Birds have always fascinated Herculano Alvarenga. While still young, he collected specimens and stuffed them himself. However, his interest in zoology faded once he entered the university. Alvarenga graduated with a physician’s degree from the Taubaté University School of Medicine in 1973, where he specialized in orthopedics. Two years later, he became a professor at the same institution. The school went on strike in 1977 and he was able to resume his earlier hobby with his free time. Coincidentally, also in 1977, some workers came across quite a few bones in a clay mine in the Paraíba Valley region of São Paulo State, known as a site where a wide variety of fossils of prehistoric animals are found.
It was a nearly complete skeleton of what appeared to be a gigantic animal. Alvarenga was called in to examine the bones. “At first I thought it was the fossil of a mammal,” he recalls. “I took the bones home so I could analyze them more thoroughly.” The knowledge he acquired in books and articles on zoology was not sufficient for him to describe the animal on his own. In Rio de Janeiro, he sought out geologist Diógenes de Almeida Campos from the National Department of Mineral Production (DNPM), who offered to assist him. Alvarenga began corresponding with Campos and they exchanged information that helped him describe the animal.
The outcome of the work was a scientific article, published in 1982 in the journal Annals of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (Anais da Academia Brasileira de Ciências), and it described the new species. It was a carnivorous bird from the group of terror birds, given that name by paleontologists because they killed their prey by kicking them, holding them in their beak and beating them against the ground. They lived in the region 23 million years ago. They were two meters tall, their heads were the same size as a horse’s head, and they weighed about 200 kg.
The description of the new species, named Paraphysornis brasiliensis, resonated all over the world. Other museums began to request replicas of the animal for their collections. In exchange, they sent Alvarenga copies of objects from their collections. “The Natural History Museum of London sent me a replica of the fossil from the Archaeopteryx, one of the most primitive birds on record; the museum in Los Angeles sent me the cranium of a Tyrannosaurus rex,” he says. With these exchanges, Alvarenga acquired replicas of many extinct animals that were stored in his house. He eventually became a specialist in bird paleontology, and he wrote and collaborated with scientists and institutions in Brazil and abroad.
Since then, he has identified and described more than 15 new species of fossil birds. In 1995, at age 48, he began his doctorate in zoology at the University of São Paulo Biosciences Institute (IB-USP), but he continued teaching at the Taubaté School of Medicine, where he treated his patients in his orthopedics office. “I studied fossils from terror birds from museums everywhere in America and Europe to characterize the Phorusrhacidae family and reorganize what was up to that point the chaotic state of the nomenclature and classification of these birds,” he explains.
In 1998, the mayor of Taubaté urged Alvarenga to start a museum to exhibit his collection. The project forged ahead, and in 2000, the city donated the land and funded the construction of the building. The Taubaté Natural History Museum opened officially four years later.
Today there are about 14,000 objects that cover every geological period. Today the institute is experiencing persistent delays in obtaining funds from the city government, which had committed to contribute R$100,000 per year. With expenses that amounted to R$250,000 in 2016, the museum may have to close.