

Ramón de la Sagra, a renowned 19th-century Spanish botanist and naturalist, contributed significantly to understanding Cuba's natural history, particularly with his work on the Cuban boa.

In his seminal multivolume work, "Historia física, política y natural de la Isla de Cuba" ("Physical, Political, and Natural History of the Island of Cuba"), de la Sagra published the first scientific drawing of the Cuban boa, providing a crucial visual and scientific reference for this species.


This illustration was instrumental in introducing the boa to the scientific community as part of his comprehensive documentation of Cuba's flora and fauna. His detailed accounts and illustrations of such species were among the earliest scientific descriptions, offering valuable insights into its characteristics and habitat.

Taxonomic History of Cuban Boas

The mighty Cuban boa (Chilabothrus angulifer) is a member of the Boidae family, a group of nonvenomous snakes commonly known as boas. The family encompasses several genera, including the genus Chilabothrus, to which the Cuban boa belongs. But it wasn't always a member of this exclusive family.

  • Original classification: The first scientific description of the Cuba boa was published in the 19th century. At that time, the boa was placed in the genus Epicrates and given the scientific name Epicrates angulifer, reflecting the scientific understanding of that era.
  • Taxonomic revisions: Taxonomists began recognizing distinct differences between various boa species as herpetology progressed. Across the field of animal classification, this led to the reclassification of many species into more accurate genera based on physical characteristics, geographic distribution and genetic data.
  • Genus Chilabothrus: Further studies, particularly genetic analyses, indicated that some species within Epicrates were distinct enough to warrant a separate genus. As a result, the Cuban boa was reclassified into the genus Chilabothrus.
  • Current understanding: Chilabothrus angulifer is recognized as a unique species within the Chilabothrus genus, distinguished by certain morphological traits and its Caribbean distribution. The Cuban boa is endemic to Cuba and some of its nearby islands.


Physical Features

These massive nonvenomous snakes typically grow to around 15 feet (4 meters) in adulthood, making them the largest snake species in Cuba. Their robust and muscular bodies are well-suited to their constricting hunting style, enabling them to overpower prey effectively.

The head of the Cuban boa is distinct and slightly broader than the neck, with a blunt snout. Their eyes are relatively small with vertical pupils, an adaptation to their crepuscular and nocturnal lifestyle. Like many other boas, they possess heat-sensing pits around their lips, enabling them to detect warm-blooded prey in low-light conditions.


The boa's skin is covered with smooth, glossy scales, adding to its striking appearance. Its coloration is predominantly a pattern of browns and tans, which blends seamlessly within an evergreen forest floor, aiding in camouflage.

The pattern typically includes dark brown or reddish-brown saddles or bands across the back, set against a medium-brown background. The belly is usually a lighter cream or yellowish color.


Geographic Range and Habitat

As their name implies, these West Indian boid snakes are native to Cuba and adjacent islands like Isla de la Juventud, Cayo Cantiles and Archipielago de los Canarreos. Predominantly residing in Cuba's dense forests and woodlands, these environments offer deciduous and evergreen forests, which are rich in biodiversity and provide ample cover and a steady supply of prey.

In Western Cuba, the coloration of the Cuban boa may show adaptations to the specific environmental conditions of that region.


That range has denser, darker forests and different types of foliage, which might influence the boa to have a darker coloration. This adaptation would allow the snake to blend more effectively with the shadowy forest floor and dense underbrush, enhancing its camouflage abilities.

In addition to forests, the snake species also makes its home in caves and under rock piles. These dark, cool environments are perfect retreats and hunting grounds, aligning with the boa's natural behaviors and preferences.

While the boa may reside in a nice cloud forest or thorn forest, it can also be found on cultivated land, like sugar cane plantations. There, they can find ample shelter and an abundance of rodents, which are attracted to the crops.



This boa exhibits adept hunting behaviors, honed to capture a variety of prey in its natural habitat efficiently. As a constrictor, it primarily relies on the element of surprise and physical strength to subdue its targets. Typically, Cuban boas hunt at night, leveraging their nocturnal nature to stalk prey under the cover of darkness.

A key aspect of its hunting strategy is ambush predation. The Cuban boa will often lie in wait, camouflaged against its surroundings, until an unsuspecting prey animal comes within striking range.


This could be on the forest floor, among the branches of trees or in rocky crevices, depending on where the semi-arboreal boa is hunting.

The Cuban boa strikes quickly and precisely once it detects a potential meal, whether a rodent, bird or small reptile. Its sharp teeth are effective in gripping the prey, preventing escape.

The boa then wraps its muscular body around the captured animal, constricting its coils to suffocate the prey. This method of killing is swift and allows the boa to handle prey items that are quite large relative to its size.

Its ability to adapt hunting tactics to different environments and prey types underscores its status as a skilled and versatile top terrestrial predator in the Cuban ecosystem.

A Band of Boas

A 2017 study revealed that some Cuban boas engage in a rare form of pack hunting within caves, coordinating their efforts to catch bats. Typically solitary in their hunting habits, these boas have been observed forming a "wall" or "curtain" at cave entrances, striking in unison to increase their hunting efficiency.

This behavior, noted by the University of Tennessee's Vladimir Dinets, demonstrates a unique example of group hunting and strategic positioning among snakes, significantly enhancing their success rate in capturing bats. The study, highlighting this exceptional hunting strategy, was published in the journal "Animal Behavior and Cognition."



The Cuban boa's diet is predominantly carnivorous, consisting mainly of small- to medium-sized mammals and birds. Rodents are a dietary staple for these serpents due to their abundance in the snake's natural habitats, including forests and areas near human habitation like sugar plantations.

The presence of the boa species in such areas can be beneficial in controlling rodent populations. They are natural predators of hutias (a rodent species native to the Caribbean). If the population of hutias were to increase significantly, it could lead to overgrazing or overconsumption of vegetation. This could have a detrimental effect on the local ecosystem.


Both roosting and ground-dwelling birds also form a significant part of their diet — the boa's ability to climb trees aids in hunting arboreal and nesting birds. In coastal scrub forests and similar habitats, they may also prey on lizards, juvenile tortoises and other small reptiles.

Like many snakes, they have a slow metabolism and do not need to feed very frequently. Younger boas tend to eat more often, while adults can go for several weeks to months without eating, especially during cooler periods.


Breeding Maturity

These snakes reach breeding maturity at different ages depending on their sex. Typically, female Cuban boas mature slightly later than males. Males usually reach maturity around 2 to 3 years of age, while females generally mature around 3 to 4 years.

The later maturation in females can be attributed to their need to achieve a specific body size and condition to carry and give birth to offspring successfully. Some snake species, like the king cobra, give birth by laying eggs, but the Cuban boa is ovoviviparous, meaning the females give birth to live young. Because of this, females require significant energy and resources for gestation.


Mature boas typically participate in the annual breeding cycle, with mating occurring during specific seasons conducive to the survival of their offspring.

However, the age at which Cuban boas reach breeding maturity can vary between wild and captive individuals, influenced by diet, health and environmental conditions.

Captive vs. Wild Maturation

In captivity, these snakes often reach sexual maturity at a younger age, sometimes as early as 2 years of age for males and 3 years for females. The controlled environment of captivity, with regular feeding and the absence of predators, allows for more consistent growth and development.

Captive snakes tend to grow faster due to a steady food supply and optimal living conditions, leading to earlier maturity.



The Cuban boa's mating season typically occurs during the dry season, which, in Cuba, usually falls between November and April. During this time, male boas actively search for females, often traveling considerable distances.

When a male finds a potential mate, he engages in a courtship ritual that involves rubbing his body against the female and flicking his tongue to exchange scents. This tactile and olfactory communication is crucial for initiating the mating process. Males may compete for access to a receptive female, displaying dominant behaviors but rarely engaging in serious combat.


Once a pair is formed, copulation can occur multiple times over several days. The female boa then undergoes a gestation period of around four months, after which she gives birth to live young.

The number of offspring can vary, but litters typically consist of several dozen young boas. These newborns are independent from birth, receiving no further care from the mother. They are born with the instincts and abilities needed to survive, including hunting skills.


Cuban Tree Boa: An Arboreal Creature

Cuban boas have a notable connection to trees, which play a significant role in their ecology and behavior. These snakes are adept climbers, allowing them to exploit arboreal habitats efficiently. Their ability to navigate trees is a means of locomotion and a crucial aspect of their hunting strategy and survival.

In the dense forests of Cuba, trees offer the snakes a vantage point for ambushing prey. They can wait among the branches, camouflaged by the foliage, to catch unsuspecting birds or rodents that venture too close.


This elevated position also allows them to scan their surroundings for potential prey, giving them a strategic advantage as predators. Additionally, trees provide safe retreats for Cuban boas. They can escape predators or find shelter from the elements by climbing trees.

During the day, when they are less active, these boas may rest in tree branches, using the height to avoid ground-level threats and to regulate their body temperature by moving between sunlit and shaded areas.

The reproductive behavior of Cuban boas is also linked to trees. Females often utilize tree hollows or dense foliage as safe places to give birth to their young, providing them with a concealed and secure environment.

This article was created in conjunction with AI technology, then fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.