Monday, December 11, 2017

Nesophontes: The Discovery of the first Greater Antillean Island Slayer

Nesophontes are a small group of shrew-like mammals with a very primitive past that reaches as far back as the Cretaceous - when the dinosaurs roamed this planet. We owe its discovery to Harold H. Anthony, one of the most proliferous pioneers of Caribbean vertebrate paleontology.

Original illustration of the type description of Nesophontes edithae H. E. Anthony 1916

The genus Nesophontes is today grouped within the Eulipotyphla order. This is a group of basal placental mammals that are today considered ancestrally associated to Solenodon and other North American extinct shrew-like micromammals, but surprisingly, not to the African tenrecs.  They were small, likely venomous, nocturnal and semi-fossorial mammals endemic to the Great Antilles, where they had a widespread distribution, with the interesting exception of The Bahamas and Jamaica.

Solenodon paradoxus from Hispaniola at the Mammalogy collection of the AMNH

By 1915, H. E. Anthony had a hint of the existence of Nesophontes from fossils found in the island of Puerto Rico. Dr. Franz Boas, the German-American father of modern anthropology, had sent material from his expedition in Puerto Rico to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City (AMNH) that same year. Anthony worked as a paleontologist there, and from Boas's material he extracted the first incomplete specimens of Nesophontes. But these were not enough to describe a new species.

Left: Franz Boas, German American Anthropologist, circa 1916. Right: Harold H. Anthony, circa 1930s.

In fact, it was Dr. Anthony's wife, Edith I. Anthony, who on July 19, 1916, discovered the first undoubtable evidence of the existence of this peculiar mammal in Cueva Clara, near Morovis, Puerto Rico. Anthony, in honor of its wife, named the type species Nesophontes edithae.

Type specimen of Nesophontes edithae AMNH 14174, collected by Mrs. Anthony in 1916

The study of Nesophontes is forever tied to the efforts of Anthony, the discovery of his wife and the material sent by Franz Boas. Gerritt S. Miller and Glover M. Allen, in addition, played a role too in the further discovery and study of these peculiar extinct mammals. In 1919, Anthony described a new species, Nesophontes longirostris, this time from a cave deposit in Daiquiri, southeastern Cuba.

H. E. Anthony would continue to work for the AMNH until the 1960's as one of the museum's most respected mammalogists, paleontologists, and curators.

Please stay tuned for an upcoming post on Solendon!

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Our New Book: Matanzas in the Viewfinder of Time!

With great pleasure and excitement, after prolonged anticipation, here I present our latest publication, our book “Matanzas en el Visor del Tiempo” or Matanzas in the Viewfinder of Time. It took several years of research to complete, from dream to reality, and it is now finally ready. We are proud that it will fill-in a gap in the history of our hometown, Matanzas city, Cuba. No doubt, the sacrifice and long wait it took to see it published was worthwhile. We hope it is as enjoyable to you as it is for us.

Concord Bridge, completed in 1878 by Spanish-born architect Pedro Celestino del Pandal y Sanchez

This book was written in Spanish by Leonel Pérez Orozco, Matanzas City Conservator, Luis R. González Arestuche, Matanzas-born architect and architecture historian, plus archaeologist Ricardo Viera Muñoz, and myself. Karell Bofill Bahamonde graced our work with his graphic design and modern photographic editing. And last but not least, the modern photographs of Jorge I. Rodríguez.

First leaf of Matanzas en el Visor del Tiempo (2017) Ed. Bolona.

Our book was idealized as a two-volume visual and historical compendium. We started it in 2012 and was completed by 2014, when it was tentatively published by the Felix Varela, publisher of the University of Havana. However, several reasons precluded it from being finally printed there. Finally, thanks to the help of the Office of the Conservator and city Historian of Matanzas, and Havana, specially Eusebio Leal Spengler, our book was published this month. It is a 725-page single volume with over 300 previously unedited and unpublished photographs, few as early as 1859 up to the present.

Matanzas's Cathedral of San Carlos de Borromeo,
patron saint of the city and one of its most emblematic locations.
View from early XX century and present.

This current edition (2017) outlines the architectural evolution and history of Matanzas city. Many of the photographs represent long-gone locations and buildings. It shows a full spectrum of lost patrimony, in the way of architecture and landscape design, that has characterized the changes of the last 100 years. It shows Cuban life as it was.

Some of the oldest photographs were taken by American photo-entrepreneurs, established in New York City, who sent their photographers to capture the “exotic” world of Spanish Cuba. Among them was E. Anthony and Co., who sent their photographer George N. Barnard to Cuba for their album “Cuban Views” (1860) and “American Views” (1870).

One of the oldest photographs known of Matanzas city. This one was taken in 1859 by G. N. Barnard
for E. Anthony and Co. "Cuban Views" stereoview album.

We take this opportunity to thank those friends and colleagues whose collaboration, patience, and insight made, no doubt, a large impression on the pages of our book and our experience.

Thank you so much.

Recommended citation: Pérez Orozco, L., L. R. Rodríguez Arestuche, J. Orihuela León, and R. A. Viera Muñoz (2017). Matanzas en el Visor del Tiempo. Editorial Boloña, La Habana.

See our upcoming publication for more details:

Orihuela, J. and R. A. Viera (2016). Fotografias historicas de la bateria de San Jose de la Vigia, Ciudad de Matanzas, Cuba. Revista Arqueologica Cuba Arqueologica, 9 (1): 1-9.

Friday, September 15, 2017

The mandible from Puerto Principe: The search for human antiquity in Cuba

In 1847, Miguel Rodriguez Ferrer discovered partially fossilized human remains near Los Caneyes, on the southern coast of Puerto Principe, modern Camagüey province. A human mandible among them would figure as one of the inciting pieces that lead the search for mankind’s antiquity in Cuba.

Miguel Rodriguez Ferrer was a Spanish geographer and naturalist, an erudite who visited Cuba on several occasions during the XIX century. He is the author of Naturaleza y Civilización de la Grandiosa Isla de Cuba (1876-1878), an extensive two-volume book on Cuba’s history and natural science – among the first to scientifically divulge the island’s natural history.

Ferrer’s archaeological discoveries were by no means the first. In fact, his expedition to Los Caneyes was sparked by a letter sent to him with news of previous descoveries. On June 23, 1847, Pedro Santacilia informed him of known “fossilized” human remains – a cemetery – discovered in 1843 by Bernabé Mola in a coastal site or cay called Estero de Los Caneyes, near the bay of Santa Maria Casimba, south of Puerto Principe. 

Sr. Mola, also a Spaniard, had published the news of his discovery under the title “Fossil Human Skeletons” on the Memorias de la Sociedad Económica de La Habana (Memoirs of the Economic Society of Havana, 17: 457). By then Ferrer was well acquainted with most of the Cuban eminent scientists, such as Felipe Poey Aloy, his son Andres Poey Aguirre and Antonio Bachiller y Morales; the last two considered today the fathers of Caribbean archaeology. 

A “fossilized” mandible figured among the remains Rodriguez Ferrer found at Los Caneyes. Immediately, the context of this discovery  an indurated or mineralized layer of ash, shell fragments, and gravel – suggested great antiquity for the specimen, and implied the presence of several cultures of different levels of technological advance in the area. Ferrer referred his specimens to Felipe Poey, who studied them in detail. Poey published part of his results in his Repertorio Físico Natural de la Isla de Cuba (1866) but did not mention the curious mandible. 

The mandible, among other artifacts, had been donated to Spain in 1850 and forgotten for 14 years. It was not until 1871 that the mandible and the other human remains were studied again. Ferrer the gave the specimens to academics of the Spanish National Museum, among them Sr. Graells, who estimated that they were fully fossilized and likely older than the European Stone Age, meaning greater than 30,000 years in age; thus creating sort of a Stone Age period for Cuba by transposing aspects of European archaeology and natural philosophy to our insular contexts based on their stratigraphic association.

The remains excavated by Rodriguez Ferrer were then studied by Henry de Saussone, who showed in the Madrid Americanist Congress of 1881 that the specimens, especially the mandible from Puerto Principe, were not fully but partially mineralized, and could instead be just several thousands of years old. Therefore, pre-Columbian in age and not from the Stone Age.

By then, one of Cuba's foremost scientist and among its first anthropologists, Luis Montané had discovered human remains in better-preserved contexts, such as those of Cueva del Purial, in the mountains of Banao in the province of Santi Spíritus. Several of Montané’s specimens were studied by the prominent Argentinian paleontologist Florentino Ameghino, who classified them as Homo cubensis, in part following the tradition of Homo diluvii testis of Cuvier, postulated nearly a century before.

Montané, however, did not agree with Ameghino’s classification and did not consider the Cuban human remains, nor the mandible from Puerto Principe, as a new fossil species, but instead as regular modern human – Homo sapiens, and indeed the mortal remains of one of Cuba’s native pre-Columbian population. 

It is thus how the mandible from Puerto Principe discovered by Rodriguez Ferrer became a symbol of the search for Cuba’s earliest native populations. Those remains were the first to stimulate questions regarding the diversity of Cuba’s native cultures, their chronology and the relationship of their contexts. The discovery of the Amerindian mandible from Puerto Principe in 1847 consequently marks the serious beginning of pre-Columbian archaeology and anthropological research in Cuba and the search for mankind’s antiquity in the Caribbean islands.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

La Flauta de Arroyo del Palo

Por Osvaldo Jiménez Vázquez
Gabinete de Arqueología, Oficina del Historiador de La Habana, Cuba

Osvaldo Jimenez Vazquez
La Flauta de Arroyo del Palo

El joven flautista había muerto. Junto a su cadáver depositaron, entre lágrimas, su preciado instrumento, una pequeña flauta de hueso. Previamente quebraron el aerófono, para que nadie volviera a tocar aquel bien tan valioso al ejecutante, para que su espíritu, y el de la flauta, coexistieran en paz más allá de la vida terrena. Allí, al abrigo de la solapa descansaría eternamente la fracción material de los compañeros, y en la dimensión espiritual, sus almas continuarían la amistosa relación.

En vida, la flauta había sido una amiga inseparable, compartiendo ceremonias, penas y soledades. Los limitados sonidos de aquel instrumento le llevaban en espíritu a lugares insospechados.

La historia común había comenzado a las orillas de una laguna costera, donde el adolescente cazaba junto a los hombres de la tribu. Esta laguna estaba situada al borde de la actual bahía de Nipe, unos 12 km al noroeste de su aldea. Allí se encontró con el cuerpo exánime de aquella gran ave, el pelícano, al cual pidió con respeto el hueso de una de sus alas. Lo preparó cuidadosamente, con cortes en ambos extremos, la perforación de dos orificios para los dedos y el pulido final. Ya lista, la colocó suavemente entre sus labios y sopló, a la vez que modulaba con los dedos la salida del aire. Entonces, la tenue voz del espíritu que habitaba en ella se expresó a través del sonido musical, fusionándose soplo y sonido en una voz común.

Juntos vivieron muchas aventuras, pues el adolescente nunca se separaba de ella, a veces viajaba colgada a su cuello mediante una cuerda, y otras, descansaba dentro de un bolsillo de piel de jutía. Ella y el eran uno

Esta recreación poética parte de un hecho verídico. En la década de 1960, miembros del grupo de aficionados a la arqueología Mayarí hallaron la flauta junto al cadáver de un adolescente masculino aborigen, en el sitio arqueológico Arroyo del Palo, en el municipio Banes, provincia de Holguín. Este hallazgo se produjo cuando revisaban una oquedad que se abría en la pared del abrigo rocoso, a nivel del suelo. Este descubrimiento fue relevante, ya que los instrumentos musicales son raros en contextos arqueológicos de la Cuba prehispánica. Aerófonos de diversos tipos se han hallado, entre ellos flautas elaboradas de huesos humanos y de roedores. Fabricada a partir de un hueso de ave, solo se conoce el ejemplar de Arroyo del Palo, pieza que se exhibe actualmente en la sala expositiva del Instituto Cubano de Antropología (ICAN), sito en calle Amargura entre Habana y Aguiar, en La Habana Vieja.

El sitio Arroyo del Palo fue habitado por aborígenes recolectores, cazadores y pescadores, artífices de una cerámica de factura simple y que practicaban, además, una agricultura incipiente, incluyendo, quizás, especies de plantas similares a las identificadas en el sitio homologo Canimar Abajo, costa norte de Matanzas. Estas eran, boniato (Ipomoea batatas), yuquilla de ratón (Zamia cf otonis), mate de costa (Canavalia sp.), frijól (Phaseolus sp.), y una planta marantácea indeterminada.

Arroyo del Palo fue habitado, según dos fechados C14, entre los años 1190 y 980 de nuestra era (Tabío y Rey, 1985). Los habitantes de este sitio mantuvieron en algún momento nexos con los aborígenes de la isla de Jamaica, de la cual trajeron un ejemplar de la jutía de Brown (Geocapromys brownii).

Hasta este momento se desconocía la especie que había aportado el hueso para la flauta, por lo cual se realizó un examen de la misma, comparándola con materiales óseos de la colección de referencia del Gabinete de Arqueología (Oficina del Historiador de La Habana) lo cual permitió definir que fue fabricada a partir de la diáfisis de una ulna izquierda de pelicano (Pelecanus spp.). En el hueso se observó la curvatura típica del hueso de esta ave y las cotilas dorsales para la inserción de las plumas secundarias, aún cuando la superficie externa fue rebajada. El rebaje hizo desaparecer, sin embargo, las cotilas ventrales, menos eminentes que las dorsales.

La pieza mide unos 100 mm de largo y 11 mm de diámetro, presentando en la cara posterior dos orificios circulares de 4 mm para los dedos. Alrededor de estos orificios observamos el desgaste producido por los dedos durante la etapa de uso.

Uno de sus extremos esta fracturado, estimándose la longitud original en unos 120 mm. La fractura que presenta esta flauta pudiera ser intencional, con el fin de inutilizar el objeto mágico-religioso cuyo propietario había fallecido. La práctica de inutilizar objetos de los difuntos se conoce en otras culturas aborígenes históricas, por ejemplo, los Calusas del suroeste de la Florida perforaban sus recipientes de concha de Busycon a la muerte del propietario para así matar el espíritu que habitaba en ellos.

Que sepamos, en Las Antillas no se han hallado aerófonos facturados en huesos de aves. Según los arqueólogos Ernesto Tabío y J. M. Guarch, flautas similares se han reportado en sitios aborígenes del sudeste de Virginia, Estados Unidos, asociados a la cultura Woodland, que floreció entre el año 1000 antes de Cristo y el 100 de Cristo. En centro y Sudamérica se conoce del hallazgo de flautas elaboradas a partir de huesos de pelicano (Pelecanus spp.). Estas se encontraron en el sitio Caral, Valle de Supe, en los Andes peruanos, fechado en el tercer milenio antes de Cristo, y en el sitio Sierra (Aguadulce), en Panamá, con cronología entre el año 2 y 222 de Cristo. En este último sitio el hueso utilizado para fabricar la flauta fue un húmero, y, al igual que en Arroyo del Palo, el aerófono estaba asociado a un enterramiento humano. Ninguna de las culturas mencionadas tiene relación con el hombre del sitio Arroyo del Palo, solo hacemos referencia a ellas desde un punto de vista comparativo.

Las flautas acompañaron al hombre antiguo en todo el mundo, las más antiguas proceden del Paleolítico Superior Temprano (Aurignacience) de Francia y Alemania. Aquellas que se sostienen verticalmente, como la de Arroyo del Palo, representan las formas más tempranas. En las culturas más antiguas, estos instrumentos musicales se construían preferentemente de huesos de animales, específicamente de las alas de aves, que resultan muy adecuados para estos fines, porque son ahuecados, delgados y fuertes, lo que posibilitaba perforarlos sin grandes riesgos de fractura. En el Viejo Mundo, comúnmente se usaron para estos fines los huesos de buitres (Gyps fulvusAegypius monachus).

Monday, July 24, 2017

Fresh off the press: a new Visitor's Guide to Castillo de San Severino is now available

It is with great satisfaction that I announce the first publication, and hopefully, the first of many to come, organized, compiled and edited by researchers at our Progressus Heritage and Community Foundation.

This Guide offers a brief history of the Spanish colonial fort of San Severino, localized in the bay of Matanzas, northern coast of Cuba. We designed it with the visitor in mind. It is organized by chapters, each providing a very brief account of the most prominent locations of the fort. Describing the areas as the visitor will reach them along the modern tourist paths. Many of the chapters include new information gleaned from our current research on the history and archaeology of the Castillo.

Our main wish was to inform and guide the potential visitors, off and on the island. In addition, to provide the townspeople of Matanzas and the Slave Route’s Museum-today part of the Castillo de San Severino-with a freely available Guide for all interested. The new Visitor’s Guide is available for free download here.

It is our great hope that this Castillo can become a point of interest for tourists interested in Cuba’s colonial past. Moreover, that its visits can help provide for its maintenance and permanence, wishfully, for more centuries to come. Feel free to peruse my other posts on this magical spot on Matanzas, either here, on San Carlos de Matanzas blog, or our Progressus blog page, on where we will be publishing parts of the Guide.

Next year, the Castillo will celebrate its 325 years!

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

The Cuban Pallid bat Antrozous koopmani

Cuba has an endemic Pallid bat:  Antrozous koopmani, a species named in honor of the great bat zoologist, the late Karl Koopman. I posted a similar post on the Cubabat Facebook page, and the post was so successful, that I thought may be interesting in reposting an edited version here.

There are currently two species of Pallid bats, Antrozous pallidus and Antrozous koopmani, of the Vespertilionidae family. Antrozous pallidus has a range that extends from southern British Columbia, south to the coastal states east of Kansas, and down to Queretaro, Mexico with an insular population on Maria Magdalena Island, Nayarit. And A. koopmani an endemic species to the island of Cuba.

Drawing of one of Ramsden's Oriente specimens figured in Dr. G. Silva's
masterpiece Los Murcielagos de Cuba (1979). 

This insular and distinct population of Antrozous was not detected until 1920 when C. T. Ramsden acquires two specimens in Oriente province, eastern Cuba. One was caught at Caney, another from Guantanamo. This feat was not again repeated until the Drs. Gilberto Silva-Taboada and Karl Koopman captured another living specimen in 1956, on the foothill forests of Pan de Guajaibon in Pinar del Rio, western Cuba. The Ramsden specimens are the only known skin-preserved-specimens known to date.

Antrozous skull and dentary: Antrozous koopmani on the left, and
Antrozous pallidus (AMNH 2125) on the right.
The A. koopmani is from fossil site at Palenque Hill, Mayabeqye, Cuba.

In the upcoming years, however, several skeletal remains were recovered from fresh owl pellets in several caves in western Cuba. Robert T. Orr and Gilberto Silva used this material in the official description of the Cuban pallid bat Antrozous koopmani as an endemic species of the island of Cuba in 1960.

Today, the species has been reported from several fossil deposits in most provinces of western Cuba: Pinar del Rio, Mayabeque, Matanzas, and Sancti Spiritus. Which suggests that the species had a much wider distribution on the island during the Recent past, that could have lasted until several hundred years ago.

Antrozous koopmani is today Cuba’s rarest bat. It has not been captured alive again, at least with certainty, since 1956, and is now presumed extinct.

Please  visit Proyecto Cubabat's page to see the original post and many others there. 

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Antoine Lavoisier and the Law of Conservation of Mass

We have been taught in science courses that “matter cannot be created or destroyed”. In many occasions, I have heard this important scientific theory erroneously attributed to either Newton or Einstein. I will dedicate this post to the man behind such important paradigm, in hopes that it may divulge a bit more about his scientific achievements. That man was Antoine Lavoisier.

Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier and His Wife painted by the French painter Jacques-Louis David.
This majestic portrait is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York. 

Lavoisier was a French nobleman of the Era of Enlightenment (XVIII century) and is considered today the father of modern chemistry for his scientific discoveries.

Among them is the widely known scientific Law of Conservation of Mass or Conservation of Mass-Energy, which states, “matter is neither created nor destroyed”, which he proposed in 1785. This law simply postulates that the total mass of the reactants or starting materials must be equal to that of the product or end result of any chemical, nuclear or radioactive decay reaction. That mass cannot be destroyed, but only modified or rearranged in space. It also implies that it could change form, but could not exist from anything.

It is not until the work of Julius Robert Mayer, who proposed the Law of Conservation of Energy, that Lavoisier’s main postulation takes hold, as this new law becomes the First Law of Thermodynamics.

Einstein knew, like Newton, that if he saw further into the scientific horizon, it was no doubt because he stood on the shoulders of giants. Those giants like Lavoisier and Mayer, who came before him, and laid the foundation for him to state, in 1907, that “the total amount of mass and energy in the universe is constant”. This allowed for his own Theory of Special Relativity.

So there. It was largely in part of Lavoisier’s discoveries, in a special sense that of Conservation of Mass, which paved the way for other important discoveries on the functioning of our Universe, and from them branched other more important theorems, laws, and theories, which today provide us with a myriad of applications. Knowledge, thus, stems upwards. Sort of in a spiral: the uppermost loops are the widest and deepest. Built on preexisting knowledge.

Antoine Lavoisier was guillotined on May 8th, 1794, at the height of the French Revolution.

I extend my sincere thanks to Enrique Sara for reminding me of Lavoisier's importance. Specially on gas laws. 

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Answer to Fossil Trivia III: The Fossil Bat in the Stone

Well, that was a tough one. Not many saw the fossil right away, but one learns in paleontology, as in any other field, with experience. It is with time and some getting use to, that one can beging to make out shapes and structures in rocks, that normally, would not be obvious to the observer.

In our last case, that was, I guess, a bit unfair. The fossil visible on the rock is that of a bat, a 30 million year old specimen from the Green River formation, and presently on the Vertebrate Paleontology collection of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH, in NY).

The Green River is known for its superbly preserved fossils, among which figure bats. The low oxygen conditions, of what seemed to be a shallow lagoon, lake or estuary environment promoted preservation of any organism that fell in its waters, and settled at the muddy bottom. This bat represents one of those such events.

Archaeopterix specimen (cast) on exhibit at the AMNH.
Note the tail feather impressions. 

Other similar deposits exist at the Messel Pit fossil site, in Germany, where 40 million year old animals are remarcably preserved, along with embrios, stomach content, hair, and sometimes even color. The Solnhofen limestone deposits, also in Germany is another remarkable example. The first Archaeopteryx, the first feathered dinosaur discovered, A. lithographica, was found in the fine-grained limestones of Solnhofen's quarries in 1861. It was called lithographica, because, originally, the fine limestone extrated at those quarries were coveted for the printing industry. The fine-grained feature of Solnhofen's limestone allowed a high degree of detail of the engravings marked upon its printing blocks.

Lithographic limestone block used for printing. Taken from Pintrest

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Fossil Matter Trivia II: Can you identify this fossil?

In our previous trivia, I posted the image of an ammonite. This was a group of cephalopod mollusks that went extinct in the late Cretaceous along with the dinosaurs. These were marine predators, some of them growing a few meters in diameter.

The specimen from the previous post is a Perisphinctes cubensis from the middle Jurassic black limestones and shales of Pinar del Rio, western Cuba. These fossils can be found on river rocks and rock walls.

But this post will be harder. Can you identify this fossil?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Fossil Matter Trivia I: Can you identify this fossil?

 I have in mind to post, in the upcoming months, several images of fossils with the idea for you, the reader, to identify them. Leave your identification in the comments section below or email me, and once the contents are in, I'll post the correct answer below.

Alright! Let's begin easy. Can you identify this fossil?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Bats of Matanzas

The Province of Matanzas, in western Cuba, is known for the wonderful white sands of Varadero Beach, its turquoise waters, the amazing Bellamar caves, and the Zapata Swamp, the largest "humedal" in all the Caribbean. What Matanzas is not known for, however, is for its richness in bat species. Of the 28 living species recorded for the Cuban archipelago, 26 inhabit the province of Matanzas, representing the six bat families that inhabit Cuba (1).

Leach's Single-Leaf nosed bat (Monophyllus redmani).
This species feeds mostly on pollen and plays a key role in pollination of plants.

A reason for the high diversity of bats in Matanzas may be that Cuba does not possess major geographical barriers such as very tall mountains or deserts. Instead, the island is characterized by its low-lying landscape, with hills that rarely surpass 300 m in height. As a result, bat distribution in Cuba is highly homogeneous. Similar numbers of species are found in all other of Cuba's 15 provinces. This could be a reflection of the area's most recent geological history or less collecting efforts in the rest of Cuba.

The Cuban Archipelago (GoogleEarth). 

Bats are amazing creatures, with amazing adaptations. With their skin-webbed wings, velvety fur, and sharp teeth, bats have probably cruised the Cuban skies in search of food and shelter for a least 33 million years (Eocene-Oligocene), when the island emerged and became available for colonization; although, unfortunately, we only have bat fossils from the last 20 thousand years (2).

Waterhouse's Leaf-nosed bat (Macrotus waterhousei). 

The biological diversity and uniqueness of Cuba is a result of the island’s intricate geological history and its long isolation from the mainland. Over 60% of the Cuban landscape is karstic, and nearly 80 % if the submerged platform is counted, indicating a high potential in the availability of caves, crucial shelters that allow high species richness. In fact, this has been correlated by bat researchers (Brunett and Medellin, 2001). Of the 28 known Cuban bats, 15 are strict cave -dwellers, with most others using caves opportunistically (1).

Insectivorous Waterhouse's Leaf-nosed bat (Macrotus waterhousei) in flight

Here is where Matanzas shines. Matanzas harbors today the most extensive subaerial karst region of the entire Cuban archipelago, a potentially very cave-rich region ~65,500 km² wide. Probably, no other province in Cuba has more caves available for bat roosting than Matanzas today. Moreover, this was more strikingly so 10,000 years ago, when the Gulf of Batabanó, south of the western half of Cuba, had the largest potential in the availability of caves for bat roosting anywhere in the Cuban archipelago, competing in the Caribbean only with the Bahama bank. Once the ice of the last glacial maximum melted with the warmer temperatures of the Holocene epoch, sea level rose and inundated most of the Cuban ancient karst plains, drowning about ~13,300 km² of latent cave-rich territory (3), essential for bat life in the island, and likely culling the territory of a few species. Many have postulated this as the reason for the disappearance of several bat species.

Jamaican Fruit-eating bat Artibeus jamaicensis  roosting on
the calcarenite limestone of Varadero's Ambrosio Cave. 

Matanzas has played an important role in the study of Cuban bats since at least the XIX century. Four of Cuba's bats Pteronotus parnelli, Pteronotus quadridens, Phyllonycteris poeyi and Tadarida brasiliensis (muscula), were collected and described for the first time from Matanzas, near the coffee plantation Fundador de Canímar. This feat is the work of the German naturalist, Johannes Gundlach.

Sooty Moustached-bat Pteronotus quadridens

Gundlach stopped in Cuba on his way to South America and fell in love with the island. I venture to say, he fell in love with Matanzas as well, for he took residence there for nearly the rest of his life. He settled in the lush region near the Canímar River, where he stayed with the Booth family who had plantations there. Gundlach roamed the countryside, especially the Zapata Swamp, and the Canímar River gorge where he observed and collected specimens of mollusks, reptiles, and bats.

Albumen print of Johannes Gundlach (XIX century)

It is through the work of the proliferous Johannes Gundlach and Gilberto Silva Taboada that I came to love bats. In 1992, my parents gave me Silva Taboada's Los Murcielagos de Cuba (The Bats of Cuba), which to my delight had a great introduction to the life of Gundlach and his bat research.

Two-thousand-year-old fossils of Jamaican Fruit-eating bat (above)
and the ultra rare Cuban pallid bat Antrozous koopmani (below). 

Under the auspice of Gundlach and Silva, I studied the bats living in the roof of our schools and nearby caves, amassing a large set of information, with other colleagues, on the bat diversity in the city and nearby caves. This information resulted in over 100 new fossil and modern bat-collecting localities, several publications, and first records for the province of Matanzas.
For example, we (Ricardo Viera and I) reported the new records of the rare and extinct Common vampire bat Desmodus rotundus, Cuban fruit-eating bat Artibeus anthonyi, Peter’s ghost-faced bat Mormoops megalophylla, Greater funnel-eared bat Natalus primus, and Koopman’s pallid bat Antrozous koopmani. In addition, to new records of living Cuban lesser funnel-eared bat Chilonatalus macer, Cuban yellow bat Lasiurus insularis and Pfeiffer’s red bat Lasiurus pfeifferi , and including remote localities in the Zapata Swamp as in the urban Varadero (see publications here, and Viera's here).

A male Jamaican Fruit-eating bat Artibeus jamaicensis
from Palenque Hill Cave, Mayabeque. 

Currently, we are finishing a gazetteer on all the known fossil and modern bat localities in the province that can be useful towards entropy modeling for species distribution in the archipelago. We hope to collaborate with all those interested.

More so, the research continues. Some of our findings have been corroborated by Proyecto CUBABAT under the direction of Melissa Connelly, with the collaboration of colleagues in Matanzas. They have recently reported, and photographed, the Cuban fig-eating bat Phyllops falcatus in Varadero, so far only reported there from fossil remains (see citations above), and the Cuban lesser funnel-eared bat Chilonatalus macer, and Pfeiffer’s red bat Lasiurus pfeifferi (M. Connelly, pers. comm.) This project has a great potential, for it disseminates important information on the ecological importance of bats. Additionally,  through research, they collect useful data crucial for bat conservation in not only Matanzas but also all of Cuba and the Greater Antilles.

We wish them success!


I thank once more, my friend and mentor Dr. Adrian Tejedor for his support and guidance. And once again for helping unravel my torturous prose. Thank you profe. I also thank Ricardo A. Viera, Lazaro Vinola, Leonel Perez, Canido Santana, and Joel Monzon for the information provided and years of trecking up and down the caves of Matanzas in search of bats and fossils.


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

2. Iturralde-Vinent, M. see his geological literature regarding Matanzas on Biblioteca Digital Cubana de Geociencias.

3. Atlas Nacional de Cuba 1969-1985.

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.

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.

Viera, R. A. 2004. Aportes a la Quiropterofauna nacional. 1861: Revista de Espeleologia y Arqueologia, Matanzas, 5 (1): 21-23.

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