The Preserver of Portuguese Paleontology by Steve Brusatte
A Portrait of Octavio Mateus
by Steve Brusatte
In a scientific community centered around dinosaur finds in North America and Asia, often European paleontologists are left wondering why fossils found on their continent are overlooked. After all, paleontology was \"created\" largely by a group of early fossil hunters in France and England, and many of the world\'s most important fossils have been found in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and other European nations. Regardless, European fossils continued to be overlooked. That is a shame, and a young Portuguese paleontologist named Octavio Mateus is out to change that.
Science is almost second nature to Octavio Mateus, much like riding a bike or throwing a baseball. You could say that science runs in his blood. When he was only three, Octavio\'s parents, Isabel and Horacio Mateus, founded the Ethnological and Archaeological Group of Lourinha (GEAL), and later a small museum in their hometown of Lourinha. Long before she co-founded the group, Isabel was an amateur speleologist with a keen interest both for caves and anything related to science.
After exploring much of the geology of Portugal, Isabel convinced her husband Horacio to organize a group for fellow Portuguese amateurs interested in science. It all took off from there. At the mere age of five, when most other kids his age were beginning to attend grammar school, Octavio was already an experienced field scientist.
\"I remember participating in all kinds of activities, including my first expedition camping when I was four years old! I always remember living with dinosaur bones, Neolithic human skulls, and ancient ethnographic stuff,\" Octavio recalled.Despite the breath of his parents\' program, it was dinosaur bones interest of young Octavio. After craduating from high school he decided to enter Évora University and study biology, hoping that the knowledge he gained could help him reconstruct the lives of dinosaurs. While this-paleontologists studying biology-is common in the United States, it was anything but commonplace in Portugal. \"Until (then), all Portuguese paleontologists were geologists, and I (was) the first paleontologist in Portugal with a biology background,\" Octavio said.
This biology background helped tremendously in 1993, when Isabel Mateus made a strange discovery on a seaside cliff near Paimogo, north of Lourinha. While walking with her daughter, Isabel happened upon a strange cluster of large eggs. As a dedicated scientist, she immediately recognized them as belonging to dinosaurs. Knowing that the discovery was important, Isabel attracted a group of local volunteers, who excavated and cleaned six large blocks containing more than 100 eggs. That was eight years ago, and Octavio was just beginning his college studies. Today, those discoveries continue to play a major role in Octavio\'s research. After excavating the glut of eggs, the Mateus family, with the help of paleontologist Philippe Taquet, identified the remains as those belonging to Jurassic theropod dinosaurs. Strangely enough, the eggs conclusively matched similar discoveries known from Colorado. This was the first sign of a relationship between Portugal\'s fossils and those found in the Morrison Formation of North America, perhaps the most famous dinosaur-bearing deposit in the world.
Unbeknownst to the family then, the unexpected discovery would forever change the course of Portuguese paleontology. But, what exactly makes Portugal unique paleontologically speaking? Because of the European fossil bias, many are unaware of both the geologic history and the fossil record of Portugal.
In all reality, though, both are unique among European countries, and are helping paleontologists reconstruct relationships between similar Late Jurassic dinosaur faunas. Although rock from all three periods of the Mesozoic outcrop in Portugal, the country is most famous for its Jurassic fossil record. The majority of these fossils come from the Late Jurassic Lusitanian Basin, which was formed during a cataclysmic event during the waning days of the Jurassic. Before long, however, this basin came to support a rich and diverse assemblage of dinosaurs. Attracted by the basin\'s warm climate and abundant vegetation, dinosaurs of all varieties flocked to prehistoric Portugal, and luckily for science, many have left invaluable fossils.
The fauna of the Lusitanian Basin was quite vast, and included brachiosaurs, camarasaurs, diplodocids, ceratosaurs, carnosaurs, stegosaurs, camptosaurids, and dryosaurs. Living alongside these animals was crocodiles, turtles, pterosaurs, small lizards, aquatic reptiles, and mammals, many of which also are commonly found preserved today. However, dinosaur bones are not the only fossils that are frequently discovered in Portugal. Despite its abundance of dinosaur species, Portugal is probably most famous for its dinosaur tracks. Although they vary through time, Portuguese dinosaur footprints are known from Jurassic and Cretaceous sediments. Several types of dinosaurs, including theropods, sauropods, and ornithischians, left their indelible footprints on large mudflats that once covered much of Portugal\'s terrain. The most impressive of these tracks, according to Octavio, comes from a site near Fatima, the Portuguese community made famous after the reported appearance of the Virgin Mary. The Fatima site, dated to the Middle Jurassic, exhibits the longest sauropod trackway in the world, and includes wellpreserved manus claw impressions. In addition, trackways are also known from Avelino, Cabo Espichel, and Zambujal. Although each site is very different, Octavio believes that the abundance of trackways confirms the presence of very large dinosaurs, which was first suggested by the discovery of large, isolated bones. Some sites even suggest gregarious sub-adult
It is quite obvious that Portugal, despite any European fossil biases, preserves an exquisite and important dinosaur fauna. While much of this fauna has been assembled from a splattering of sites across the country, the majority of known Portuguese dinosaurs comes from a small area near the Mateus\' home town of Lourinha. And, thanks to the tireless efforts of Portugal\'s \"first family of science,\" many of these species are first beginning to see the light of modern science. The Lourinha area is unique geologically, which makes it a haven for dinosaur buffs. Octavio describes the lands surrounding his hometown as a \"patchwork of different geological formations.\" Within mere kilometers of each other are outcrops of Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous rock-all of which preserve intriguing fossils. The most productive layer, however, is Jurassic in age. The \"Lourinha Formation\", although poorly studied for decades, is just now beginning to give new insights into the dinosaur communities of the Late Jurassic.
Nearly 20 years ago, in 1982, a farmer came across a strange looking rock in his field. After examining it carefully, the farmer deduced that the rock was actually the bone, and likely that of a dinosaur. Eventually he brought it to the Museum of Lourinha, where it was identified as part of a new theropod dinosaur. Years later Octavio would name this dinosaur Lourinhanosaurus, and classify it as a Late Jurassic allosaurid. Likely approaching lengths of 4.5 meters, this dinosaur was a fierce carnivore-that closely resembled allosaurids found in the famous Morrison Formation of North America. Today, the remains of this dinosaur, which include cervical, dorsal, and caudal vertebrae, ribs, chevrons, the pelvic girdle, the hindlimbs, and gastroliths, are helping Octavio reconstruct exactly what this transcontinental relationship may mean.
Perhaps most unique about Lourinhanosaurus was the set of 32 gastroliths found preserved in its rib cage. Commonly found in birds, crocodiles, and herbivorous dinosaurs, gastroliths are simply hard, resistant rocks that help animals grind and digest tough vegetation. However, the allosaurid Lourinhanosaurus certainly did not consume plants. What, then, was the purpose of these gastroliths? As of this moment, Octavio does not know the answer, but he is still searching.
Another unanswered question is whether the eggs originally discovered by Octavio\'s mother, many of which included embryos, actually were laid by Lourinhanosaurus. These eggs represent the only dinosaur embryos known from Europe, and the nests in which they were found are extremely large. The large size of the nests, along with the resemblance of the embryos to the known skeletal material of Lourinhanosaurus, has led Octavio and others to suggest that the two may be synonymous. As of now this ascription has not been officially announced in print, but almost all anatomical characters match perfectly. In the summer of 2001 Octavio named another dinosaur discovered near his hometown. Dubbed Draconyx loureiroi, this Late Jurassic camptosaurid is based on the remains of one individual. Although the remains are somewhat fragmentary, two maxillary teeth, three mid-anterior caudal centra, one chevron, the distal epiphyses of the right humerus, one manual phalanx, three manual ungual phalanx, the distal epiphyses of the right femur, the epiphyses of the tibia and fibula, the astragalus, the calcaneum, three tarsals, four metatarsals, and several pedal phalanges are known from this dinosaur. Taken together, they represent a camptosaurid much like those known from the Morrison Formation.
Also recently discovered in Portugal were the remains of Torvosaurus, a theropod also known from the Morrison Formation. These remains consisted of a robust tibia, which, according to Octavio, is the most robust dinosaur tibia ever described. Perhaps the size of the tibia may mean that Torvosaurus was an animal with strong, powerful, and muscled legs, characteristics that enabled it to become a successful predator. However, it is not the tibia of Torvosaurus that is causing the most debate. Although the size and shape of this bone may have future ramifications when it comes to reconstructing the hunting strategy of large theropods, it is simply the fact that Torvosaurus is found in Portugal that represents the most important aspect of the discovery. It should be fairly obvious that Portugal shares a similar dinosaur fauna with the Morrison Formation of North America. The genera Ceratosaurus, Allosaurus, and Brachiosaurus, along with Torvosaurus, have been found in both locations.
What exactly does this mean? Likely both North America and Portugal were linked by land bridges either before or during the Late Jurassic. These land bridges enabled the two lands, now separated by thousands of miles, to support similar dinosaur faunas. In addition, Octavio believes, the Iberian Peninsula was largely composed of islands during the Late Jurassic, isolating much of its fauna. Many of those dinosaurs not resembling their North American cousins were instead odd, bizarre forms, shaped by millions of years of geographic isolation. One such dinosaur is Dinheirosaurus, a diplodocid-type sauropod known from several cervical vertebrae.
The Morrison-Portugal link and Iberian isolation both play a major role in Octavio\'s research, as does the dinosaur fauna of another country that doesn\'t immediately ring a paleontological bell: Thailand. Although not the main focus of his work, Octavio is interested in the prehistoric past of Thailand, a nation that is just beginning to come into its paleontological own. Most of Octavio\'s research on Thailand\'s dinosaurs centers around two enigmatic Cretaceous sauropods: Tangvayosaurus, known from neighboring Laos, and Phuwiangosaurus. Both are basal titanosaurs, and both are strangely similar to each other. Among other features, the two dinosaurs share characters in the vertebrae, pelvis, and limbs.
However, there is one striking difference: the pubic girdle. Regardless of this difference, though, Octavio and his coauthors assigned both dinosaurs to the titanosaurids. Although material is scrappy at best, Octavio and his colleagues believe that both sauropods share one unmistakable derived character of Titanosauria: that the pubis is significantly longer than the ischium.
Based on this character, these two sauropods have been reconstructed as two of the oldest and most plesiomorphic titanosaurs. Also, says Octavio, the discovery proves that titanosaurs were relatively abundant outside Gondwana during the Early Cretaceous, a notion once frowned upon. The above is a summary of Octavio\'s work. In reality, however, this young Portuguese paleontologist has already accomplished more in his young career than many paleontologists have in a lifetime. Only 26 years old, Octavio is currently working towards his Ph.D., and is nearly completed with his thesis- a study of Lourinhanosaurus and its relationships with the eggs his mother
found in 1993.
In his free time, however, Octavio leads digs through the Museum of Lourinha, the museum his parents founded in 1984. Today, the museum has the largest dinosaur collection in Portugal, with the bones of many theropods, sauropods, stegosaurs, ornithopods, crocodiles, turtles, mammals, eggs, and embryos taking up the breadth of vault space. The Museum is not satisfied with its collections, though, and every year leads teams of international volunteers into the field to collect more specimens. Unlike many programs in the United States, the volunteers don\'t have to pay a fee, and anyone over 17 is welcome to apply. In March 2000, at the First Symposium on European Dinosaurs in Dusseldorf, Germany, Octavio suggested the formation of an online European dinosaur database.
After receiving enthusiastic support from fellow paleontologists, Octavio contacted Fred Bervoets of Dino Data to host the database. Now, less than two years later, the EuroDino Database Project is a rapidly growing site that contains information on the dinosaur collections of most major European museums. Currently 15 countries are prepresented, from France to the Netherlands. With so much accomplished in a relatively short period of time, the major question is: what is next for Octavio Mateus? Fortunately, Octavio has formulated some impressive career goals that he hopes to accomplish as he continues his dinosaur studies. After finishing his Ph.D., he would like to erect a large dinosaur museum in Lourinha. His goal isn\'t simply to attract crowds, but to make the museum an \"obligatory reference for the scientific research of
Late Jurassic dinosaurs (of) the world.\"
\"It is just the beginning, but in a few years Lourinha shall be an unavoidable mark to help understand the dinosaur fauna from the Late Jurassic, dinosaur paleobiogeography, and nesting reproduction behavior among theropods. Lourinha is probably the most productive Jurassic site in Europe, and a beautiful place to live. I wish to continue there,\" he said.