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Las Breas de San Felipe, a quaternary fossiliferous asphalt seep martí (Matanzas Province, Cuba)

  • Cuban Academy of Sciences
  • Petroleum Research Center / Centro de Investigación del Petrolero Cuba


Within the Greater Antilles, terrestrial asphalt seeps are unique to the northern coastal region of Cuba. Several such seeps occur in the region designated here as Las Breas de San Felipe, which is situated in the northern part of Matanzas province, 5.5 km northwest of the town of Marti. We report here on two localities (San Felipe I and II) at which fossil elements occur in abundance in asphalt-impregnated sands, silts, clays, and gravels. The taxonomic list includes Mollusca, Arthropoda (Crustacea and Insecta), Reptilia, Aves and Mammalia. Plant macrofossils and several kinds of coprolites have also been found. Geomorphological and taphonomic considerations suggest that, at the time of fossil deposition, San Felipe was a coastal plain where freshwater, brackish marine and dry savannah conditions occured simultaneously, consequently, or both. The content of the faunule and the stratigraphic position of the fossiliferous deposits indicate that the seeps were 'active' (i.e., fluid enough at surface to incorporate organic material) during very recent times, probably in the terminal Pleistocene or early Holocene.
... However, we agreed with Goodfriend and Mitterer (1988) who suggested that the shells of Aguayo and Jaume (1939) were most probably Holocene. On the other hand, Iturralde-Vinent et al. (2000) reported Pleistocene-Holocene shells of Liguus fasciatus and Zachrysia auricoma (Ferussac, 1821) from San Felipe tar pit in Matanzas. Several other authors including Torre and González (1997), Jiménez et al. (2005), Orihuela (2010), Orihuela et al. (2020), and Rojas et al. (2012) have also listed the fossil land snails from several Late Pleistocene -Holocene deposits in Western Cuba. ...
... Fossil snails from other Pleistocene-Holocene deposits in Cuba are usually preserved as shells (e.g. Aguayo and Jaume, 1939;Goodfriend and Mitterer, 1988;Iturralde-Vinent et al., 2000;Jiménez et al., 2005;Richards, 1935;Rojas et al., 2012;Torre and González, 1997;Orihuela, 2010;Orihuela et al., 2020). However, external molds of Zachrysia sp. from another Late Quaternary sinkhole in the J-4 quarry, Matanzas province have been observed by the authors. ...
The fossil record of Isla de la Juventud, the second largest island in the Cuban archipelago, is very limited in the number of taxa and localities so far studied but can be key to further understand the biogeographical history and extinction of the fauna in the region. Here, we report the faunal assemblages of two recently discovered Quaternary deposits containing numerous vertebrates and land snails in northern Isla de la Juventud. The first locality, a marble breccia on the coast of Punta Bibijagua, contained remains of an extinct rodent and a sloth. The second locality, a dissolution fissure filled with fossil-bearing sediment in a marble quarry in Sierra de Casas, contained a rich assemblage of land snails and vertebrates. Nineteen species, 14 genera and nine families of gastropods were identified, of which 11 species and two genera are endemic. The snail fossil assemblage is similar to the community of living gastropods in the locality. Moreover, 12 taxa, four of them extinct, 11 genera from ten families of terrestrial vertebrates were recognized; including the first report of fossils frogs, toads, lizards, snakes, and tortoises from Isla de la Juventud. Because remains at Sierra de Casas were collected ex-situ, any possible stratigraphic relationship among them was lost, but we were able to determine the presence of at least two taphonomic modes that suggest different depositional histories. Furthermore, we found no evidence of extinction or extirpation among land snails in the region, but of the vertebrates’ assemblage two rodents, two sloths and a tortoise went extinct. These five taxa also disappeared in the mainland, suggesting that the extinction was in some cases taxonomic specific across the Cuban Archipelago.
... Gymnogyps Lesson (Emslie 1988, Suárez 2000a, Suárez & Emslie 2003 (Arredondo 1984: 9), but reidentified as Buteogallus borrasi (Suárez 2001b, see section I). Sarcoramphus was not mentioned (contra Orihuela 2019: 60), nor were specimens 'assigned to' it, by Iturralde-Vinent et al. (2000). Cathartes aura (Linnaeus, 1758).-A ...
... Boid remains were reported from Las Breas De San Felipe (as "Squamata Fam. Boidae"; Iturralde-Vinent et al. 2000) and from Cueva del Mono Fósil and Cueva Alta (as Boidae; Salgado et al. 1992), but it is possible that these records may also belong to Chilabothrus angulifer. In addition "fragmentary remains of snakes" were mentioned from the Ciego Montero locality (Matthew 1919). ...
... deposits at Las Breas de San Felipe (c.22°57'N, 80°58'W), 5.5 km west of the town of Martí, San Felipe Valley, municipality of Martí, Matanzas province, Cuba. The asphalt seeps of Las Breas de San Felipe are the only known productive fossil tar seeps in the Greater Antilles and contain two productive fossil sub-localities, San Felipe I and San Felipe II, respectively (for a detailed description see Iturralde-Vinent et al. 2000, and for the fossil avifauna present there, see Suárez 2020). This is the type locality of Cuban Caracara Milvago carbo Suárez & Olson, 2003, and some other Cuban extinct raptors (Suárez 2020). ...
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A new small fossil species of vulture from Quaternary asphalt and cave deposits in western Cuba is described herein. Some specimens of this taxon are the smallest known in the genus Cathartes, including the modern Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture C. burrovianus. The extinction of the Cuban megafauna, coupled with the loss of open habitats once dominated by grassland savannas, contributed to the population decline and final extinction of endemic vultures in Cuba during the Holocene.
... Alternatively, the Uruguayan fossil could indicate a longer history of existence for the large D. draculae extending back to near the Pliocene-Pleistocene boundary. Asphaltic deposits containing fossils are rare globally, but are disproportionately high in the diversity and abundance of fossils they preserve (Campbell 1979;Iturralde-Vinent et al. 2000;Rincón et al. 2006Rincón et al. , 2008Rincón 2006aRincón , 2006bPrevosti and Rincón 2007;Harris 2015;Lindsey and Lopez 2015;Lindsey and Seymour 2015;Oswald and Steadman 2015;Mychajliw et al. 2020). Despite this palaeontological richness, bats are rarely recovered in these areas (Lemon and Churcher 1961;Akersten et al. 1979;Czaplewski et al. 2005;Seymour 2015;Moretto et al. 2016). ...
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Numerous molecular phylogenetic analyses support the Desmodontinae (vampire bats) as one of the earliest-diverging lineages of Phyllostomidae (western hemisphere leaf-nosed bats). Yet the fossil record that could support and help calibrate this hypothesised divergence is weak; the oldest-known fossils of vampire bats are relatively young and poorly dated as early to middle Pleistocene or possibly late Pliocene in age, based on an occurrence in Uruguay, and early to middle Pleistocene occurrences in Florida, USA. We report a distal fragment of the humerus of an indeterminate large-bodied vampire bat, cf. Desmodus, from a trench in the asphalt-bearing deposit of El Breal de Orocual, Venezuela. Subsites within El Breal de Orocual vary in age; the trench yielding the vampire humerus yields a mammalian fauna indicating a probable late Pliocene or possibly early Pleistocene age. As such, the Venezuelan fossil represents the oldest or at least one of the oldest vampire bats yet known, similar in body size to the late Pleistocene Desmodus draculae.
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Islands have long been recognized as distinctive evolutionary arenas leading to morphologically divergent species, such as dwarfs and giants. We assessed how body size evolution in island mammals may have exacerbated their vulnerability, as well as how human arrival has contributed to their past and ongoing extinctions, by integrating data on 1231 extant and 350 extinct species from islands and paleo islands worldwide spanning the past 23 million years. We found that the likelihood of extinction and of endangerment are highest in the most extreme island dwarfs and giants. Extinction risk of insular mammals was compounded by the arrival of modern humans, which accelerated extinction rates more than 10-fold, resulting in an almost complete demise of these iconic marvels of island evolution.
In general, the “Cuban Fossil Record”, which covers approximately the last 200 million years of life on Earth, is rich in very varied fossils, witnessing a wide diversity of organisms, both animals and plants, that inhabited the Antillean and Caribbean region and constitute the inheritance of the biological diversity exhibited by the current Cuban Archipelago. The most characteristic fossils of Jurassic Period in Cuba are petrified bones of marine reptiles, shells and molds of ammonites, petrified skeletons and molds of ganoid fish, bivalve mollusc shells, fronds and carbonized plant stems, mainly ferns, and very abundant pollen and spores. The fossil record of the Cretaceous Period is characterized by shell varieties of rudist molluscs, ammonites, and aptychus, endoskeletons and radioles of echinoids, gastropod shells such as the acteonellids, nerineids and naticids, ostreids, and others. Other fossils such as corals, ichnofossils, the very diverse planktic and benthic foraminifera, and radiolaria are also common. The fossils that characterize the Paleogene are abundant echinoderms, shark teeth, ichnofossils, shells and molds of turritellid and naticid gastropods, ostreids, and various foraminiferal genera, especially large orbitoids. Neogene rocks contain abundant shells and molds of bivalve and gastropod molluscs, and mineralized endoskeletons of various sea urchins are also common. Corals and frequent skeletons and molds of marine crustaceans can also be commonly found. Among vertebrates, fish are very common, mainly teeth of sharks, rays, and skeletons of bony fish, and a single whale tooth have also been found. The fossil remains of sirenians are relatively common. Very important is the finding of terrestrial mammal vertebrate remains, among them are monkey, rodents, and sloths. The greatest feature exhibited by the fossil record of the Quaternary in the Cuban Archipelago is perhaps the peculiar fossil material produced by the diverse megafauna of terrestrial vertebrates, which inhabited it in the last hundreds of thousands and thousands of years ago. It also highlights the bones and teeth of large sloths, various rodents, the giant predatory birds and gunboats, small and giant insectivorous, numerous bats, reptiles, and amphibians, among other animals that disappeared in the recent past. Fossils are part of the Cuban natural heritage, and as such, they deserve to be studied, conserved and protected, as a legacy to future generations, to contribute to a better understanding of our origins and to the full enjoyment of our island nature. The numerous literature about Cuban fossils allows us to know the varied degree of study exhibited by the different fossil groups reported to this day. The irregular development of the investigations carried out so far reveals the possibilities of study that the Cuban fossil record still needs, and which points out the future path for new researchers interested in different topics on this paleontological richness, where there are many questions to be solved, even waiting to assess correctly, from modern work basis.
The Bahaman archipelago contains large expanses of pine forests, where the endemic Caribbean pine Pinus caribaea var. bahamensis is the dominant species. This pine forest ecosystem is rich in species and also a valuable resource for the local economy. Small areas of old-growth forest still remain in the Turks and Caicos islands (TCI) and in some of the islands in the Bahamas; despite on-going severe infestation by pine tortoise scale insect Toumeyella parvicornis and high pine mortality in the former and intensive past commercial logging activities in the latter. For the first time integrated research on the genetics, morphology, ecology and biogeography of this variety was carried out throughout its whole distribution range. Past and present forest areas were mapped using historical physical maps and modern satellite imagery, showing forest loss due to urbanisation, pests and storm surges and expansions resulting mainly from dry-season human induced fires. Population genetic analysis using plastid and nuclear microsatellites revealed high ancient gene flow and recent genetic distance between populations of the Bahamas and the TCI; in addition to genetic structure within regions. Morphological differences were also observed and discussed. The variety showed high individual genetic and morphological variance and high plasticity. Despite the observation of good forest regeneration in normal circumstances, stochastic events did cause severe reductions in forest area and effective population size. A predominantly random and outcrossing breeding system was also inferred from the data, despite detection of some inbreeding in the smaller populations. Suggestions for the future conservation and management of the species included fire management and the creation or extension of in-situ conservation areas and ex-situ collections. Available online:
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Here we report a Late Holocene fossil-rich cave deposit from Cueva de los Nesofontes, Mayabeque Province, Cuba. The deposit’s formation and its fauna were studied through a multidisciplinary approach that included stable isotope analyses, radiocarbon chronology, and stratigraphy. Thousands of microvertebrate skeletal remains were recovered, representing a diverse land vertebrate fauna that included threatened and extinct species. The deposit is characterized by profuse Nesophontes remains due to raptor predation. Previously unreported last appearance dates (LADs) are provided for the extinct ‘island-shrew’ Nesophontes major, the bats Artibeus anthonyi, and Phyllops vetus. Radiocarbon (14C AMS) age estimates between ~1960 rcyr BP and the present were acquired for the assemblage. The presence of locally extinct species, including the endemic parakeet Psittacara eups, the flicker Colaptes cf. fernandinae, the bat Antrozous koopmani, and the eulipotyphlan Solenodon cubanus, suggests that these species had broader distributions in the near past. Isotope analyses and faunal composition indicate the previous presence of diverse habitats, including palm grove savannas and mixed woodlands near the cave. Isotopes also provide insight into the habitat and coexistence of the extinct bat Artibeus anthonyi and extant A. jamaicensis, the diet of Nesophontes major, and local paleoenvironmental conditions. Oxygen isotopes reveal an excursion suggestive of drier/colder local conditions between 660 and 770 AD. Our research further expands the understanding of Cuban Quaternary extinction episodes and provides data on the distribution and paleoecology of extinct taxa. It supports the conclusion that many Cuban extinct species survived well into the pre-Columbian Late Holocene and retained wide distribution ranges until European colonization. Aquí reportamos un depósito rico en fósiles del Holoceno tardío en la Cueva de los Nesofontes, provincia de Mayabeque, Cuba. La formación del depósito y su fauna fueron estudiadas a través de un enfoque multidisciplinario que incluyó análisis de isótopos estables, cronología de radiocarbono y estratigrafía. Se recuperaron miles de restos esqueléticos de microvertebrados que representan una diversa fauna de vertebrados terrestres, incluyendo especies amenazadas y extintas. El depósito se caracterizó por abundantes restos de Nesophontes debido a la depredación de rapaces. Se proporcionan fechas de última aparición no reportadas previamente para la especie extinta Nesophontes major, los murciélagos Artibeus anthonyi y Phyllops vetus. Se obtuvieron estimaciones de edad de radiocarbono (14C AMS) entre ~ 1960 rcyr BP y el presente para los depósitos estudiados. La presencia de especies localmente extintas, incluido el catey Psittacara eups, el carpintero Colaptes cf. fernandinae, el murciélago Antrozous koopmani y el almiquí Solenodon cubanus, sugieren que estas especies tuvieron distribuciones más amplias en el pasado reciente. Los análisis de isótopos y la composición de la fauna indican la presencia de diversos hábitats, entre ellos sabanas con palmerales y bosques mixtos cerca de la cueva. Los isótopos también proporcionan información sobre el hábitat y la coexistencia del murciélago extinto Artibeus anthonyi y el A. jamaicensis aun existente, la dieta de Nesophontes major y las condiciones paleoambientales locales. Los isótopos de oxígeno revelaron una excursión que sugiere condiciones locales más secas/más frías entre 660 y 770 d.C. Nuestra investigación amplía aún más la comprensión de los episodios de extinción del Cuaternario cubano y proporciona datos sobre la distribución y paleoecología de taxones extintos. Apoyamos la conclusión de que muchas especies extintas cubanas sobrevivieron hasta bien entrado el Holoceno tardío precolombino y se conservaron amplios rangos de distribución hasta la colonización europea.