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Travelling through time: The roadmap for Namibia is in the rocks

Patricia Vickers-Rich , Peter Trusler, Steve Morton, Peter Swinkels, Thomas H Rich, Mike Hall and Steve Pritchard (Australia) The “road map” allowing (time) travellers to move across more than 1,000 million years in Namibia is recorded in the rocks of this land. And, it is on display in several museums in Namibia – in Swakopmund, Windhoek, Rosh Pinah and Farm Aar. The old part of the road In drafting the early section of this map, Southern Namibia has been a key region for understanding some of the sights our time traveller will come into contact with, some being the weird organisms called Ediacarans. Since the early days of the twentieth century, when geologists, such as Paul Range, and German soldiers occupying isolated outposts in the Aus region of Southern Namibia, some of these strange fossils were reported. These were the first ‘large’ multicellular organisms that prospered on planet Earth before the development of true animals, and amongst them were the tiny cloudinids. Their fossils are preserved in the thick rock sequences that can be seen along the “time road” in Southern Namibia. These showcase a time in the history of life when there were fundamental and pivotal changes in life occurring, with life transitioning from an enigmatic biota to what we consider normal today. And, at a number of museums in Namibia, including the Swakopmund Museum and the Namibian Geological Survey in Windhoek, several of these intriguing organisms are on show – such as the soft-bodied Ernietta, Pteridinium and Rangea,and … Read More

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Take me to the rocks

Dr Sebastian Lüning (Germany) I am a geologist by profession. Everyday of my working life, I have worked with rocks, from nine to five, for 19 years, looking for oil and gas in the Sahara. Sometimes this is stressful, sometimes really enjoyable and sometimes simply annoying – just like any other job. However, I’ll tell you a little secret about what I do in my limited spare time to refresh my mind and recharge my batteries for another day. I am so in love with my rocks that I am also a hobby geologist. I just cannot keep away from the rocks. There are plenty of interesting fields open to amateur geologists and palaeontologists to indulge in. Most popular are probably collecting minerals and fossils, including visiting quarries and searching beaches for new specimens. However, my hobby is focused on regional geology. I love to understand the earth history of a particular area, by visiting its outcrops and reading the regional geological descriptions that have been published about it. That is, I like to look behind the scenes of a modern landscape to understand how it was shaped and what lies underneath. I drive and walk through my object of study to understand its dimensions, distances and height. At one moment, I can pay attention to millimetre-sized fossils and, a few minutes later, be enjoying a panorama across kilometre-scale valleys shaped by ice. I am convinced there are many other amateur geologists, who share my passion for an integrated view … Read More

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La Gomera: A short geological guide

Ken Madrell (UK) The island of La Gomera has an area of 370km2, it is 25km in diameter, has a maximum altitude of 1,487m (Alto Garajonay) and is situated approximately 40km west of Tenerife. Unlike the other Canary Islands, La Gomera has experienced a long and continuing eruptive break and is in a ‘postshield erosional stage’. Carracedo and Troll (2016) describe this as the stage when active volcanism has ceased, and erosive and denudational landforms are predominant (p. 39). The submarine base of the island shows that it rests on a shallower ocean bed than the surrounding islands. The emerged land mass is semi-circular in shape, with a radial drainage pattern from its centre near Alto de Garajonay. The dating of the island has proved problematic, as some of the earlier measurements placing its age between 15 Ma and 19 Ma have since proved to be inaccurate. More reliable estimates now put its age at between 10 and 11 Ma. Fig. 1. Roque Argando viewed from Lomo de la Mulata. La Gomera’s general stratigraphy comprises of three main rock sequences: A Miocene basaltic shield, including a basal plutonic complex (that is igneous rock formed by solidification at considerable depth beneath the earth’s surface).A nested felsic (that is, igneous rocks that are relatively rich in elements that form feldspar and quartz) stratovolcano (which is built up of alternating layers of lava and ash).The youngest Pliocene volcanism.Fig. 2. Sketch map of La Gomera, showing the main towns and geology of the island. … Read More

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Geological transformation of Sharjah, United Arab Emirates

Khursheed Dinshaw (India) In this article, I will briefly deal with the fascinating and relatively recent geological transformation of the Sharjah region of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Sharjah needs no introduction in terms of it being a popular tourist destination, especially for families. However, very few know how it was formed and subsequently transformed. In this article, I hope to explain this fascinating aspect of Sharjah. From the beginning At the beginning of the Miocene Period, 23 Ma, Arabia finally split from Africa along the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden became a separate plate. This new plate moved in a northerly direction and collided with, and was subducted under, the Eurasian continent (Fig. 1). The Strait of Hormuz also closed as the remains of the Tethys Ocean formed a rapidly subsiding basin in which thick layers of salt were deposited. Large scale folding and faulting took place in the UAE producing hills of folded rock, such as Jebel Fai’yah and Jebel Hafit. Fig. 1. Granite from continental drift. In the eastern part of the UAE, uplift of the Al-Hazar Mountains began. This continued into the Pliocene Period, from 5 to 2 Ma. In the late Miocene and Pliocene, the Sharjah region finally rose above sea level and the landscape we see today was formed. Fig. 2. Various rock exhibits at the Sharjah Natural History and Botanical Museum. When the region known as Sharjah rose above sea level, it allowed the area to be covered by the moving … Read More

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West Coast Fossil Park, Western Cape, South Africa

Margaret A Dale (UK) While planning a touring holiday, which encompassed part of the west coast of South Africa, I spotted the words “fossil park” on the map, about 150km north of Cape Town, some distance from a village called Langebaanweg. Intrigued to find out more, I searched the Internet to determine if it was accessible to the public and, if so, its opening times. I found nothing. Not to be deterred, my husband and I decided that, once we were in the country, the usual tourist literature would give us the required information. Unfortunately, once again, there was nothing. So, determined not to be defeated, we drove to the area in the hope we could find it and visit it. Fortunately, we managed both. The fossils in the park date back to the late Miocene and early Pliocene eras (Fig. 1). These are important periods in human evolution, since it is believed that the last common ancestor of humans and our closest living relatives – chimpanzees – lived during this period. Mio-Pliocene hominid fossils are extremely rare and have only ever been found in East Africa and not among the deposits found at the West Coast Fossil Park to date. Fig. 1. One of the many partly excavated fossil beds. With more than 200 different kinds of animals being identified, the park possibly represents: The greatest diversity of 5 to 5.2myr-old animal fossils found anywhere in the world; andThe richest fossil bird site older than 2myrs in the world.The … Read More

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First description of dinosaur fossils by Al-Andalusī in the twelfth century

Dr Ahmed K Al-Rawi (The Netherlands) Western sources refer to a few scholars who were the pioneers in describing huge fossilised animals that are now known to be the remains of the long extinct dinosaurs. Around 1677, the British scholar, Robert Plot, was widely believed to have written the first description of a dinosaur fossil, after finding a fossilised object, which looked like the bones of a giant creature (Haven, 2007, p. 67; Parsons, 2004, p.15; Fastovsky & Weishampel, 2009, p. 309; Martin, 2009, p. 57). However, Plot was not able to identify the fossil, assuming first that it belonged to an elephant; and he later suggested that it belonged to giant human beings: There happily came to Oxford while I was writing of this, a living Elephant to be shown publickly at the ACT, An. 1676, with whose Bones … I compared ours; and found those of the Elephant not only of a different Shape, but also incomparably different to ours, though the Beast were very young and not half grown. If then they are neither the Bones of Horses, Oxen, nor Elephants, as I am strongly persuaded they are not… It remains, that (notwithstanding their extravagant Magnitude) they must have been the bones of Men or Women: Nor doth any thing hinder but they may have been so, provided it be clearly made out, that there have been Men and Women of proportionable Stature in all Ages of the World, down even to our own Days” (Plot, 1677, … Read More

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Encountering desert deposits in Oman

Clarissa Wright (UK) Oman is a geologically fascinating country, where the bedrock beautifully exposes a one-billion-year history. I had the opportunity to explore this country in a group expedition, during which we pursued our own scientific studies from January to March 2014. My geological observations during the expedition were opportunistic and involved a variety of sights, having traversed from east to west from Muscat, across the dusty plains of the Empty Quarter (Rub’ Al Khali) desert to the Dhofar Mountains of Qamar. Rub’ Al Khali: The Empty Quarter desert The Empty Quarter desert is the largest sand desert expanse in the world (Peter Vincent, 2008) and is considered to have great oil prosperity under the dunes. The desert may lack bedrock exposure, but it is home to some unexpected sedimentary deposits. We found the light golden sand to be littered with brown bubbly balls – geodes (Fig. 1). When broken open, the insides are glazed with white calcite crystals sparkling in the desert sun. These had formed when rock cavities filled with crystallised calcite. In time, these balls of calcite weathered out from the host rock, before being transported by water and deposited here on the desert plains. Fig. 1. Geode in the Empty Quarter desert. These were not the only interesting deposits found. Strangely shaped pebbles of flint and dark metallic-like forms also lay here (in an area previously documented to have archaeological interest). One can see how these appear to have been hand carved by humans thousands of … Read More

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Dinosaur mines of the Kem Kem

M’Hammed Segaoui and Dr Charlie Underwood (UK) The great transgressions that occurred in the mid part of the Cretaceous have had a profound influence on the geology of many parts of the world. In North America, the seas flooded the central part of the continent to produce the Western Interior Seaway, while, in northern Europe, the incoming of the Chalk seas saw much of the continent disappearing below the waves. Across the northern part of Africa, the transgression was more gradual, but on a scale as large as that seen anywhere else. In the period preceding the great marine flooding, huge coastal plains developed across a vast tract of land that extends from what is now Niger to Egypt. These coastal plains were criss-crossed by great braided river systems and provided the perfect habitat for a huge range of fresh water and terrestrial animals. Vertebrate fossils have been known from the coastal plain, fluvial rocks of the African Cretaceous for a long time; excavations in Egypt in 1912 recovered the remains of several species, including the unusual theropod, Spinosaurus. Subsequent expeditions to other areas of north and northwest Africa have yielded many additional species of dinosaurs, as well as a host of other fossils. In the early 1990s, the southeastern part of Morocco was just starting to open up to tourism and, with it, the great geological wealth of the region was becoming better known. In addition to the rich and diverse fossil faunas from the sandstones and limestones of … Read More

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Pico Partido: Volcanic perfection in the Canaries

Dr Trevor Watts (UK) Lanzarote is the easternmost island of the Canaries, less than 100 miles (about 150km) off the coast of Morocco. It is part of Spain, but not officially in the European Union and Pico Partido is a sharp, prominent peak near the centre of the island, between the small town of Mancha Blanca and the volcano of Timanfaya. The name means “divided mountain”, so called because the high peak is split by a deep fissure that seems to chop it in two. And it is enthralling. It is a basket of volcanic jewels to be treasured, particularly after the disappointment of the lack of access to Timanfaya itself (of which, more later). And Pico Partido is accessible, unlike much of the island where too many roads have no lay-bys or even a patch of cinder where you can pull in and explore. The geology of Lanzarote Lanzarote, with its volcanoes, is sitting on the tectonic plate that forms most of Africa. It is not near the edge, so it is not formed by one plate sinking under the other. Nor is it above a rising mass of magma, a hot spot. A little surprisingly, it is on a line of fractured rocks that stretches to the Atlas Mountains in North Africa, and further over to the European Alps. Fig. 1. The “Devil” sign that marks the start of the National Park, and the site of a parking space. The fractures formed, and are still moving, as a … Read More

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Shedding light on an isolated skull: A new elasmosaur from the Late Cretaceous of Morocco

Dean Lomax (UK) The bodiless plesiosaur In 2011, a plesiosaur specimen, consisting of an isolated and crushed skull, was described. The collected skull sadly lacked any postcranial remains, but was identified as an elasmosaurid plesiosaur and considered to be something new. Therefore, it was given the name Zarafasaura oceanis. The skull was collected in the Sidi Daoui area, near the city of Oued Zem, situated within the Khouribga Province of the northeast Oulad Abdoun Basin in Morocco. There, the phosphates date to the Maastrichtian Stage of the Cretaceous, the last stage of the Mesozoic Era, famous for many fossils, such as Tyrannosaurus rex from the USA. The study suggested that Zarafasaura shared close connections with other elasmosaurids from the Late Cretaceous of North America and Japan. The elasmosaurs had the longest necks of any plesiosaurs and flourished during the Maastrichtian. It was hoped that future discoveries of more complete remains would shed light on the general appearance and understanding of Zarafasaura. Fig. 1. Mounted skeleton of Zarafasaura oceanis (WDC CMC-01) at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center. (Photograph by Dean Lomax.) ‘The body that fits the head’ In April 2004, seven years before the description of Z. oceanis, an almost complete plesiosaur skeleton was discovered in the Sidi Daoui area in Morocco, at the same location as the skull discussed previously. The specimen (museum number WDC CMC-01) was excavated by a small team and covered by five large plaster jackets (to protect the fragile bones). It was largely articulated, consisting of a … Read More

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Triassic salt in the High Atlas of Morocco

Chellai El Hassane (Morocco), Ghanmi Mohamed (Tunisia) and Doblaas Miguel (Spain) The Triassic terrestrial deposits at the northern edge of the High Atlas near Marrakech are mainly represented by thick sequences of massively layered, red sandstone. These are topped by a formation of silt and pink-brown clay containing large deposits of evaporites consisting mainly of rock salt and gypsum. The silt and clay formations form domed structures characterised by intruded gypsum and irregular (disharmonic) folds capped by fine sandstone beds, as well as by small, isolated anticlines only a few metres in scale. The direction of folding shows no relationship to that of the major tectonic folding that gave rise to the Atlas Mountains. In contrast, the folding is closely linked to the deposition of rock salt and gypsum in the High Atlas near Marrakech during the Late Triassic. The same phenomenon is observed in the passive margins of the Atlantic of western Morocco. Lithostratigraphy These Triassic formations are the most prominent features of the landscape, with thicknesses that can reach up to 400m. They consist essentially of two formations: F5 (the Oukaïmeden sandstone) and F6 (the Superiors Silts), which correspond to the uppermost part of the Triassic, as defined in the Ourika valley by Biron (1982). The first formation consists of thick (400m) beds of detrital sandstones with fine to medium-sized, diamond-shaped sedimentary bodies, interbedded with layers (a few centimetres to several metres thick) composed of red clay as well as red and brown silts. These are overlain by … Read More

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Living fossils in a petrified forest

James O’Donoghue (UK) It’s a Welwitschia!  Nestling among 280 million year old fossil tree trunks, this is the rare plant I have been searching for. Two wonders of the natural world – the living, sprawling Welwitschia and the ancient, petrified trees – have fortuitously come together here in Namibia. Separated by more than an immense period of time, they also bear witness to completely different environments. Welwitschia is adapted to the extremes of dryness and heat of a desert while the archaic trees once lined a great floodplain and were felled by melting glacial waters. However, in spite of their many differences, these two plants share a hidden secret. Between them, they reveal the fascinating story of a gigantic landmass that broke apart over 100Ma. Fig. 1. Petrified log showing segmentation caused by compressional stress. The ancient southern supercontinent of Gondwana existed for hundreds of millions of years and embraced South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia, Antarctica and parts of Asia. By 280mya, vast cool temperate forests of Cordaites trees covered parts of Gondwana. Cordaites is a primitive relative of the conifers that grew to 30m in height and is best known from the coal swamp forests of 325 to 295mya in Europe and North America. As Gondwana emerged from a great ice age, Cordaites trees lining river floodplains were engulfed by melting glacial waters. This catastrophic flooding resulted in their burial under hundreds of metres of sediment. Over an immense period of time, silica dissolved in groundwater replaced the original … Read More

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Natural wonders of the Maghreb in Morocco

Sebastian Lüning (UK) Morocco is a popular tourist destination. Most people travel to the white beaches of Agadir to sunbathe and relax, to watch the magicians on Djemaa el-Fna square in Marrakech, or to go shopping in the UNESCO-protected Osouk of Fes. However, Morocco has much more to offer. Some of the most attractive specimens found at international fossil fairs originate from this country. Morocco is home to exceptionally well-preserved trilobites and attractive Orthoceras assemblages from the Palaeozoic. The beds containing these fossils are systematically mined in the Anti-Atlas. Other fossils, such as goniatites and ammonites, complement the diverse palaeontological national treasure. Fig. 1. Location map of geological sites mentioned in this article. 1) granites near Tafraoute, 2) algal mats near Ouarzazate, 3) Ordovician glaciation, 4) Silurian graptolithic shales, 5) Orthoceras limestones, 6) Devonian mud mounds and Merzouga sand dunes, 7) Triassic Argana river sands, 8) Cascades d’Ouzoud, 9) Friouato karst shaft, 10) Dades Gorge, 11) blowholes near Agadir and Cretaceous oysters, 13) Amesfrane cliff. These fossils are part of an exciting geological past. This article aims to guide you through the highlights of Morocco’s geological history, exploring the stories behind the country’s natural wonders and its multi-million-year-old inhabitants. Concealed in its spectacular mountain chains are some fascinating snapshots from the past. Our trip will commence at the very beginning of this history and will take us gradually forward through time. We will visit various sites on a route starting in the Precambrian of the Anti-Atlas, in the southern part … Read More

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Farming for fossils in Morocco

Charles Underwood (UK) Fossil sites are generally the result of happy coincidence. It may be that this is the result of natural processes, when the sea or a river has eroded into cliffs of fossil bearing rocks. It could also be the result of human activity, where a quarry opened up for commercial reasons also happens to contain fossil-rich layers. However, it is rare for a fossil site to be made specifically for access to the fossils; and, when this does happen, access is usually restricted. However, there are exceptions. One of these is in the great Moroccan phosphate fields. Fig. 1. Meadows of spring flowers conceal the fossil-rich rock just below the surface. Strip mining for mineral phosphates is massive business in Morocco, providing the raw material for a vast proportion of the world’s phosphate fertiliser. Near the town of Khouribga, vast spoil heaps extend across the horizon and give an indication of the scale of the rock extraction going on behind them. These phosphate-bearing rocks are famous for their fossil content, and the cream and tan fossils from them can be seen for sale the world over. Unfortunately, access to the mines is very difficult and so, most of the time, collectors will have to satisfy themselves with what they can buy from dealers. While, purchasing specimens allows access to some really impressive finds, inevitably the fossils are out of context so their age is uncertain, and small and otherwise ‘unsellable’ fossils cannot be obtained. As some layers … Read More

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Sharks of Whale Valley: Or should that be whales of Shark Valley?

Dr Charlie Underwood (UK) Leaving behind the noise and pollution of Cairo, the drive across the monotonous buff desert comes almost as a relief. After passing through the lush farmlands of the Fayum Oasis and back out onto the desert plains, the first sign of the fossils to come is unexpected and indicated by the desert surface changing from pale brown to silver-grey. Looking closer at the shiny silver desert surface, fossils became visible, being millions of giant nummulite foraminifera covering the desert surface, each polished to a metallic sheen by millennia of sand blasting. However, it was not forams that we had been invited to study. Rather, it was far larger and more impressive specimens we had come to see and the appearance of dramatic sandstone cliffs on the horizon heralded some of the most extraordinary fossiliferous rocks that I, for one, have ever seen. Fig. 1. Wind sculpted sandstone outcrops with a mud hut. The fossils of the Fayom are by no means a recent discovery – they have been the source of vast numbers of important finds for over 120 years. The earliest collections were made during a series of expeditions by Georg Schweinfurth, from 1879 to 1886, and it was during these that the first fossil whales were recovered from the Eocene rocks north of Lake Birket Qarun. Despite the success of these expeditions, Schweinfurth never ventured to the western end of the region and never saw the most impressive assemblages of fossil whales. As the … Read More

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