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A bright white flower emerges from a prickly cactus.
Information icon Flowering higo chumbo (Harrisia portoricensis). Photo by Omar Monsegur, USFWS.

Higo chumbo

Harrisia portoricensis

Higo chumbo is a columnar cactus currently found at three small offshore islands of western Puerto Rico; Mona, Monito and Desecheo. In addition, several individuals are known to occur at Caja de Muertos, an offshore island south of Puerto Rico.

Appearance

A spiky cactus with seven branches, green and yellow fruits
Mature higo chumbo. Photo by Omar Monsegur USFWS.

Higo chumbo is a slender, upright, columnar cactus, which may grow more than 2 meters in height and usually is extensively branched. The stem has 8 to 11 longitudinal ribs separated by shallow grooves. The stem and branch have 2 to 7 cm long spines in groups about 1 to 2 cm apart. Reproductive plants produce large (17 to 22 cm long) greenish-white hermaphroditic funnel-shape flowers, which open at night. Mature fruits are yellow, spineless berries with numerous small black seeds enclosed in a white pulp.

Reproduction

Higo chumbo nocturnal flowers have a partially self-compatible breeding system that requires an external mechanism for the movement of pollen to set fruit. Flowers produce nectar, but visits by animals are highly infrequent, and pollination is mainly wind-facilitated with most of the fruit production resulting from self-pollination. The higo chumbo may require eight to 10 years for development as a reproductive adult. Fruit production under natural conditions is high (88% fruit-set). Fruits are usually dispersed by birds and mature in about 56 days. Flowering and budding occurs many times during the year, influenced by different environmental factors such as variation in temperatures and rainfall.

Two large yellow fruits emerge from a cactus branch
Higo chumbo fruits. Photo by Omar Monsegur USFWS.

Habitat

This species occur on three small offshore islands ( Mona, Monito and Desecheo) on the Mona Passage west of Puerto Rico. In addition, some individuals are known to occur at Caja de Muertos, an offshore island south of Puerto Rico and near the type locality (where it was first reported). These islands fall under the Subtropical Dry Forest Life Zone, where mean annual rainfall ranges from 600 to 1000 millimeters. Mona and Monito are composed almost entirely of carbonate rocks, stratified limestone and domolite, reef rock and boulder rubble. Desecheo is composed of volcanic sandstones, with volcanic breccia and mudstone, as well as calcareous sandstones and mudstones. The relief and flat-topped topography of Monito are similar to that of Mona, while Desecheo is much hillier.

A man standing behind a tall cacti growing on a grassy hillside
JL Herrera from Island Conservation with individual of H. portoricensis at Desecheo Island. Photo © Island Conservation, used with permission.

Recent data on the establishment and growth of early life history stages of higo chumbo indicate that seedlings and juveniles are susceptible to changes in local microclimatic conditions, such as direct sunlight and soil temperature. Moreover, it has been observed that perennial native shrubs, such as Croton discolor (lechecillo) and Reynosa uncinata, act as nurse plants that provide suitable and stable microclimatic conditions that significantly improve survival, establishment and growth of higo chumbo seedlings.

The habitat on which the higo chumbo depends is protected by the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Mona and Monito were declared as natural reserves by Puerto Rico, and managed for conservation by the Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (PRDNER) since 1973. Caja de Muertos has been managed by DNER since 1980. Desecheo was established as a National Wildlife Refuge in 1976 and has been managed by the Service since then.

Range

Higo chumbo is restricted to three small islands off the west coast of Puerto Rico: Mona, Monito and Desecheo. Historically it was also reported on the island of Puerto Rico, but that population has been reported as presumed extinct. Some individuals occur at Caja de Muerto, an offshore island south of Ponce. Currently, the largest and most significant natural population of this species occurs on Mona island.

Conservation challenges

Disease and predation are considered major threats. At present, Monito and Desecheo are considered free of invasive vertebrates, but feral invasive goats and hogs continue to be present on Mona, affecting the native flora and fauna. Additionally, lesions in higo chumbo caused by hemipteran Leptoglossus sp. have been observed on the Mona population. This insect causes damages to the cactus by laying eggs and feeding on their branches and main stems, which eventually lead to bacterial and fungal infections that within a few months usually kills the plant.

Another potential threat is the Harrisia cacti mealybug (HCM; Hypogeoccocus pungens). Although this pest has not been recorded in Mona, Monito, or Desecheo, it has been documented in Puerto Rico affecting different species of the cactaceae family. This mealybug infests the stems, producing abnormal stem growth of the plants, and affects the production of flowers and fruits, eventually causing the plants to stop growing and dying.

Competition with invasive plant species is another threat. Some of these invasive species such as guinea grass may alter the microclimate conditions and nutrient cycling of the habitat upon which higo chumbo depends, especially for natural recruitment and seedlings survival.

Download the recovery plan.

Partnerships, research and projects

The Service works with other federal, state, academic and non-profit organizations throughout the species range, in order to conserve and recover the higo chumbo.

Puerto Rico Department of Natural and Environmental Resources

A Cooperative Agreement between the Service and PRDNER has been in place since 1984, which establishes and implements a vigorous Endangered Species Program within the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico seeking the recovery of listed species. Furthermore, managing Mona, Monito and Desecheo for the conservation of fish and wildlife resources, including federally-listed species, is part of the missions of both agencies. In addition, existing regulatory mechanisms provide for the protection and conservation of this species.

PRDNER has been conducting a Wildlife Restoration Program supported by the Service’s Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Program on Mona for more than two decades. One of the objectives of this program is to control feral goats and hogs for the protection of the cactus and other federally-listed species from predation by these exotic species.

University of Puerto Rico

Volunteers walk up a concrete path on an island
Dr. Julissa Rojas-Sandoval and volunteers at Mona Island. Photo by Julissa Rojas-Sandoval.

The University of Puerto Rico (UPR) at Río Piedras, has provided essential information for the recovery of the cactus species Harrisia portoricensis (higo chumbo) by evaluating the role of different biotic and abiotic factors in the population dynamics of the natural population on Mona Island. In addition, UPR experts have conducted research on the distribution and abundance of this species, its reproductive biology (e.g. pollinators and seed viability) and the effects of alien grasses on its demographic patterns.

Island Conservation

Between 2008 and 2009, the Service entered into an agreement with Island Conservation to control invasive species on Desecheo. The restoration program and conservation actions implemented in Desecheo resulted in the eradication of goats, macaque monkeys and rodents. After eradication, a monitoring plan was established in order to assess the recovery the Island’s ecosystem over time.

A mountanous island covered in shrubs surrounded by deep blue sea
Desecheo island. Photo © Island Conservation, used with permission.

Subject matter experts

For more information about this species, please contact:

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service
Caribbean Ecological Services Field Office
Address: PO Box 491, Boquerón, PR 00622
Telephone: (787) 851-7297 / Fax: (787) 851-7440
fws.gov/southeast/caribbean

Federal register notices

The following Federal Register documents were automatically gathered by searching the Federal Register Official API with this species’ scientific name ordered by relevance. You can conduct your own search on the Federal Register website.

  • We're sorry but an error occurred. Visit the Federal Register to conduct your own search.

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