Rail works point way to most diverse dinosaur site in Europe

20th November 2007, Comments 0 comments

20 November 2007, Fuentes / Madrid - Excavators working on the high-speed rail link between Madrid and Valencia have uncovered the largest Upper Cretaceous period fossil site in Europe, say Spanish paleontologists.

20 November 2007

Fuentes / Madrid - Excavators working on the high-speed rail link between Madrid and Valencia have uncovered the largest Upper Cretaceous period fossil site in Europe, say Spanish paleontologists.

More than 8,000 fossils dating back 80 million years - 15 million years before dinosaurs became extinct - have already been removed from a site called Lo Hueco near the village of Fuentes, 15 kilometers from Cuenca.

Last week, archeologists removed three almost complete dinosaur skulls from the site, along with a 1.60-meter-long femur.

Fernando Escaso, a paleontologist at Cuenca's science museum, says he is astounded by the finds. "It's like a dream," he says, speaking from a 20-meter-deep pit containing the remains of eight dinosaurs, 14 crocodiles and dozens of turtles.

Around 30 archeologists, paleontologists, and geologists are working flat out, aided by a further 30 laborers to clear the site so as not to delay work on the high-speed rail track.

José Luis Sanz of Madrid's Autonomous University is in overall charge of the dig. He says that until now, European paleontologists had something of an inferiority complex about dinosaurs from the Upper Cretaceous period compared to those found in North America.

"What's more, these are completely different fauna: because the two mega-continents had separated by then."

Francisco Ortega, the co-director of the site, says that Lo Hueco is the most important site in the Iberian Peninsula, and will provide vital information about the Upper Cretaceous period in Europe, of which little is still known.

The finds were discovered on June 25, when two earth movers uncovered the first bones. Over the course of the summer, more than 80 people have been involved in identifying the 8,000 pieces excavated so far.

One three-quarters complete dinosaur has been removed from the site, an event that rarely happens outside China and the United States. Sanz says that a number of different species of sauropod - the largest of the herbivorous dinosaurs - have been found, besides several as yet unidentified animals have also been uncovered.

"The state of conservation is incredible. There are articulated skeletons, for example, a neck that is several meters long with all its vertebrae and ribs in place."

The site is in a fluvial channel, and Escaso says the animals were probably washed into it by heavy flooding. What is sure is that the find puts Cuenca firmly onto the dinosaur fossil map. Just 20 kilometers up the road is the Las Hoyas site, where significant remains have been found amid chalk plates from the Lower Cretaceous period.

The find has also impacted on the lives of the 500 inhabitants of Fuentes. "They've used all the dogs in the village to sniff out the bones," joked one customer at the local bar.

Sonia Bueno, the village mayor, says she would like to see the community benefit from the finds, perhaps by setting up a museum. In the short term, she is more concerned about the need to cover up the site within a month so that work can continue on a tunnel.

[Copyright EL PAÍS, SL./ M. OLIVARES / M. R. DE ELVIRA 2007]

Subject: Spanish news

 

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