Venezuela's rich oil deposits typically make headlines over political turmoil or environmental controversy. But a tar-field north of the Orinoco River has gained fame for another reason: being an enormous prehistoric graveyard. Over 12,000 specimens have been removed from the site so far. Some are as young as 14,000-years-old, but others date all the way back to the mid-Devonian Period, 370 million years ago, when life was first migrating from the seas onto land.
Truly bizarre animals are emerging from the deposit. The ornithological finds include a 10-foot-long pelican and a “featherless chicken that looked like an iguana,” whatever that means (unfortunately, no pictures of the iguana/chicken have been released). Gorgeous remains of Pleistocene all-stars have also been unearthed, such as mammoths, mastodons, smilodons, and giant ground sloths, a species that died out recently, around the same time the Pyramids of Giza were erected.
The remains of a giant ground sloth. Photo: State Archives of Florida.
A Glyptodon—basically a car-sized armadillo—was also recovered, along with a “crocodile bigger than a bus.” The age of several of these discoveries is still being determined, and the methodical work of classifying them has only just begun.
“Imagine a puzzle of 5,000 pieces and you have 200 pieces to try to interpret, and draw a reliable conclusion that brings something to science,” said paleontologist Ascania Rincon, who runs the Laboratory of Paleontology at the Venezuelan Institute for Scientific Research. This process is particularly painstaking when it comes to a new species, and Rincon does have such an animal on his hands. Later this month, the Institute will announce this discovery, though they remain tight-lipped about the find for now. Maybe it will be an iguana that looks like a chicken.
Though Rincon's lab is supported by both government and private funds, it lacks the resources of labs located in other fossil-rich areas of the world, such as the North American badlands or the Gobi Desert. The workspace is meticulously organized but small, and his team includes only five researchers. But the limitations do not affect the lab's enthusiasm, and the hunt for more fossils continues.
The team is particularly interested in accumulating definitive evidence that Pleistocene humans in Latin America hunted Very Big Game. Spearheads have been discovered in the area but according to Rincon, “what's lacking is the reliable indication that man hunted the megafauna we are finding.” There is plenty of evidence that early humans brought down mammoths and other mega-game in North America and Europe but the South American past is murkier.
Did early South American humans feast on mammoths as much as their North American and European counterparts?
Like most self-respecting paleontologists, Rincon realizes his field is as relevant to the future of life on Earth as it is for the past. “We are destroying what little is left of the forests, oceans, and deserts; we are destroying our ecosystems and accelerating extinction,” he said. The Orinoco River deposit highlights the fragility of successive ecosystems over hundreds of millions of years. Let's hope we make it a teachable moment. Nobody wants to go the way of the iguana-shaped chicken.