The footprints that led Luis Espinosa to discover the first Mexican dinosaur
(Pgoto: Jorge Sandoval/Courtesy of Luis Espinosa Arrubarrena)

Luis Espinosa Arrubarrena says that visiting a museum can change your life. It was a personal experience that happened to the now head of the Museum of Geology at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), who also discovered the first Mexican dinosaur. His maternal grandmother took him to the Museum of Natural History, in Chapultepec, Mexico City. It became clear to him that he wanted to dedicate himself to Earth sciences.

When he was ready to choose a degree, he gave chemistry a chance for a semester. However, he changed to the UNAM Faculty of Sciences. There, he studied biology and connected with his passion for paleontology.

“Paleontology has two faces: one is evolutionary biology. Through this, we can learn how living beings have evolved. From the time when there were mammoths or dinosaurs, right up until today. Another face of paleontology is Earth sciences,” says Espinosa.


From a young age, during those visits that he made with his grandmother to the museums, he was captivated by the processes of evolution. Between the Natural History Museum and the Chopo Museum, he saw some skeletons, dinosaurs and mammoths that inspired him to keep asking himself questions.

The path of paleontology

As he was finishing his thesis, Luis Espinosa began working at the Institute of Geology. In August, he will have been working 44 years non-stop for this institute. His career began with cataloging paleontological assets.

“I was very young, but it was related to my degree and I had access to fossils. They fascinated me. One day, I had the opportunity to start working with a researcher who came from the United States to study sharks,” Espinosa talks about the 20 years he spent collecting information on these specimens along the Mexican coastline.

Due to his curiosity, after finishing his degree, Luis Espinosa decided to study a postgraduate course. Opportunities opened at both UNAM and California State University, Long Beach.

“It was really hard to get a scholarship in the United States because they make it quite difficult for you. It’s always been hard for me to understand why it’s so difficult for someone who wants to excel to be able to do so. Someone once told me that if you can deal with all the hurdles they make you go through for the scholarship, it’s a good sign that you’ll be able to complete it,” recalls the science teacher.

It was precisely during his time in the United States that, in addition to studying his graduate degree, he began teaching classes. He also had jobs related to his degree that took him to Colorado. Each time, he got closer to the dinosaurs.

On the trail of the dinosaur

During his stay in the United States, Luis Espinosa took advantage of every job opportunity. In San Pedro, California, he helped identify shark species that local fishermen had found. During the summer, the paleontologist would go to Colorado to guide groups of visitors looking for dinosaur remains.

“They hired me to go to Fruita Paleontological Area, in Colorado (…) where the smallest known dinosaurs were found. There was a very cool program of volunteers that helped with the excavations. It was a kind of summer camp for the elderly and I would go as an instructor to help them unearth the dinosaurs,” recalls Espinosa.

But his intention was not to remain in the United States. When he finished his postgraduate studies, he returned to Mexico, where he was recognized for discovering the first dinosaur tracks in the country and Central America, as well as for the recovery of the first dinosaur collected in Mexico.

Together with a team of specialists, he discovered the paleontological zone known as Cantera Tlayúa in Puebla. During a webinar on the megafauna of the basin of Mexico, Espinosa called this area “nirvana” due to the abundance of fossils that have helped to recreate what that area was like when the first settlers arrived.

“When we returned to Mexico, the situation got a bit difficult at the Geology Institute and I couldn’t continue with the shark research. I started working more with dinosaurs until we found a place, Tlayúa,” says Luis Espinosa.

The Hadrosaurus

For eight years, the paleontologist worked in this area, considered to be one of the best fossil sites in Mexico. He also toured the country in search of fossil sites. Although he was a pioneer in the discovery of dinosaur fossils in national territory, he made the with at least 11 other people. Some were colleagues from UNAM and others from Saltillo, Coahuila, in northern Mexico.

His work led him to explore clues: from footprints to fossil remains. In 1988, Espinosa and his team found most of the Hadrosaurus bones. The find, near Parras de la Fuente, Coahuila, is one of the most important of his career.

The so-called ‘duckbill’ is now on display at the Museum of Geology. In life, it was a specimen that only consumed plants and is therefore considered “the cow of the dinosaurs”.

But he doesn’t take all the credit for the exploration. The scientist also highlights the work of his colleagues in that search. Now, there is a record of the presence of dinosaurs from the Jurassic and Cretaceous periods in at least 10 states.

Paleontological exploration is “a lot of work, we have to dedicate a lot of time to it,” says Espinosa. “One day, I was offered the chance to run the Museum of Geology and that’s where I’m currently working.”

Luis Espinosa, the singer

Always open, curious and versatile, the paleontologist points out that sharing knowledge with young people motivates him to keep working. After more than 100 days of confinement and with the museum closed, Espinosa hopes that he will soon return to activity, with the sanitary measures indicated by the government.

His eagerness to go out is also due to his musical interest. He has a music group which play covers. For a paleontologist, there was nothing more appropriate than to name his group Jurassic Band.

“In Jurassic Band, I’m the front man, the lead singer. I’ve played various instruments: the keyboard and the guitar, but there have always been people who play them better than me. I sing in Jurassic Band,” he says about his artistic side, which he describes as bohemian.

But what he’s most fond of is his work at the Museum of Geology. His love for places like this began in his childhood. He hasn’t abandoned it. For him, visits to museums with loved ones (friends or family) create “unforgettable” bonds.

 

 

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