Fossils of New Vulture Species Found in Cuba

Thursday, January 14, 2021

Hypothetical reconstruction of the Emslie’s vulture (Cathartes emsliei). Image credit: William Suárez.

A new species of small vulture that lived during the Quaternary period in the Greater Antilles has been identified from fossils found in western Cuba.

“Two species of New World vultures (family Cathartidae) form part of the modern avifauna of Cuba: the common turkey vulture (Cathartes aura) and the black vulture (Coragyps atratus), which is very rare,” Cuban ornithologist William Suarez and Dr. Storrs Olson from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History wrote in their paper.

“Vultures were better represented in Cuba’s fossil record during the Late Pleistocene and part of the Holocene and included the Cuban condor (Gymnogyps varonai).”

The newly-discovered species belongs to Cathartes, a genus of medium-sized to large carrion-feeding birds in the Cathartidae family.

Named the Emslie’s vulture (Cathartes emsliei), it lived during the Late Pleistocene to Holocene epoch, until as recently as 5,000 years ago.

“The species is named for our esteemed colleague and friend, Dr. Steven D. Emsli from the University of North Carolina Wilmington, in recognition of his contribution to the knowledge of New World vultures, including those from Cuba,” the researchers explained.

Right scapulas (A-B, ventral view) and left coracoids (C-D, dorsal view) of the lesser yellow-headed vulture (A, C) and the Emslie’s vulture (B, D). Scale bar – 1 cm. Image credit: William Suárez.

The fossilized bones of the Emslie’s vulture were recovered from Quaternary asphalt deposits at the site of Las Breas de San Felipe and cave deposits in Cueva de Sandoval and Cueva del Indio in western Cuba.

Some specimens of the ancient bird are the smallest known in the genus Cathartes.

“Cuban scavengers were highly specialised, evolving in the complete absence of carnivorous mammals, and becoming extinct during the Holocene,” the scientists wrote.

“The Emslie’s vulture appears to be derived from a Central American ancestor — probably one related to the smaller living species, the lesser yellow-headed vulture (Cathartes burrovianus) — rather than from North America, unlike the two other extinct Cuban taxa in the genera Coragyps and Gymnogyps.”

“Skulls with massive and large bills, compared to continental congeners, are common adaptations in Cuban carrion-eaters.”

The discovery of the Emslie’s vulture is reported in a paper in the Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club.


William Suárez & Storrs L. Olson. 2020. A new fossil vulture (Cathartidae: Cathartes) from Quaternary asphalt and cave deposits in Cuba. Bulletin of the British Ornithologists’ Club 140 (3): 335-343; doi: 10.25226/bboc.v140i3.2020.a6