Dinosaurs in La Rioja

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Peter J Perkins (UK)

This article is for those who like a geological excuse for visiting places. There may well be quaint villages, wonderful scenery and unusual wildlife but, if there is some special geology, so much the better.

Fig. 1. At the entrance to the museum.

La Rioja is one of the small regions of northern Spain. It is the home of famous wines, but it used to be the home of dinosaurs, whose remains are found in the south of the region, close to the border with Soria province, where they also occur.

A good starting point is the village of Enciso, where there is a museum (Centro Paleontológico).

Fig. 2. Front of town hall in Enciso showing footprints on the clock face.

For such an out-of-the-way place, this comes as a surprise – no dusty room of cabinets with miscellaneous bones and doubtful labels here. First, you can see landscape paintings of ‘then’ and ‘now’ (Fig. 3), followed by a screen showing the reconstructions we have become used to since Jurassic Park – a family of dinosaurs wandering, searching, feeding and relating to each other. The display rooms have a high standard of presentation with information boards and specimens.

Fig. 3. ‘Then’ and ‘now’ views of the local area.

The museum is easy to follow, covering the meaning of the dinosaurs’ names, whether they were cold or warm blooded, their diet, their eggs, the climate of the time, possible reasons for their extinction, their classification and the distinction between bird-like and reptile-like hips. With the prominent title, Dime como andas, y te diré como eres (“Tell me how you walk, and I’ll tell you what you’re like”), there is an explanation of how it is possible to determine a dinosaur’s gait, weight and speed from an examination of its footprint.

Fig. 4. Four prints of a bipedal theropod.
Fig. 5. Another dinosaur footprint, this time highlighted with white lines..

In the basement, there is a room with a range of activities to suit different ages, some giving an opportunity for finding out more, others for testing one’s understanding and some simple ‘head-body-legs’ games (Fig. 6).

Fig. 6. Learning more in the basement.
Fig. 7. A room inside the museum showing a board for Psittacosaurus, the ‘parrot lizard’.

The area of interest extends 60km east-west and 10km north-south, and is divided into three driving routes, Enciso being central to one of them. On the edge of this town, over the River Cidacos, can be found a sign, which explains that over 3,000 dinosaur traces have been found. Access to nearby localities is illustrated and we visited La Virgen de Campo (meaning “The Virgin of the Field”).

Fig. 8. Skulls of the small-headed, plant-eating ornithischian, Stegosaurus (left), and the large-headed, carnivorous theropod, Allosaurus fragilis, with the distinctive bony ridges on the top and serrated blade-like teeth (right).

The strata here are Lower Cretaceous (130 to 110 million years ago) and there is evidence of a mudslide (interpreted as being caused by an earthquake), signs of burrows in lake bottom sediments and, best of all, an encounter between two dinosaurs. It seems it was not a friendly meeting – the pattern of prints suggests a fight between the herbivorous Iguanodon and a carnivorous allosaurid predator (Fig. 11).

Fig. 9. Demonstration of the work of palaeontologists.

Two localities along the road LR356, east-south-east of Enciso are worth special mention. At Poyales, there are 20 prints of a dinosaur exclusive to the area (Theroplantigrada encisensis). And at Valdecevillo,there are four well preserved marks of a carnivorous dinosaur, evidence of a family group of herbivores (two adults and a cub) ascending a stream bed, and 59 prints of the feet and hands of a quadrupedal herbivore. Close to the fossil sites, the landscape is dominated by replicas which, when seen from a distance as one rounds a corner, make an impressive sight (Figs. 11 and 12).

Fig. 10. A framed Pterodactylus from Solnhofen, Bavaria.

However, dinosaurs were no respecters of boundaries – their footprints are found in neighbouring regions, but each area treats their own as if none exist elsewhere. Therefore, publicity in one area makes no reference at all to what’s just over the border.

Fig. 11. Replicas – an allosaurid fighting an Iguanodon.
Fig. 12. A replica of Brachiosaurus with a Homo sapiens sheltering underneath from the rain

In conclusion, it should be mentioned that all of the information is in Spanish, but it is important to add that a lot of the key words are scientific and so are recognisable and, in lots of cases, one can easily make sense of what has been written, for example, “muy bien estado de conservación” means “very good state of preservation”.

Finding Enciso

Look for the A68 motorway going south-east from Logroño to Zaragoza. Turn off at Calahorra onto the LR134 to go south-west to Arnedo and continue up the valley of the Rio Cidacos for about 30km to Enciso. Peter Perkins is a retired teacher of geology and geography, and is now a U3A tutor in Diss, Norfolk.

Further information

Website: www.dinosaurios-larioja.org.

And for those who like to show off where they have been, there are T-shirts for sale.

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