Where is one of the best places on Earth to find sea monsters?
In a desert, of course.
The Sahara, to be more specific.
Much of the North African country of Morocco is desert. It’s also home to some of the most prolific fossil troves anywhere. Some of the most fantastic date from times spanning 600 million years when the region was covered by oceans.
A team of paleontologists and museum curators with Silver Plume Exhibitions has assembled a one-of-a-kind immersive exhibit, “Sahara Sea Monsters,” which takes the visitor from the Precambrian to present time, with fossils ranging from algal mats of the Precambrian and extremely well-preserved and detailed trilobites spanning the Ordovician, a wide array of fish species from the Devonian, and then into an explosion of speciation after each of the mass extinction events.
The collection was recently on display at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History at the University of Oklahoma and was the topic of a webinar hosted recently by AAPG’S Energy Minerals Division and co-sponsored with the Division of Environmental Geosciences.
A Land of Fossils
Morocco is home to an astonishingly huge trove of fossils, with a number of sites open to public fossil-hunting tours.
“It’s a unique place with fossils from the Precambrian to today,” said exhibit curator Alanna Regester.
The country is roughly the size of California, but the multitude of fossils is astonishing, Regester said.
“Almost every fossil collection I have ever seen here in the United States – public, private, large or small – contains at least one fossil from Morocco,” she said.
Others are so rare and bizarre looking that some seasoned paleontologists have never seen nor heard of them.
Some of the “most fascinating vertebrates” include Dunkleosteus, Spinosaurus and Basilosaurus, Regester said. Only the Basilosaurus is moderately complete. The Dunkleosteus is only a partial skull, and the Spinosaurus is a composite, although the tail section is mostly complete, she said.
Dunkelosteus is found in Morocco’s Maider Formation of Jebel El Mrakib.
“This is a very strange fish. Most famously known from the Cleveland Shale in the U.S., this and other rare placoderm fish can also be found in Morocco ... There is a new study recently published, finding that Dunkleosteus was more of a ‘chunkleosteus,’ meaning that it was shorter and stouter than previously thought,” said Regester.
Specimens of Spinosaurus is have been found at in the Kem Kem beds of Morocco.
“Move over T. rex, this is rapidly becoming kids’ favorite dinosaur!” Regester said. “The new discovery of the tall slender tail spines gives merit to this as a primarily aquatic creature. Lots of information on Spinosaurus has been recently released by Nizar Ibrahim and National Geographic. The Kem Kem region of Morocco is a harsh area that is most often dug by local Moroccans, often in dangerous conditions. Much of the formation was an alluvial plane or river delta. The fossils are most often deposited jumbled and broken apart. It is rare to find large pieces, much less articulated skeletons.”
Basilosaurus is found in the Samlat Formation, Dakhla. The specimen displayed in the exhibit is a replica of a nearly complete skeleton found on a cliff side near the ocean. This fossil is less well known locally and not visited on fossil tours, she said. Foreigners are not allowed to dig at the fossil site, but the city of Dakhla is a popular tourist location.
“We want to talk about the Earth’s history and the rise and fall of biodiversity,” Regester said. The right conditions led to a proliferation of species. Periodic mass extinctions wipe out many species, but create space and opportunities for new animals to evolve and thrive.”
For Earth Scientists and General Audiences
While aimed at general museum audiences of all ages and education levels, Regester said the exhibit has drawn interest from professional paleontologists and other Earth scientists.
More than 600 million years of evolution, 20 years of fossil preparation, and five years of curation and design went into creating the “Sahara Sea Monsters” exhibit.
The exhibition launched last year and so far has been displayed at the Sternberg Museum at Fort Hays University in Kansas and, most recently, at OU.
The exhibit tracks the proliferation and disappearance of various life forms through deep time and the milestones of five mass extinction events.
Following the Precambrian, microscopic life forms to foot-long trilobites flourished during the Cambrian. The Ordovician mass extinction wiped out 85 percent of the existing species 450 million years ago because of global cooling and habitat loss.
The Devonian saw a proliferation of sea life as well as life on land. Crinoids in large floating colonies, varieties of trilobites and giant fish, Placoderms possibly up to 30 to 40 feet long, and sharks first appeared. The Devonian extinction event 375 million years ago was caused by another global cooling and loss of oxygen in the atmosphere, dooming some 70 percent of species.
Collisions/convergence of the tectonic plates created the super continent, Pangea. Giant mountains forming in what is now Morocco made the Permian a relatively quiet time in the fossil record in Morocco, Regester said. By the end of the period, 252 million years ago, huge amounts of greenhouse gases caused a catastrophic extinction that wiped out 90 percent of the Earth’s species.
Volcanic activity helped fuel the Triassic extinction 201 million years ago with 75 percent of species lost. Moroccan fossils from the period include massive amphibians and crocodile-like phytosaurs.
Asteroid strikes and volcanism led to the Cretaceous mass extinction 66 million years ago, which claimed 70 percent of species.
The Cretaceous saw mostly marine reptiles, crocodiles, sharks and turtles. They are some of the biggest animals and most deadly by today’s standards. The extinction event killed all the non-avian dinosaurs and also some of the deadliest aquatic predators of all time, the mosasaurs. The phosphate beds located in Khouribga, Morocco is one of the most prolific fossil sites for Cretaceous marine reptiles worldwide. The beds are the largest producer of phosphate in the world and the fossils are a by-product of that process.
“Today we see markers that may suggest parallels with the conditions leading to past extinctions. Maybe we can use that information in the future,” Regester said.
“We may see ‘drivers’ – like climate change, rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere, less oxygen in the atmosphere,” she said, adding that increased volcanic activity might cause faster change, while meteors can cause instant shifts.
The Kem Kem beds “have been called the most dangerous place on Earth,” boasting the highest concentration of predators of any location in any era, Regester said. Spinosaurus was on average a 30-foot-long fish-eater competing with theropods the size of a tyrannosaurus and crocodiles as big as school buses.
Regester said she personally finds the exhibit’s Devonian section most interesting, with “ridiculously old, crazy trilobites and strange fish with bony exteriors. Many of the creatures are still quite a mystery.”
The exhibit aims to appeal to all levels of interest, and one idea that seems fun with all groups is the “Monster Level,” where a selection of alien-looking creatures are assigned arbitrary numbers like a scale – Monster Level 4, for example.
“It’s sort of a single-serving view of biodiversity,” she said.
Regester said it’s worth noting that the bizarre undersea fossils found in today’s desert “were not ‘monsters.’”
Despite their often frightening appearances and imposing sizes, they were “just animals, regular creatures” that developed alien-seeming traits to help assist in their undersea survival.
“The funny thing is that the prehistoric animals still alive (relatively unchanged) in today’s oceans are rated as Monster Level 2’s and 3’s, the best survivors have been the most basic and adaptable creatures,” Regester said.
Regester said the next visit for the exhibit is in the planning stages for next year, but the location has not been finalized.
For more information about Silver Plume’s Sahara Sea Monsters exhibition and other traveling exhibits, visit SPExhibitions.com. Regester may be contacted at [email protected].