Thursday, September 5, 2019

Describing the impossible: a sauropod fossil from Cuba

A joint effort of Cuban-Argentinian paleontologists have recently published a detailed description of a dinosaur fossil found in the rocks of Cuba. With it, the researchers concluded that the fragmentary remain could have belonged to a rare dinosaur group that inhabited the surrounding landmasses of the proto-Caribbean Sea, preserving it in rocks that are now part of the Cuban terrain.

The interesting fossil was discovered at the start of the 20th century, in Jurassic-age rocks of the Jagua Formation, which crop out near Viñales, western Cuba. The fossil, however, did not gain certain attention until it was described and figured in a small note published by the Cuban geologist Alfredo de la Torre y Callejas, in 1949. In it, de la Torre credits the discovery to America Ana Cuervo, a professor of Geology and Paleontology at the University of Havana, and who had published several articles on Cuban fossil reptiles. Apparently, professor Cuervo donated the specimen to the University’s museum, where it was later available to de la Torre.

Metacarpal position for the somphospondylan sauropod from Cuba.
With insert of original specimen found by Prof. America A. Cuervo.
Courtesy of Yasmani Ceballos.
Unfortunately, the fossil has been lost since, and its whereabouts are still a mystery. All that remains of the enigmatic fossil are de la Torre’s vague descriptions and the small photograph published in 1949 (see figure below). Classifying it, based on such scanty data, has no doubt been challenging for the research team, but also very rewarding for Cuban paleontology. Comprising a  rare and noteworthy record indeed.

The research team, composed of Yasmani Ceballos Izquierdo – an upcoming Cuban paleontologist – and Dr. Manuel Iturralde-Vinent – the Cuban geologist-paleontologist extraordinaire, were led by the Argentinian dinosaur specialist Dr. Sebastián Apesteguía. Together, they recently published the interesting findings of their study in the prestigious journal Historical Biology.

Based on detailed comparisons, they have been able to identify the lost fossil bone as pertaining to the hand bone – a metacarpal – representing an old lineage of the Somphospondylii or a basal titanosaurid. These dinosaurs belonged to a group of giant herbivore sauropods that inhabited the coastal lands of Laurasia and Gondwanaland.

Alliance between Cuban and Argentinian paleontologists has spanned over a hundred years, starting with the Argentinian paleontologist Florentino Ameghino, who collaborated with Cuban researchers through the late 19th century. During the 1990s, Dr. Manuel Iturralde worked with Dr. Zulma Gasparini in the identification of rare reptilian fossils found in Jurassic-age rocks from Cuba. The most recent collaboration with Dr. Sebastián Apesteguía, like in the past, has no doubt bore fruitful results.

Metacarpal from somphospondylan sauropod from Cuba.
Original specimen found by Prof. America A. Cuervo.
Courtesy of Yasmani Ceballos.
Not only is this the first and only dinosaur yet reported from Cuba, but the fossil is also of biogeographical importance. It brings evidence of the extinct animals that inhabited the area that was to become the Caribbean Sea and some of its islands, like Cuba, several millions of years before the end-Cretaceous mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs.

Idealized scene of the western Tethys - early Caribbean seaway, and fauna
known from fossil remains found in Cuba.
Artwork by Roilan. Courtesy of Yasmani Ceballos.

After the supercontinent Pangea broke up, around 200-180 million years ago, it divided into several landmasses. Some to the northern hemisphere, others to the southern hemisphere. Laurasia is the landmass that existed when the North American continent was interconnected to its Eurasian counterpart, several hundred million years ago. The surrounding landmasses had a narrow seaway in which this fossil was probably washed into. The rocks of the bottom of that seaway have long since moved and incorporated to form parts of the main island of Cuba. This fossil, among other biological remains known from similar rocks formations, support the presence of emerged land nearby the proto-Caribbean seaway – known as the western Tethys.

The Earth during the Jurassic period (~200 -145 million years ago). Red circle shows area of proto Caribbean
Artwork and geologic interpretation by Christopher Scotese.


I extend my thanks to and appreciation for Yasmani Ceballos, who shared revealing information to prepare this post.

Recommended citation:

Apesteguía, S., Ceballos Izquierdo, Y., and Iturralde-Vinent, M. (2019). New taxonomic assignment for a dinosaur sauropod bone from Cuba. Historical Biology,

Friday, August 16, 2019

When did the turkey vulture arrive in Cuba?

All the American vultures belong to the Cathartidae, a neotropical endemic and diverse bird family of carrion scavengers. Currently, the family is integrated by four buzzard-like vultures and three condors including the turkey vulture (Cathartes aura), the black vulture (Coragyps atratus), up to the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus) and the Andean condor (Vulture gryphus).

Of these New World vultures, the genus Cathartes is the most diverse with three species, C. burrovianus, C. melanbrothus, and C. aura. Of these, the turkey vulture Cathartes aura, along with the black vulture Coragyps atratus, are the most widespread, inhabiting nearly all the American continent and parts of the West Indies, including the island of Cuba. Turkey vultures abound on the island and is easily observable today. But when did it reach Cuba? When did it become part of its fauna? Was it before or after the arrival of Europeans?

Cathartidae fossils are known in the New World, confidently, since at least late Miocene, and more so during the Pliocene-Pleistocene epoch, meaning during the last 6 million years. Interestingly, fossil Cathartidae have been reported from the late Oligocene (~23 million years) of Mongolia (Emslie, 1988). With such a long fossil record, one would think that the presence of the turkey vulture in Cuba spans to the Pleistocene. At least, that was what was originally thought by Cuban paleontologists.

The source of uncertainty is because turkey vultures seem to have a poor fossil record in Cuba. Several remains found in cave deposits near the capital city of La Habana, in Cueva Lamas and Cueva del Túnel, were at first interpreted as Late Pleistocene in age (see Arredondo, 1984). These specimens were later revised by the Cuban paleornithologist extraordinaire, William Suárez, who concluded that these were modern specimens and not fossil material (mixing of bone remains in caves is a common phenomenon, and one must be extra careful in discerning what is a fossil, or subfossil, and what is modern).

Based on the research of the Cuban zooarchaeologist Osvaldo Jiménez, turkey vulture remains have been identified in early 17th-century colonial contexts of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), which agree with documentation of the time. Jiménez argues that the species was already considered common in Jamaica by 1680, where it adopted the name of John Crow. It was from this island that the species spread into Cuba, Hispaniola, and Bahamas, becoming established by the late 18th century. It was further introduced in Puerto Rico during the 19th century for sanitary reasons (Jiménez and Arrazcaeta, 2008).

Two important accounts document the presence and widespread of the turkey vulture in Cuba during the colonial period. One is a mention made by the governor of the eastern department of Cuba, Juan Garcia de Navia Castrillón, in June of 1617. The other is a watercolor sketch made by soldier Henry Fletcher in august 1762, during the Siege of Havana by the British (see figure below). This illustration brings an interesting note that reads “head of a turkey buzzard or carrion crow, a fowl common in the West Indies. The body resembles very much a large brown turkey”.  Both accounts support the apparent widespread of this species on the islands by then.

"head of a turkey buzzard or carrion crow, a fowl common in the West Indies.
The body resembles very much a large brown turkey"
By Henry Fletcher (august 1762).
Digital scan of the John Carter Brown Library, Rhode Island.

More recently, however, during our excavations of Cueva de los Nesofontes at Palenque Hill (source of several posts in this blog, available here and here), we encountered several unequivocal Cathartes aura subfossil remains in beds dated to less than a couple thousand years before the present (Orihuela, 2019). These fossils seem to reinstate that the turkey vulture was present in Cuba before European arrival for at least several thousands of years.

Cathartes aura from a cave deposit at Cueva de los Nesofontes, Cuba
This makes sense biogeographically, due to the proximity of the Greater Antilles and the continental mainland. In fact, many of the turkey vulture groups that migrate between parts of the continents, do so by flying over the same span of Caribbean ocean (Moore, 2000). Moreover, fossils of the species have also been found in Bahamian sinkhole deposits (Ficus Pit, in San Salvador, see Olson et al., 1990). Olson and colleagues reached the conclusion, as we do here, that turkey vultures likely arrived in the Greater Antilles due to natural expansion, especially after the extinction of many of the islands large and diverse raptors probably during the Holocene.

Cited Literature

Arredondo, O. (1980). Sinopsis de las aves halladas en depósitos fosilíferos Pleisto-Holocenicos de Cuba. Reporte de Investigación del Instituto de Zoología, 17: 1-35.

Emslie, S. D. (1988). The fossil history and phylogenetic relationships of condors (Ciconiiformes: Vulturidae) in the New World. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 8(2):212-228.

Fletcher, Henry (1757–1765) Seven Year’s War journal of the 35th regiment on foot (unedited 1409 manuscript). John Carter Brown Library, Rhode Island.

Jiménez Vázquez, O. and Arrazcaeta, R. 2008. Las aves en la arqueología histórica de La
Habana Vieja. Boletín del Gabinete de Arqueología, 7:17–29.
Moore, R. (2000). A fallout of turkey vultures over Florida Bay with notes on water crossing behavior. Florida Field Naturalist, 28(3): 118-121.

Olson, S. L., G. K. Pregill, and W. B. Hilgartner (1990). Studies on fossil and extant vertebrates from San Salvador (Watling’s) Island, Bahamas. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington.

Orihuela, J. (2019). An annotated list of Late Quaternary extinct birds of Cuba. Ornitología
, 30: 57–67.


Friday, May 3, 2019

First Sirenian brain endocast from the Miocene of Cuba

With great pleasure, I announce the recent publication of our paper on the first sirenian endocranial casts yet known from the Caribbean. Our paper, coauthored by the paleontologists Lázaro W. Viñola and Ted Macrini, was published on the specialized Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology this month (link here and here).

Fossilized brain mold of a Dugongid specimen from Matanzas, Cuba

A resume of the major findings can be read in the abstract:

We report and describe the first sirenian endocranial casts from the West Indies based on three specimens collected from two quarries of the late Oligocene-early Miocene Colón Formation, in the Province of Matanzas, western Cuba. We assign them to Dugongidae incertae sedis, based on a phylogenetic analysis of fossil and extant sirenians. Thus, these new specimens provide a unique opportunity to describe the endocranial neuroanatomy of a long-extinct sirenian. The endocasts suggest a dugongid with limited vision and olfactory, based on the diminished olfactory and optic nerves. Additionally, we provide a geologic reinterpretation of the Colón Formation and its paleoecological setting. Altogether, these data provide further insight into the diversity and evolution of sirenians, especially Caribbean dugongs.

For the interested reader, sirenians are marine mammals which include the manatees of the Atlantic Ocean and the dugongs of the Indo-Pacific Ocean. These aquatic mammals were originally called sirenians because seem by sailors from afar, they looked similar to humans or the famed sirens of mythological lore (example from Homer’s The Odyssey). These extraordinary mammals were also documented by Columbus’s and its chroniclers after 1492 (see our post on the matter here).

Main differences between manatees (Trichechydae) and dugongs (Dugongidae).
From Enciclopedia Britanica.

One of the first fossil sirenians discovered in Cuba was found by a local researcher named Eustaquio Calera, from Matanzas. He discovered few remains in the limestones of the town of Cabezas, on the road to Union de Reyes, in central Matanzas Province, Cuba. The significance of these fossils, however, remained undetected until the archaeologist Manuel Rivero found them while studying Calera’s collection. Rivero pressed the matter to Luis S. Varona, the main mastozoologist in Cuba at the time, who published his accounts in 1972.

Anatomy of one of the dugongid brain molds from Matanzas (Cuba) described
in our paper.

This discovery is significant for several reasons:

The first being, that this is thus far, the first brain mold (endocast) reported from any sirenian in the Caribbean fossil record. Second, it suggests the presence of at least two unknown species yet undescribed from the region. Although the Caribbean basin is known to have been a hotspot of sirenian speciation and evolution since the Eocene (~40 million years ago), these additional species support a higher level of diversity during the last 20 million years or during the Miocene. Last, but not least, these kind of fossils are very rare, and represent a unique phenomenon of fossilization. For an endocast or mold to form, the organism must be covered, almost immediately after death, in sediment. That sediment must be fine enough to invade all the nicks and crannies, including the brain cavity. After that, that parcel of mud must become stone o lithified enough to preserve the specimen it encapsulates.

In nature, these events are extremely rare or very low probability. Making this finding a unique and one of a kind opportunity to study the brain anatomy of long-gone organisms that we can study today only through their fossil matter.

We take this opportunity to thank all those that were involved in our project. The discoverers of the fossils in the quarries and the museum curator that allowed us to study their collections. Many thanks are due to our friends and family who supported us with guidance and critical commentaries that no doubt made our work better. Many thanks to all.


Orihuela, J., L. W. Vinola Lopez, and T. Macrini (2019). First cranial endocasts of early Miocene sirenians (Dugongidae) from the West Indies. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 39: DOI:10.1080/02724634.2019.1584565 

Friday, April 5, 2019

Peñas Altas: a forgotten colonial military fortification

Welcome back blog readers. New publication available!
It is with great pleasure once more that I announce the publication of yet another of our papers in the series dedicated to the archaeology and history of the military fortifications of the bay of Matanzas, Cuba. In this occasion, we discuss new evidence – of archaeological, historical and geological nature –pertaining to the battery of Cagigal or Peñas Altas. Demolished in 1962, this battery was converted to a park and nearly forgotten by locals, was named in the honor of one of Cuba’s colonial governors: don Juan Manuel de Cagigal y Martinez, who governed the island from 1819 until 1821.

One of our new discovered fort plans made it to the cover:
Penas Altas battery plan of 1819

 An abstract of the paper reads thus:

The coastal battery of Peñas Altas was the last fortification to complete the defensive system surrounding Matanzas Bay, Cuba. This research offers new information gathered from the analysis of unpublished maps, historical archives, and a preliminary archaeological survey. Such information has allowed us to limit the construction of the fortification between December 1819 and 1820, and not in 1818- 1819 as assumed by traditional historiography. Four important moments in its evolution are identified: planning and construction (1818-1827), remodeling (1840-1850), expansion (1876-1886), and a second remodeling in 1907. Peñas Altas functioned as a military post throughout the nineteenth century, and later became a police station and munition warehouse until its demolition in 1962. Only a few walls and part of the platform remain, however, they represent an important part of the lost heritage with potential for further research and tourism development.

The paper presents several unknown or inedited documents, plans, maps and photographs that record the history of the battery and the changes it underwent through Cuban history. We also explore the preservation of several of its surviving features and the possibility of turning its current state into a historical park.

The article is available on my other pages here, or on the page of the scientific journal Arquitectura and Urbanismo, on which it was published.

Thank you once more for reading and visiting. Stay tuned for more news!

Recommended citation

Hernández de Lara, O., J. Orihuela León & B. Rodríguez Tápanes (2019). Batería de Peñas Altas: apuntes histórico-arqueológicos sobre una fortaleza olvidada (Matanzas, Cuba). Revista científica de Arquitectura y Urbanismo, XV, 1: 5-22.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

New fossil records of triggerfish from the Miocene of Cuba

Exciting news for the Cuban fossil record! A new article was recently published on the journal Historical Biology describing a new species of triggerfish (Balistes vegai) and a new occurrence record for the triggerfish species Balistes crassidens from the Miocene of Matanzas, Cuba. This is an exciting new contribution to the geological and fossil record, particularly the region of Matanzas, and the island of Cuba in general.

The article is co-authored by the Cuban researchers Lazaro W. Viñola and Logel Lorenzo along with the specialist Richard Carr of Montana State University. In it, the authors provide not only the description of the new species but also a revision of the taxonomy and fossil record of the genus.

The fish of the genus Balistes are most diverse in the tropical waters of the Indo-Pacific Ocean, with a few species occurring also in the Mediterranean and western Atlantic. Two species are currently known from the Caribbean: Balistes vetula and Balistes capriscus. The new species, B. vegai, is so far the largest species described. It was named in honor of Johnny Vega Piloto, a member of the Cuban Speleological Society, who in 2013 discovered the first fossil evidence.

Copyright 2019
Artistic reconstruction of Balistes vegai by Ethan Schmunk showing
an adult B. vegai chasing a juvenile megalodon shark (Otodus megalodon) in Cuban waters. 

Balistes are peculiar fish characterized by an elongated snout, powerful jaws, and teeth that allow them to prey on invertebrates such as sea urchins. These are often aggressive and territorial fishes. Generally, these are not easily digestible by humans since they tend to be toxic. Nonetheless, people eat them in several parts of Cuba and the Caribbean.

Maybe one of the most relevant aspects of this discovery is its implication for the local fossil record, and Caribbean natural history, geology, and paleontology in general. The presence of triggerfish in the Miocene rocks of Cuba suggests the existence of marine ecosystems similar to those exploited by these fish in the region today. Moreover, it supports the hypothesis that a wide, shallow and warm sea existed in what is today the central lowlands and low hills of the Matanzas region, about a dozen million years ago.


Viñola, L. W., R. Carr, and L. Lorenzo (2019). First occurrence of fossil Balistes (Tetradontiformes: Balistidae) from the Miocene of Cuba with the description of a new species and a revision of fossil Balistes. Historical Biology DOI: 10.1080/08912963.2019.1580278.

Para leer una versión en español, visite nuestro otro blog San Carlos de Matanzas aquí