National Geographic
December 20, 2002

Cuban Dinosaur: First Confirmed Remains Discovered

                       Brian Handwerk
                       for National Geographic News

                       Scientists from Cuba and Argentina have uncovered the first positively
                       identified dinosaur remains ever found in Cuba.

                       The roughly 150-million-year-old vertebra of a small, coastal-dwelling
                       Saurischian dinosaur was unearthed in the Sierra de los Organos
                       Mountains in western Cuba.

                       Earlier discoveries had been made, but none of the finds were able to
                       withstand scientific scrutiny.

                       In 1949, Alfredo de la Torre y Callejas found a 45-centimeter (18 inch)
                       bone in Vi~nales and identified it as that of a Diplodocus or
                       Brontosaurus. The bone was lost, however, and the very general
                       description and single photograph that have survived leave doubt about its
                       true origins.

                       Despite the lack of hard evidence, scientists remained convinced that dinosaur fossils
                       could be found in what is now Cuba.

                       "I was suspicious that there must be dinosaur remains in western Cuba, but had
                       been unable to prove it," said Manuel Iturralde-Vinent, a paleontologist at Cuba's
                       Museo Nacional de Historia Natural. "Now we are confident that there are fossil
                       remains of dinosaurs." Until more fossilized remains are found it isn't possible to
                       identify what kind of dinosaur the vertebra belonged to, but the discovery of any
                       land-dwelling dinosaur in Cuba is significant, said Zulma Gasparini, a paleontologist
                       at Argentina's Museo de La Plata. Gasparini and Iturralde-Vinent are the lead
                       scientists on the project.

                       "They were undoubtedly land animals, and consequently they provide some
                       evidence to confirm or refute hypotheses on land-seas distribution in the
                       Caribbean," he said. "They could also add crucial knowledge of the evolution and
                       geographic distribution of dinosaurs, and other land groups, between both

                       On Land and in Sea

                       "The occurrence of Jurassic land and coastal sediments in western Cuba is
                       well-known," said Iturralde-Vinent. "In these sediments I have been looking for
                       dinosaurs for many years, and in the end the search was successful as we located a
                       small bone. This find opens great possibilities for future research."

                       The dinosaur bone was found in layers of earth from the Late Jurassic Jagua
                       Formation in what had once been coastal sediments.

                       "The deposits where the bones are found accumulated 154 to 146 million years ago
                       in shallow marine waters very close to the shore, allowing representatives of land
                       and marine elements be found in the same beds," said Iturralde-Vinent.

                       Abundant remains of terrestrial vegetation such as fern trees, the fossil remains of at
                       least two species of pterosaurs—extinct flying reptiles—and marine reptile fossils
                       were found in the same strata.

                       Iturralde-Vinent notes that such a mixture of terrestrial and marine animals is not
                       unusual in paleontology.

                       "The only dinosaur known from Antarctica was a fossil remain found in marine
                       sediments," he explained. "Sometimes the animal dies and a river might carry the
                       floating body into open waters. The bodies can float while they are in the process of

                       Expeditions in the last several years have led to the discovery and description of
                       several new taxa of gigantic ancient aquatic reptiles (pliosaurs, plesiosaurs, and
                       ichthyosaurs), as well as crocodiles, turtles, and flying reptiles (pterosaurs). New
                       species of turtle, Caribemys oxfordiensis, and plesiosaur, Vinalesaurus caroli, were
                       recently discovered, as was a pterosaur that had a tail and soared in the prehistoric
                       skies with a wingspan of nearly 4 meters (13 feet).

                       The search for Jurassic fossils in Cuba is a joint project of the Museo Nacional de
                       Historia Natural of Cuba and the Museo de La Plata in Argentina, and is partially
                       funded by the National Geographic Society.

                       Evidence of Ancient Land Distribution

                       Iturralde-Vinent and Gasparini continue to search the site for more dinosaurs and
                       related fossils, and are in the process of describing several new species of Jurassic
                       reptiles for scientific publication.

                       They are also expanding their research to test a theory about the Late Cretaceous
                       paleogeography of the Americas.

                       Many scientists speculate that at the end of the Cretaceous period (approximately
                       80-60 million years ago) there was a land connection between North and South
                       America across the extinct volcanic islands that now comprise parts of the Greater

                       Sea levels and the position of the islands have changed significantly since that
                       ancient period. The presence of dinosaur remains on the islands would lend credence
                       to the theory, and Iturralde-Vinent has been searching rock formations in the
                       Greater Antilles for dinosaur fossils since 1997.

                       "As yet, this search has been unsuccessful," he said, "perhaps because rocks of late
                       Cretaceous age are strongly weathered and the potential bones are hard to find on
                       the surface. But I will continue to search."