The Rocky Roads of Colombian Paleontology

Friday, May 28, 2021

The unpaved road between Apulo and San Francisco, featuring traditional transportation from the region, overlies a Cretaceous ecosystem. Clockwise from top left: Callawayasaurus colombiensis, Goulmimichthys, Sachicasaurus vitae, and the region’s ubiquitous ammonites. Credit: Santiago Flórez

Colombia has a wealth of fossils, and geologists are leading the charge to both collect data and share ancient history with local communities.

The town of Apulo, about 64 kilometers from Bogotá, is well known in Colombia thanks to its summer weather and beautiful landscapes. It is located in a region of contrasts, where unpaved roads and impoverished populations can be found next to affluent summer houses and luxury resorts

Ammonite fossils are found in abundance on the unpaved roads, rivers, and streams of the region. Residents frequently use them to build and decorate houses and other buildings. Indeed, Colombia has one of the largest deposits of marine and Cretaceous fossils in the world, a fact that is still unknown to most Colombians.

During the Late Cretaceous period, the region was part of the Proto-Caribbean Sea. This ancient ecosystem was biologically rich with a multitude of fish, crustaceans, ammonites, and large reptilian predators. “I imagine it was a sea full of life and diversity.…It changed through millennia, but it was always full of life,” said Cristian David Benavides, who is completing his master’s degree in geology at Universidad Nacional de Colombia (UNAL).

Local residents regularly uncover ammonite fossils on and around this unpaved road connecting the towns of Apulo and San Francisco, Colombia. Credit: Santiago Flórez

Protecting Colombia’s Paleontological Heritage

In Apulo and other regions of Colombia, there is such an abundance of fossils that farmers, other local residents, and tourists—not paleontologists—are the ones finding them. For example, in 1977, a farmer plowing his field found the almost complete skeleton of a 7-meter Kronosaurus. Since then, some private citizens have engaged in fossil hunting and display.

Colombia’s Cretaceous treasury has also led to a very lucrative illegal fossil trade. In 2018, a decree was signed by former Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos to protect the paleontological patrimony of the country. The decree made a difference in keeping fossils in Colombia, said Luis Duque, who works in the tourism office of Villa de Leyva, a hot spot for fossils in Colombia. “Before the decree,” he said, “tourists could buy all kinds of fossils from street vendors.”

Pedro Patarroyo, an expert on Cretaceous sedimentary rocks and professor of geosciences at UNAL, believes the decree goes too far, however: “You need to register all your fossils and ask for permission for any excavation.…Is it possible to register and ask for permission for every single ammonite fossil found?…If a [local resident] or a tourist finds a fossil and picks it up, will they get in trouble with the law?…[Plus, this] decree has not been shared widely with most members of society.”

Protecting fossils goes beyond preventing them from being used to construct roads or being the basis of illegal trade, Patarroyo said. By preserving, studying, and teaching about fossils paleontology can contribute to a sense of belonging and responsibility to the land. “By learning about fossils,” he said, “communities will not let others take them away, and they can reappropriate their own knowledge and their territory.”

Why Are Geologists the Ones Doing Paleontology in Colombia?

In Colombia, paleontology hasn’t developed as a professional and academic pursuit in its own right; the tasks and responsibilities of studying fossils and ancient life—and how to protect the fossils that remain of it—have traditionally fallen to those who study geology. “[Colombian paleontologists] have a disadvantage as they lack biological training,” according to Patarroyo, although “this is not an impediment. As geologists, we have important knowledge of the relationships between rocks and the once-living organisms within them.”

In 2020, during the First Colombian Congress of Paleontology, scientists discussed whether Colombian universities should award a discrete paleontology degree. Many academics argued it’s not worth separating paleontology from geology because there are just not enough well-funded jobs or sufficient research opportunities to pursue.

There are currently two main sources of funding for paleontological excavations in Colombia: universities and fossil fuel corporations. Patarroyo proudly described his work as a professor taking students to do fieldwork, although most of the funds for paleontological research come from fossil fuel companies.

Ammonite fossils like this one are common discoveries when excavating roads and settlements in Colombia. Credit: Santiago Flórez

In fact, some of the most iconic fossils found in Colombia have been discovered in coal mines such as Cerrejón. These charismatic fossils include giant turtles and the Titanoboa. According to Patarroyo, the relationship between corporations and paleontological research can be problematic: The corporations’ “main interest is to extract coal (and other fossil fuels), and in the process many fossils are being destroyed.”

Rocky Road Ahead for Colombian Paleontology

Fossil fuel companies, dependent on global fuel prices, can also be inconsistent in funding paleontological research. Ecopetrol, the largest petroleum company in Colombia, had funded a project with researchers from UNAL to recover fossil materials in an area in which they were planning to build an oil pipeline, for example.

When the initial grant money was fully spent, Ecopetrol stopped financing the project, despite the groundbreaking discovery of a 10-meter-long pliosaur that researchers named Sachicasaurus vitae, after the nearby town of SáchicaThe research leader, Colombian paleontologist and geologist María Páramo, worked to get new funding from sources like El Servicio Geológico Colombiano (Colombian Geological Survey) to continue to study this remarkable fossil.

When Páramo showed this fossil to Benavides for the first time, “she was laughing with joy, seeing the smile on my face,” he remembered. Having the opportunity to work with this remarkable fossil convinced Benavides that he wanted to pursue paleontology.