Trilobites of the Moroccan Desert
Posted On: 07/14/2017 - 11:48am, Posted By: Brenda Hunda, Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology
It’s the kind of scientific research expedition you read about in a National Geographic article – distant lands, remote location, and exotic cultures. It’s the type of trip paleontologists dream of, collecting fossils in the southern Moroccan desert.
Camels crossing the Moroccan Desert.
The fossil market is big business in Morocco, Africa. Trilobite collecting and selling is the livelihood of many Moroccan families. Through large-scale, cottage-industry style operations that quarry the landscape, trilobites and other fossils are removed from the rocks in enormous quantities to be sold in the worldwide fossil market. Such commercial exploitation, however, destroys valuable scientific information regarding the origins of these deposits and the preservation of the trilobites within.
Warfare in the recent past between Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, and independence-minded Polisario guerrillas over the borders of the Western Sahara has up until now prevented the quarrying of fossil deposits in the southern Moroccan desert. These unintentionally protected beds are therefore scientifically valuable, and the urgency to study these rocks and fossils before their destruction was recognized by a grant from the National Geographic Society to Adjunct Curator Dr. Carlton Brett of the University of Cincinnati. Additional support from an anonymous donor made it possible for Cincinnati Museum Center staff paleontologists to also lend their expertise to the expedition. Dr. Glenn Storrs (Withrow Farny Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology) and Dr. Brenda Hunda (Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology) joined a collaborative research team of scientists from Cincinnati, New York, Germany, and Morocco to uncover the mysteries of Moroccan trilobites.
The Devonian trilobite, Hollardops sp., which are plentiful in these deposits.
This research project is the first of its kind in Morocco, documenting trilobites in their original context in order to elucidate the nature of the rock deposits, the ancient environmental conditions, how the trilobites died, and why they are so numerous and beautifully preserved. Results from this expedition will be key to unlocking not only the many mysteries of the Moroccan trilobites, but also of the Early Devonian world (approximately 390 million years ago). This is particularly relevant to the study of Ohio geology, where Devonian rocks are common. At that time, Morocco and Ohio were in close proximity to one another, as the Atlantic Ocean had not yet opened through the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates.
Along with collecting trilobites and geological data, a parts of a fossil fish, similar to Ohio’s Dunkleosteus, were found and excavated. This armored fish is among the few such fossils to come from southern Morocco and may well represent a new species. The discovery of such an important specimen was a pleasant surprise to the entire team!
A Devonian trilobite, Phacops sp., showing the classic molting posture of a separation between the cephalon (head) and thorax of the animal.
The participation of our scientists in this exciting adventure once again highlights the ability of Cincinnati Museum Center to make important contributions to our understanding of the natural world.