Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Winter Solstice & End of the Year Celebrations

The end of the year always brings a bit of reflection. We have now passed the year's winter solstice, which occurred in the Northern Hemisphere on December 22. Our planet Earth is, and all of us living in it are, moving towards perihelion when we will be closest to the Sun. But wait, that makes no sense. How come if we are closer to the sun we are in winter!? Well, that makes more sense for the Southern Hemisphere, than to us in the Northern Hemisphere. This is because the Earth's path of rotation around the sun, which is a year in our human calendars, is not a circle but instead is oblong or ellipsoid. This means that there will be times when the Earth will be closer to the Sun, and others when we are farther from the Sun, as we revolve around in our orbit around the Sun. Come January we will be in full perihelion.

During the winter solstice, the Northern Hemisphere angles away from the sun's direct rays, but the Southern Hemisphere angles towards it. The angling away from the sun gives us winter, whereas is summer in the Southern Hemisphere.

The winter solstice marks the longest night of the year, and the shortest day of the year. Right now we are experiencing earlier sunsets, longer nights, and shorter days. This will continue until de Spring. This natural astronomical shift has been a source of magical mysticism and celebration for millennia.

14th Century "Roman de Fauvel" from the Bibliotheque National de France, Paris).
It depicts a sort of feast, usually associated to the medieval Feast of the Fools.

The solstices are astronomical phenomena. They have been a source of celebration and festivities for many western cultures. Ancient civilizations have long observed these variations, many which celebrated the changes or seasons and erecting monuments to help them predict their approach. Famous examples of these are, of course, Stonehenge in Southern England, and  Machu Picchu in Peru.

Intihuatana stone, in Machu Picchu. A calendar stone atop the ruins of Machu Picchu, rediscovered by Hiram Bingham in 1911.

These festivities we still celebrate today but under different names. The pagan Anglo-Saxons celebrated Modraniht around December 25, other celebrated Yule (more common among the Wiccans of today), and the Romans had Saturnalia. Roman Saturnalia  was a celebration around all the end of the year in honor of the god Saturn. During the medieval period, Saturnalia was known by Christians as the Feast of Fools of Festum Factuorum, and the Yule Log celebrations, many which were altogether later adopted and modified into our modern Christmas.

Yule Log illustration in Robert Chambers 1864 edition of Books of Days, pg. 734. Wikipedia commons.

On that note, happy end of the year festivities, whichever way you may call them. May the new year bring you happiness and health.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

This Was Once the Bottom of the Caribbean Sea

The rocks that make up these low hills are part of the ancient Caribbean sea. In a way, the rocks of this abandoned quarry are a museum, a small window into a shallow sea that divided northwestern Cuba during the Miocene, between 23 and 5 million years ago (fig. 1). This is the Guines formation. Its low rolling hills encase the valleys between Havana and Matanzas, and other parts of northern Cuba. Its rocks are  especially interesting for their richness in fossilized teeth of the extinct Megalodon shark, whales, and with them the many clues they hold about the ancient Caribbean sea world.

Fig. 1: These hard limestones were once the bottom of a warm and shallow sea in the northern Caribbean.

Carcharodon megalodon Agassiz, 1843 is a giant version of the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) of our modern oceans, and one of the top predators of its time. It is also one of the most recognized fossils, and one of the most coveted by fossil collectors. In Cuba, fossils of this extinct shark are interestingly common on limestone of the Habana-Matanzas carbonate hills, where local quarrymen frequently find them among whales, dugongs, and other shark fossils (fig. 2) (Iturralde et al., 1996).

Fig. 2: Carcharodon megalodon from the Guines formation. 

Overall the fossilized teeth are superbly preserved. Many can be found together with other teeth, invertebrate fossils, or alone encased in the rock matrix. This same matrix holds microscopic clues to the environment - the paleoecology of the ancient seas where these and other creatures lived - plus clues to how they came to be preserved in such way for millions of years.

On closer inspection, the limestone of the Guines fm. are composed of small microscopic organisms, large mollusks (gastropods and bivalves), sea urchins, and very few corals (fig. 3-6). This type of limestone is called fossiliferous limestones for its abundance of fossils. It is also known as fine-grained, often recrystallized biodetritic limestone because the minerals that make up the rock have changed their structure after many millions of years of exposure to water and other conditions. It is biodetritic because the larger clasts,  were once parts and bits of living organisms, such as the mollusk mentioned above, that became part of the sediment when this was a sea.

Fig. 3. Gastropods and bivalve molds and casts on limestone of the formation.

For instance, fig. 3 shows a rock face where many benthic organisms that were once living within the seafloor are preserved. The half moon structures are casts of bivalve shells, now filled in with minerals. The rounded structures are gastropods and parts of sea urchins. Shark teeth are found in such mix.

Fig. 4: Schizaster cf. guirensis? A regular echinoderm - a sea urchin of this Miocene ancient sea.

The Guines formation dates to the middle-late Miocene and is well over 10 million years old. Over the last 100 years, it has had several descriptions and names. It was once called the Yumuri Limestone by DeGoyler (1918) and Bermudez and Hofftetter (1959), or the Yumuri Formation. Judoley and Furrazola considered this formation just a variation or member (1971). The detailed studies of Iturralde (1969) clearly establish it as a distinct Miocene formation, covering extensive areas in meridional western Cuba (Franco et al, 1992).
(Trivia: The Miocene epoch was named by one of the first geologists Sir Charles Lyell).

Fig. 5: A single scleractinian coral polyp Scolymia cf. cubensis Edwards and Haime, 1849 alongside bivalve clams. The Scolymia is a fossil index of the middle-late Miocene (~ 13 to 5 million years ago).

Under the microscope, and after making a very thin slice of the rock (thin enough to allow light to go through the rock), one can see microscopic shells of tiny water snails called pteropods, miliolid, and amphistaginid foraminifera, within a matrix of the minerals calcite (CaCO3), and dolomite CaMg(CO3)2 which has grown later. In thin section as it is called, the bioclasts have long been eroded and dissolved, leaving behind empty spaces in the shapes of the organisms that were once in the matrix known as ghosts (fig. 5).

Fig. 6: Thin slide showing the ghosts of bivalve shells, a planktic and miliolid foraminifera in the center field of view.
The sparitic crystals suggest recrystallization (see the prismatic crystals inside the ghosts).

The fauna and the minerals suggest that the Guines limestone formed in relatively shallow and warm waters, teeming with bottom living and burrowing lifeforms in its carbonate substrate. The large vertebrate remains indicate the presence of large sharks and whales, and all of them an intricate warm water environment, likely forming open water channel. Such an environment was suggested by previous research Iturralde (1969) and visible in the paleo reconstructions of MacPhee and Iturralde (2000). Figure 7.

Fig. 7: Paleoreconstruction of the Miocene seaway that separated what is now the region of Havana-Matanzas.
Form MacPhee and Iturralde, 2000.  

Fig. 8: A large fragment of bone encased on the limestone. This is large enough to be from a Miocene vertebrate,
maybe even a whale!

But what do the rocks and fossils say about that past? The fossil fauna of the Guines fm. suggests that this given region was once a shallow marine environment, open, with very few reef banks. The frequent fossil shark fossils suggest that this area could have been a shark nursery. I will speculate further and think that it was so because it supported marine mammals and fish to feed these large sharks, and because the basin was warm and confined enough to be a nursery (fig. 7-8). More evidence, as always, is needed.

Stay tuned for more !

Cited Literature

Bermudez, B., and Hofftetter (1959). Stratigraphic Lexicon of Cuba. Lexique Stratigraphique International, 5, Amerique Latine, Fasc. 2c, Cuba et lles Adjacents, 140 pág.

DeGoyler (1918). The geology of Cuban petroleum deposits. American Association of Petroleum Geologists Bulletin, 2: 133-167.

Franco-Alvarez, G.L. et al. (1992). Léxico Estratigráfico de Cuba. Centro de Nacional de Información Geológica, La Habana, 658 pág.

Iturralde-Vinent, M. (1969). El Neogeno de la Provincia de Matanzas, Cuba. Publicacion Especial Instituto Nacional de Recursos Hidraulicos, 7: 3-30.

Iturralde-Vinent, M., G. Hubbell, and R. Rojas Consuegra. 1996. Catalog of Cuban fossil Elasmobranchii (Paleocene-Pliocene) and Paleoceanographic Implications for their Lower-Middle Miocene Ocurrence. Boletin de la Sociedad Jamaicana de Geologia, 31: 7-21.

Judoley and Furrazola (1967). La posición de Cuba en la estructura geológica de la región del Caribe. Tecnológica, 5 (6).

MacPhee, R.D.E., e Iturralde-Vinent, M., (2000). A short history of Greater Antillean land mammals: biogeography, paleogeography, radiations, and extinctions. Tropics, 10 (1): 145-154.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

The First Thanksgiving: Saint Agustine 1565

Happy Thanksgiving!

Even though Thanksgiving is a holiday we celebrate every year in North America, few north Americans actually know that it was celebrated for the first time in Saint Augustine, Florida. Most people believe it is a holiday associated with the puritans - pilgrim immigrants of the Plymouth area. But in reality, it was first celebrated by the Spanish of Florida 55 years before the pilgrims.

Fort San Marcos, completed in 1695, is a historical icon of colonial Saint Augustine, North Florida.

The Spanish discovered Florida around 1512, but did not formally or permanently settle it until Pedro Menendez de Aviles founded Saint Augustine in 1565. Of course, these first celebrations were not as we are too often taught in school.

Museums around the world, and especially in North America, often set aside special exhibitions to celebrate this holiday as part of our cultural heritage.

Sample of early diet including pigs, deer, and corn, excavated from early colonial Spanish St. Augustine on
display at FLMNH.

The Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville is celebrating by opening the doors of its newest exhibit "First Colony: Our Spanish Origins", based on artifacts of the early Spanish colony excavated by archeologists in the old town of Saint Augustine. The small village founded then was the place where the first Thanksgiving was celebrated in 1565 by Menendez de Aviles and his group of settlers. The artifacts showcased here are utilitarian wares used for alimentary purposes, including dinner plates, sauces, bottles, and large containers used to store and serve food.

Early bottles, and bottle bottoms showing maker marks.

The expo is small, but very well planned, mounted, and diverse: a real treat for those interested in early American history, and in Spanish colonial history. Here I showcase some of the artifacts on display. If you cant make the trip, visit the FLMNH website here or watch this YouTube video.

Pottery shards: parts of plates and saucer from archeological sites in Saint Augustine, Fl

With everything that is going on the world today, it is a great opportunity to put aside all ideological differences and rejoice in our intermittent existence. Look to our place in this amazing planet for what it is: a once in a lifetime opportunity not to be wasted by conflict.

In the realm of flowers, a perfumed land,
Girt by the sea, by soft winds fanned;
Ravaged by war in years grown old,
Its former glory a tale long told,
Stands the quaint old Spanish city.
The scene of many a hard-fought fight,
Of many a siege, when Spanish might
Was o'er the land: in its decay
It hath a beauty to live away,
That quaint old Spanish city.
Poems of Places
Saint Augustine Standard Guide (1885)

Monday, November 2, 2015

The Day of the Dead

In celebration of the Day of the Dead, here I post two allegorical gravitas.

The Day of the Dead, or Día de Muertos, is part of Mexican folkloric tradition that has spread into southwestern US and parts of Central America. Mainly it is a day to remember those that are no longer among us, no longer among the living. For that reason I have chosen two human remains, that up to 2002, laid forgotten in their cemetery, well beyond the rescue and the memory of those who knew them.

I hope that by placing them here they wont be forgotten; even if we can no longer know their names.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Matanzas City: Celebrating 322 years of Foundation

Modern map of the Cuban archipelago in the Caribbean Sea. Part of the Province of Matanzas is boxed.

The tercentennial city of Matanzas, located in the bay of Matanzas, northwestern Cuba (and the center location of many of my posts), celebrates today 322 years since its foundation, 523 since the rediscovery of the New World by Christopher Columbus.

I want to celebrate this event by blogging a bit about the history of the city in which I was born and raised; a place that I love. I hope my enthusiasm rubs off, for to know Matanzas is to love her.

Plan of the City of Matanzas from 1837 showing the main urban center at the birth of the bay.
This plan was certainly one of the most detailed of its time.

Old Matanzas is located between the San Juan and Yumuri rivers. The city was founded out of a whim of protection in the fall of 1693. The bay that harbors the city had been known to the Spanish colonists and conquistadors since at least 1508, and much before to several cultures of Amerindians who inhabited the area for over 3 millennia. The bay was known as Guanima, with a prominent town called Yucayo during the latest period of Amerindian habitation.

Matanzas's Cathedral built in front of the place were the original foundational church was built in 1693. The photo looks North.

On the morning of October 12 of 1693, governor Severino de Manzaneda, the bishop Diego Evelino de Compostela set out to delimit what was going to be the extent of the city. Matanzas's planning and delimitation resulted in creating one of the most ordered cities of its time.

Liberty Park on the main square, showing off the glory of the Statue of Liberty
and that of our national figure Jose Marti.

The area was not unknown, however, to officials and merchants in Havana, or others in the Caribbean, for the nearby lands have been settled, inhabited, and used as contraband outposts since the early 16th century.  The Crown's want of control on illicit trading there, constantly on the rise since then and with frequent roaming of pirates culminating in the attack of Piet Heyn in 1628 later, finally incited its official foundation, but more as a measure of protection. Manzaneda, Cordova, and several other surveyors of the Crown had been visiting the bay since 1684 to scout out the specific areas whereupon to build the fort of San Severino, and where to place the church. Both structures would bring, ideally, a sense of security and seriousness to the enterprise for the soon to be Matanceros; immigrants from the Canary Islands.

Plan of Jose Fernandez Sotolongo dating to 1764, depicting the embryonic city already 71 years founded. The red
polygons are the inhabited quarters. The gray is delimited, but unused areas.

The city of Matanzas was formerly known as "La Atenas de Cuba", or the Athens of Cuba, due to its social and cultural growth during the 19th century, which was consequently fostered by great sugar boom of that era. Today is just "La Ciudad Dormida", or the "City that Sleeps". In my version, it is the Athens that Sleeps because Matanzas still retains a large, but latent, cultural and historically-rich ambiance, that to this day, characterize its people.

View of the bay and part of the city of Versalles and Matanzas from La Loma del Estero, a small hill that sets
the amphitheater that encases de city to the bay.

The recent creation of a Conservation Office, under the leadership of the city's first conservator Leonel P. Orozco, alongside the aid of the Office of the City's Historian attests to the national interest in reviving the protection and restoration of locally important monuments, and fostering a healthy interest in the city's local past.

Detail of one of the towers of the iconic Concord bridge, also known as the Jose Lacret Morlot
bridge, built by Spanish architect Pedro Celestino del Pandal and finalized in 1878.

We wish you happy 322 years Matanzas!

Note: Since this post was written, now a year ago, a colleague and I created a blog dedicated to the history and culture of Matanzas, written in Spanish, but equally visually rewarding for those interested. Visit San Carlos de Matanzas today!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Newly Discovered Cave Pictograph: Update

Hello everyone,

I have come to the conclusion that some of my latest posts have been a bit lengthy, but picturesque. I had hoped to flesh out more useful information regarding my research, guided by imagery, but due to new time constraints, I have resolved on doing shorter posts. These will continue to be informative nevertheless, but easier to digest. It will be better since I get easily distracted and digress. Henceforth, I plan for my posts to be sort of less informal updates and tidy bits of juicy information.

So, yes, right to the news. On my previous post about "Shaman or Monkey" pictograph, I blogged about the unexpectedly, but a nevertheless interesting discovery of line pictograph on Palenque Hill, in northwestern Cuba. My colleague and co-discoverer Leonel Perez-Orozco has recently divulged such discovery on the local and international press (such as Giron,  Prensa Latina, and Cuba Arqueologica), and hence I wanted to clarify several points.

Fig. 1: Pictograph of fine charcoal line patterns on the cave wall.

The pictographs are the dark charcoal lines in the upper center of figure 1. As of today, we are not sure who and when they were made. However, based on its form and make we think they were made by either aboriginals or maroons that took to the hills during the Spanish conquest of the island, which action has named the very same hill where the cave is located. That is the meaning of Palenque, originally a maroon stockade, a name that was later modified to mean a hideout for runaway slaves or native Indians.

If made by Amerindians, these were probably of hunter-gatherer groups that could have used the cave as ritual or hideout. But we have no evidence of either living activities or hideout at this point. Sadly, most of the piece have been erased by water that filters through the cave wall.

The little cave is apparently called Campamento Cave, or Camping Cave. We made this accidental discovery on our recent survey of this hill, which is an important component of the anticlinal Habana-Matanzas hill range, in northwestern Cuba. This pictograph is somewhat  important because thus far, this sort of evidence was lacking from the region, and it hints at what the name of the hill already suggested. Even though the harder evidence is wanting.

Stay tuned for more news!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Quotes of the Month

These are a few brainy quotes by some of the greatest minds. Indulge!

"If we knew what is what we are doing, it would not be called research. Would it?"
Albert Einstein

"No one undertakes research with the intention of winning a prize. It is for the joy of discovering something new" 
Stephen Hawking

"Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose"
Zora Neale Hurston

"It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data" 
Arthur Conan Doyle (Sherlock Holmes)

"An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest"
Benjamin Franklin

Monday, August 10, 2015

Cave Fossil Faunas: Cuba 2015

Once again I am back from exciting fieldwork on the main island of Cuba, the largest of all Caribbean islands. Cuba is an island full of paleobiological treasures and riddles that await to be unraveled. Every year I think of ideas and excuses to return and see things I did not see before.

The Cuban archipelago is comprised of the main island of Cuba, the much smaller Isle of Pines, plus several thousand cays and keys. As you may have noticed from my previous posts, I am biased towards Cuba and the Greater Antilles. This is not only because it is my home country, but because its complex geological history provides a unique opportunity to study the intricacies of the Caribbean's ancient environments and the evolution of its unique biota.

Fig. 1: Pliocene limestone of the Canimar formation on the west banks of the Canimar river, in Matanzas.

This time, I visited with the goal to explore and assess several regions, those rich in caves and fossil remains that were pending from the previous year's roster.

My research involves studying the faunas of the past. In this case, the past faunas of Cuba and the Greater Antilles, which in a way make up an archipelago of their own comprised of the large islands of the Bahamas, Jamaica, Hispaniola, Cuba, Puerto Rico, and their many thousands of keys. With the data, we gather I hope to elucidate the processes of the most recent extinctions there, and the role that humans have played in it, especially the last 5000 years since the arrival of the first Amerindians to the island and later the Europeans. With this, I strive to understand the mechanism and the overall magnitude of their ecological impact. This is, within the scheme of time, mostly after the onset of the last interglaciation, a warm period called the Holocene.

With this in mind, our trip began in the city of Matanzas, on the banks of the Canimar river (fig. 1).

Fig. 2: Cliff cave on the Canimar river gorge, formed on Pliocene limestones of the Canimar fm.

This is a region with deep canyon walls dotted with caves (fig. 2). The caves open up in the limestone of the Canimar formation, rocks that formed between 5 and 2 million years ago in the marine environments that surrounded this region. Then, all this was underwater. Recent tectonic oscillations have risen those lithified marine sediments which the river has carved into a gorgeous, biologically rich gorge; an environment that the Amerindians (native aboriginals) knew how to exploit well.

Fig. 3: The red-legged thrush Tordus plumbeus in the woodlands of the Canimar river. A common member of the local fauna.

The fossil remains of the terrestrial fauna found in the region's cave deposits are very similar to the modern fauna. This fauna is comprised of large rodents called Jutias or Hutias (Capromys spp.), reptiles, amphibians, and a diverse avifauna that includes the red-legged thrush (Tordus plumbeus), like that of figure 3, and the endemic Cuban trogon (Priotelus temnurus) of figure 4.

Fig. 4: The Cuban trogon Priotelus temnurus is a Cuban endemic, and the national bird.

We were targeting caves with large openings or sinkholes (also called dolines) which allow in light, rain, soil, and animals that come to roost within. Other animals wander inside or become trapped, leaving behind the remains of their adventure scattered on the cave floor. As my previous post on Cuban and Hispaniola exploration show (here), these caves are especially important to my research because they have served as a natural reservoir for faunal remains, representative of those that inhabited the region during the last hundred thousand years.

Fig. 5. Large sinkhole complex of Nesofontes' Cave, on Palenque Hill. Here animal
remains accumulated along with other debris that comes in from the outside.

There are few mechanisms that explain the presence of fossil remains within caves. Some fossils are part of the structural rock that makes up the caves. Those fossils are often visible on the cave walls and ceilings. They were part of the marine fauna of the shallow marine environments which gave origin to the limestone that now make up the hills and thus the caves (this process is called karstification if that rock is made out of carbonates like Calcium carbonate). Other fossils are mixed with the soil, plant material, and rock debris that has been dragged into the cave by rain waters or floods over time (fig. 5). Other animals become trapped inside the cave, because they fall in, or are brought in by predators. These are both active and passive mechanisms, both giving way to the accumulation of animal remains within these cavities, and so the treasures of our expeditions.

Fig. 6: Peculiar speleothems within the same cave. This structure testifies to the slow action of carbonatation. 

Caves have interesting water-locked histories. Water that filters through the rocks, laden and heavy with dissolved minerals in their solution, expand cracks within the rocks that eventually, in thousands of years, become caves (like those of fig. 5 and 7). Once these cavities are large enough they start to develop internal microclimates that give way to other secondary formations such as stalactites and stalagmites, collectively called speleothems (fig. 6-8).

Fig. 7: Large lake and sinkhole cave in northeastern Matanzas city: Saturn's Cave. 

Sometimes, parts of the cave's roof or side walls become weak or dissolved by water and collapse, giving origin to the sinkholes mentioned above. These apertures are the key to large deposit formations inside the cavities, and also to the arrival and adaptation of fauna to the different light microenvironments within them. Light does not penetrate into the cave evenly. Instead, light penetrates the cave following square laws that dictate that light is strongest near the opening or source, and weaker or nonexistent deeper into the depths of the cave. This leaves areas of penumbras and umbras in between. Living organisms have evolved to inhabit all these microbiomes.

Fig. 8: Megastalactite speleothems called Columbus Drape at the famous Bellamar Cave
 in Matanzas city. This structure is massive and has taken thousands of years to form. Use hand railing on
the upper left for scale. 

Other caves become inundated creating lakes, pools, and gours. These underwater dark environments are the origination grounds from which specific cave faunas evolve. These organisms range from bacteria to fishes, crabs and shellfish, that in the darkness of the caves have lost their eyes and pigmentation. In this sense, caves can be like islands: laboratories for natural selection and evolution.

The same water that percolates through cracks and crevices can create really marvelous, intricate structures after many thousands of years of drip and drips of water, such as those of figures 6, 9-10.

Fig. 9: Flow-stone grew from dripstone speleothems on Bellamar Cave, Matanzas.

In the same sense that caves are natural laboratories for the evolution of weird organisms, caves are natural laboratories for mineral formations. Out of drips of water, minerals precipitate out forming the aforementioned speleothems. Many of them often forming delicate and aberrant or exuberantly- shaped structures (like the anomolites or anomoliths of figure 10, at Bellamar Cave). These include drip stones, flow-stones (fig. 9), and even structures called "pine trees" or "cave pearls".  In the case of the delicate anemoliths, crystallization of the bicarbonates occurs as the filtered water, higher in CO2 concentrates, encounters the lower CO2 pressure inside the cavity, precipitating these crystals in the direction of the wind (fig. 10). These secondary structures can become natural perches to the volant fauna that inhabit the cave walls.

Fig. 10: Anemoliths of the Bellamar Cave. Peculiar and beautiful secondary formations,
indicative of specific cave microclimates.

Bats are the most famous of cave inhabitants. Many bats are strict cave dwellers, using caves to roost during the day and reproduce. Like the Cuban fruit bat Artibeus jamaicensis of figure 11, bats often select specific rooms inside the cave based on their proximity to the entrances, their internal temperatures, where they can segregate or mix with other species to roost. Other bats are peculiar in being solitary, meeting with their opposite sex only for reproduction during specific seasons, or selecting cave rooms with very high temperatures and humidity. Caves in which temperatures rise higher than 40 degrees Celsius and humidity is greater than 80 percent are called "hot caves", and some bats live exclusively in those. Our research often involves studying such specifically evolved bat fauna.

Fig. 11. Large Cuban fruit bat Artibeus jamaicensis parvipes.

My research also involves studying other faunas, of a more resent epoch. For example, my interests also involve zooarcheology, which is the study of fauna remains associated to human occupied or originated deposits. Such deposits span through aboriginal and colonial deposits, which can help understand the complexity of human-influenced faunal extirpation or domestication.

Fig. 12: El Morrillo, an 18th-century coastal fort on the bay of Matanzas, Cuba. 

Colonial occupation in the Caribbean, as in other parts of the New World after European rediscovery, gave way to modification of natural environments, the introduction of exotic-invasive faunas, of which remains can be found in or around colonial structures, such as that on figure 12 and 13.

Fig. 13: Frontal view of the Morrillo fort on the bay of Matanzas.

This fort served, as did fort San Severino of my previous post, in the coastal protection against illicit trade and pirate attacks throughout the colonial period. Generations of human habitation in these structures have left behind a good record of the use of the local and imported fauna. These deposits are often extensive, including faunas from before and after human occupations, which in turn are great for our study of the influence of mankind on natural faunas, and for establishing relative chronologies to these events.

Fig. 14: Sunrise in the Bay of Matanzas, northwestern Cuba.

From Matanzas, we traveled to another important, but much older karstic region: Pinar del Rio, in western Cuba (fig. 15). Pinar del Rio has a long standing history in the study of Cuban paleontology and geology, attracting the attention of prominent Cuban naturalists like Carlos de la Torre, Felipe Poey, and others since the late 18th century. Explorers have found fossils inside its caves and on its rocks. This region has some of Cuba's oldest rocks, and within its rocks is written the life history of the Caribbean region (fig. 15-17).

Fig. 15: Vinales Valley in Pinar del Rio, western Cuba.

In our search for old faunas, we extended our explorations to Vinales, a unique valley within the aforesaid region (fig. 15-16). This region is unique for many reasons. One is its extensive karst development, including uncountable honeycombs of mammoth caves within its limestone (fig. 17). These same limestones date back to the middle Jurassic when the Caribbean basis did not exist. However, these conic "mogote" formations we see are geologically recent, dating approximately to the Pliocene, between 5 to 2 million years ago.

The Guaniguanico mountain range is a unique karts region of the world. It includes 400-500 meter tall conic karts formations that resemble giant elephants such as those of the Sierra de Los Organos (the "Sierra of the Organs"). There are other parts of the world with such conic or cockpit karst.  Formations such as those of figures 15 and 16 are present in Jamaica, Hispaniola, Puerto Rico, and Guangxi in China. With the two extremes being the Vinales and the Chinese Guangxi.

Fig. 16: Giant elephant-like hills over 400 m in height called Mogotes, are formed out of uplifted Jurassic limestones.

Salvador Massip and Sara Isalgue wrote in 1923 "Cuba came from the depths of the ocean..."Vinales limestones contain fossil remains of prehistoric marine reptiles and mollusks, such as Plesiosaurus, ammonites, and belemnites. I went there searching for fossils of the early Cretaceous - a period several dozen million years younger than the Jurassic. I am interested in records which provide signals of oceanic anoxic events (OAE) and their effect, in this case of extinction-origination- of microfaunas such as phytoplankton and zooplankton. Forams, short for foraminifera, are microscopic single celled-organisms (heterotrophic Protists) that are part of the zooplankton. Forams can live in ocean bottom sediments (called benthic) or float along the surface of deep oceans (planktonic). When they die, they accumulate slowly on the ocean bottom, becoming part and originating sediments. Their shells or test then provide a record of the surrounding fauna and an approximation for the climate.

Fig. 17: Hanging caves at different levels within the Mogotes, indicating the effects of water at different uplift levels.

By chemically studying these fossil organisms we can determine if there were reducing or oxidizing conditions in the ancient oceans that may have lead to massive die-offs, such as is the case of the OAEs, which could further an understanding of the environment during the early stages of the embryonic Caribbean basin.

But I apologize. I have allowed my enthusiasm to extend this post larger than expected. I hope it has been interesting. But by no means, does it encompass the natural beauty or scientific attraction that the Caribbean, especially Cuba,  possess for these kinds of research. In the end, the goal is the same across geological time: to elucidate and deepen our knowledge of the awesome history of our "Pale Blue" planet.

Stay tuned for more post!

Friday, July 17, 2015

Cave Fieldwork in Cuba: 2002 - 2004

The early years of the new millennium were very productive for my research in Cuba. Our explorations, between 1995 and 2002, turned up very interesting fossils, representing rare and extinct faunas. The fruits of these explorations included two new records for Cuba, pertaining to two of the Caribbean's rarest fossil bats: the common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus and Peter's ghost-faced bat Mormoops megalophylla (articles can be downloaded here).

Fig. 1: An articulated skeleton of Mormoops blainvillei at Cueva de la Pluma (Cave of the Feather) in northern Matanzas, Cuba. This species is almost identical but smaller, than Mormoops megalophylla of the continent.

Our fieldwork began in the foothills of the Alturas Habana-Matanzas, a chain of lowland limestone hills that run W to E on the northern coast of Cuba. Uplift and exposure of these limestones during the last 5 million years has given origin to a vast cave region laden with fossil deposits, dating to the last glacial and inter-glacial period.

Fig. 2: Palenque Hill, a lowland limestone hill of the Havana-Matanzas range.
This is a karstic relict of uplifted Miocene seafloor that surrounded this region.

Within this region, we focused on a 200-meter high hill named Palenque (fig. 2-3). The hills of Palenque served as a shelter to runaway aborigines and slaves throughout the colonial period. A "palenque" is the name given to such a hideout. We selected this region mainly because of unstudied caves discovered in the 1980s, with an interesting biotic richness and endemism, characteristics that had attracted two of Cuba's foremost naturalists Carlos de la Torre and Johannes Gundlach a century before. They visited Palenque's hillside in search of unique mollusks, mammals, and birds.

Fig. 3: Karstic vegetation on the escarpment of Palenque hill, at about 180 meters above modern sea level.

A secondary but well preserved tropical semideciduous forest covers Palenque (fig. 3) with a flora that includes several kinds of trees including oaks and mahogany (Quercus and Swietenia spp.), gumbo limbo (Bursera simaruba), Royal Palms (Roystonea regia), plus other Thrinax-like palms in the upper levels. There is even coffee (Coffea arabica) brought into some caves by large fruit bats (Artibeus and Brachyphylla) and birds. Most of the lower level vegetation that extends to the agricultural savanna at the foothills include several kinds of grass, the poison ivy, locally known as Guao (Comocladia dodonea) and the toxic Chichicate (Urtica dioica).

Fig. 4. Main sinkhole of Nesfonte's cave, one of the largest cave of the Palenque, and probably the most extensive.
This is the main owl repository where most of the owl pellets have been accumulating for more than 2000 years. 

Fig. 5: The Cuban tarantula Phormictopus cubensis,  part of the penumbra cave fauna.

These fossil deposits originated from animal and plant remains mixed in with soil dragged into the caves by rainwater. Other were brought in by raptors, for example in vomitus, a form of hairball called pellet. Raptors, owls, and hawks do not fully digest bone and hair. Instead, they regurgitate them in the form of such pellets which accumulate in their cave roosts by the thousands (fig. 1, 6-7; note the round and brown pellet on the right of fig. 6). Because these raptors reuse the same roost areas from generation to generation their nests can include several thousand years of prey/pellet records. Even though their diet is selective, meaning they pick and choose from what prey is available in nature, theses pellets can provide a good record of the local fauna. The caves of Palenque provide an excellent record of that.

Fig. 6: A common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus skull in situ at the moment of discovery.
See the skulls of the brown bat Eptesicus fuscus (on far left) and large Cuban fruit bat Artibeus jamaicensis
skull (on upper right). A fresh owl pellet is next to the vampire bat skull,
 and some fresh material remains inside its braincase, testifying to its freshness.

The first serious discovery came from a newly discovered room in Cueva de la Caja or the Cave of the Box (fig. 3-4), also known as Cueva de Los Nesofontes or Nesofonte's cave, named so for the huge accumulation of Nesophontes fossil remains (more on this curious species on a future post). As archaeologist R. Viera and I explored a section of the cave, we accidentally stumbled upon a small mound on the floor of a newly discovered side room that had gone unnoticed on previous expeditions in 1994 and 2002 (Viera and Orihuela, 2006). In it, there were plant seeds scattered in a mound on the cave's floor and a vampire bat skull right on top like a cherry on the cream (fig. 6-8).

Figure 7: The vampire bat deposit as it looked before excavation on 22 December 2003.

What an interesting and unexpected discovery! At that time, vampire bats had been discovered only three times before, all exclusively from Cuba (Mayo and Woloszyn, 1974; Silva, 1979). As of today, vampire bats have not been discovered anywhere else in the greater Caribbean.

Desmodus rotundus is endemic to the New World neotropics, where it is well distributed from Mexico all the way down to northern Argentina, but in the past, that distribution included Florida, Cuba. The first fossil record came from Cueva Lamas in Havana. This fossil was discovered by Cuba's foremost paleontologist at the time Oscar Arredondo, who then sent the specimen to Dr. Karl Koopman, chiropterologist (=bat-ologist) who identified it as a common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus, identical to the continental species. In the following years, other researchers found two more specimens from which a new endemic subspecies, Desmodus rotundus puntajudensis, was erected (Woloszyn and Mayo, 1974; Jimenez et al., 2005). Later, the Cuban paleontologist William Suarez (Suarez, 2005) raised the species to the rank of full species, which made it a full Cuban endemic.

Fig. 8: Common vampire bat (Desmodus rotundus) after it's discovery at Nesophonte's cave.

However, the study of our well-preserved specimen (fig. 8-9) showed it was not referable to the new endemic form. Instead, our analysis of the skull characteristics of the continental form D. rotundus versus that of the endemic D. puntajudensis revealed that the Cuban fossils fell within D. rotundus, and did not represent a new form (Orihuela, 2011). This agreed with Koopman's original identification of the first specimen. As it seems, the Cuban fossil vamps are the same as the continental species, which may have arrived at the island during the last 10,000 years or less.

Fig. 9. Three of the four known Desmodus rotundus skulls from the Cuban Quaternary fossil record.
 Our specimen is on the far right. Line illustration from Orihuela, 2011 (copyrighted). 

An endemic form would suggest long isolation for such evolution to occur. And the presence of both, an endemic species (or subspecies) and the continental form, seems unlikely out of so poor of a record. So far, the fossil Desmodus specimens are associated with ages less than 8000 years before the present, and thus within our own current inter-glacial period, but none date to the late glacial period as was originally considered. In fact, we do not know if they were true relics of the past glacial fauna.

Osvaldo Jimenez Vazquez and his colleagues discovered vampire specimens from a cave deposit in southern Mayabeque province (formerly Havana province), providing the first radiocarbon date associated with vampire bat fossils in Cuba. Their remains dated, although indirectly, about 7000 years before the present (Jimenez et al., 2005). Our specimen posed a more complex problem and brought about new questions. They were dated, indirectly as well, between the 1950s to the 1990s (Viera and Orihuela, 2006; Orihuela, 2012; Orihuela et al. in prep.). Unfortunately, neither Cuban vampire fossil has been dated directly due to the rarity of the fossils.

Fig. 10: Pteronotus parnelli parnelli (Mormoopidae) from a transient local population at Nesophonte's cave.

What is sure is that there were vampire bats in Cuba until very recently, even if just accidentally. Our research using maximum entropy software such as Maxent, DIVA and R, employed to predict and model which bioclimate variables could have limited bat distribution, and if any of the variables could have lead to their extinction, suggests that the climate of the last 7000 years, up to our modern climate, is still appropriate to sustain many currently extinct Cuban bats including the vampire bats (work in prep.). Their extinction is considered concomitant to the extinction of the large sloths (like those I mentioned in my previous post here), which were likely part of their diet. Now we know that these sloths did not disappear during the late glacial epoch either, but instead during the last 5000 years, which is within our current inter-glacial.

So what does this mean? Where vampire bats accidentally present in the Cuban fossil record? If so, why are their fossils so rare considering how easily adaptable and reproducible the species is on the mainland? Are Desmodus fossils present in other Antillean fossil records? These are questions our current research is hoping to resolve. Stay tuned!

I want to take this opportunity to thank those that have helped on this research. First, I am eternally thankful to all those that participated in this expedition and those colleagues that helped with the analysis, their encouragement and help. These are archeologist Ricardo Viera, geographer Leonel Perez-Orozco, biologist Adrian Tejedor, Candido Santana and Joel Monzon, and many other more friends and colleagues that have made this research possible. These expeditions would have been impossible without their enthusiastic support.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Johannes Gundlach, whose birthday we celebrate today.


Atlas Nacional de Cuba 1969-1985.

Arredondo, O. 1958. El Vampiro Cubano. Scout 10:6-7.

Jiménez, O., M. M. Condis, and E. García. 2005. Vertebrados post-glaciales en un residuario fósil de Tyto alba scopoli (Aves: Tytonidae) en el occidente de Cuba. Revista Mexicana de Mastozoología, 9:84-111.

Koopman, K.F. 1958. A fossil vampire bat from Cuba. Breviora 90:1-4.

Silva-Taboada, G. 1979. Los Murciélagos de Cuba. Editorial Academia, La Habana. 424pp.

Orihuela, J. 2011. Skull variation of the vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (Chiroptera: Phyllostomidae): Taxonomic implications for the Cuban fossil vampire bat Desmodus puntajudensis. Chiroptera Neotropical 17(1): 963-976.

Orihuela, J. 2012. Late Holocene fauna from a cave deposit in Western Cuba: post-Columbian occurrence of the vampire bat Desmodus rotundus (Phyllostomidae: Desmodontinae). Caribbean Journal of Science, 46 (2): 297-313.

Orihuela, J., and A. Tejedor. 2012. Peter's ghost-faced bat Mormoops megalophylla (Chiroptera: Mormoopidae) from a pre-Columbian archaeological deposit in Cuba. Acta Chiropterologica 14(1): 63-72.

Orihuela, J., R. Viera, and L. Vinola. 2017. New bat records based on modern and fossil remains from the province of Matanzas, Cuba.

Suárez, W. 2005. Taxonomic Status of the Cuban Vampire Bat (Chiroptera: Phyllostomidae: Desmodontinae: Desmodus). Caribbean Journal of Science 41 (4):761-767.

Woloszyn, B.W., and N.A. Mayo. 1974. Postglacial remains of a vampire bat (Chiroptera: Desmodus) from Cuba. Acta Zool.Cracoviensia 19:253-265.