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Sharks of the Moroccan phosphates

Dr Charlie Underwood (UK) Shark teeth are amongst the most iconic and sought after of fossils. However, for most of us, collecting them can be a difficult or even unpleasant task. I am sure that most collectors in northern Europe are familiar with picking their way over slipped cliffs of clay, in the teeth of a freezing winter gale, to collect the few treasures that erosion leaves on the beach. Alternatively, the more dedicated are used to carrying hundreds of kilos of clay home and painstakingly passing it through a sieve before even knowing if there are any fossils there. But it is not all like this. There are a number of places in the world where the vagaries of sedimentology have allowed bone-beds (or phosphorites) to develop, within which vertebrate fossils, and shark teeth in particular, are hundreds of times more abundant than in a normal marine sediment. By far the most extensive of these deposits are in Morocco. Below the dusty scrub and parched farmland of northern Morocco lie the largest reserves of mineral phosphate known. Vast complexes of open-cast mines, one stretching for nearly 30km, have been cut into these deposits, with a network of conveyor belts transporting the phosphate sand and rock to the processing factories turning the rock into fertilizer. These great phosphate deposits were laid down in a sea saturated with nutrients and teeming with life. As a result, the phosphates are crammed with the fossilised phosphatic bones and teeth of fish, sharks and … Read More

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From sea to sand – ancient marine reptiles from the deserts of Saudi Arabia

Benjamin Kear (Australia) The hot, dry deserts of modern Saudi Arabia are not renowned as a source of ancient marine reptile fossils. Indeed, only a few years ago, virtually nothing was known beyond a few unidentified scraps of bone recovered by petroleum geologists searching for oil. However, recent exploration by teams of both Saudi and international palaeontologists have led to some exciting new finds that are helping to piece together the 190 million year long story of marine reptile evolution in the Arabian Peninsula. Fig. 1. A map of the modern Arabian Peninsula (with Saudi Arabian borders) showing the extent of the Arabian Shield (lilac) and successive Mesozoic-Cainozoic sedimentary rock exposures: Late Permian to Triassic (violet); Jurassic (blue); Cretaceous (green); Cainozoic (brown). What are marine reptiles? The term ‘marine reptile’ is actually rather ambiguous and does not refer to a specific group. Rather, it applies to any wholly or partly aquatic reptile that makes, or has made, its home in the ocean. Examples of modern marine reptiles include sea turtles (chelonioids), sea snakes (related to terrestrial venomous snakes or elapids), the marine iguana (Amblyrhynchus cristatus) and the salt-water crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). The latter is typically estuarine, but commonly ventures into coastal marine areas. However, the zenith of marine reptile diversity occurred during the Mesozoic or ‘Age of Dinosaurs’, when in excess of ten major radiations, including representatives of those living today (that is, turtles, snakes, lizards and crocodiles), made the transition to life in the sea. Despite having quite different … Read More

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Building stones of the Ancient World

By Ken Brooks (UK) Local stone was an essential element in the development of early civilisations, as its availability and quality determined the building styles that they created. The effective working and use of stone as a building material was a skill acquired by man at an early stage of history in many different regions of the world. Today, we can identify their methods of working stone by studying the buildings, quarries and the tools that have survived them. Egypt For thousands of years, the River Nile has carved its way through areas of sandstone, granite and limestone on its 750-mile journey through Egypt to the Mediterranean. From very early times, and even to the present day, the Egyptians have built their homes with bricks made from mud – an abundant raw material along the banks of the River Nile. It was around 5,000 years ago, as organised religion became established, that they began to use locally available stone to construct temples and pyramids. Between 2590BC and 2500BC, the ancient Egyptians built three huge pyramids on the Giza plateau (near present-day Cairo). Fig. 1. The pyramids at Giza. The bedrock in this area is a nummulitic limestone dating from the Eocene period, 34 to 55mya. It is an interesting thought that some of the largest man-made structures on earth were constructed from the fossil remains of tiny organisms (foraminifera). Work on a pyramid began with the extraction of limestone blocks at a nearby quarry. The only tools the Egyptians had … 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 … Read More

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 … Read More

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 … Read More