Morocco has a great cultural and historical past but it is also notable for its geology and palaeontology.
The fossils of Morocco are justly world famous, both for their quality and quantity. And unlike many other countries that have banned collection at many or all locations and prohibited the export of fossils, Morocco has many accessible sites, encourages fossil tourism and sells high grade specimens around the globe.
Morocco’s ‘trilobite economy’ also provides employment in deprived areas and adds millions of dollars a year to the national coffers.
The ancient environments represented by the rocks are highly varied and range from lagoonal deposits to shallow carbonate seas and deep basins. Fossiliferous exposures of rocks ranging across more than half a billion years can be accessed in river beds, coastal sections, hamada, roadcuts and quarries. Fossils are plentiful, well-preserved and easy to collect.
Let us take a quick look at a few of Morocco’s most famous fossil sites.
Possibly the best place to find fossils in Morocco is in and around the town of Erfoud, near the dunes of the Sahara Desert. Tourists may visit the Museum of Fossils and Minerals and the fossil factories, preparation centres and shops in the area to witness themselves the process of finding, extracting and prepping specimens.
Local Berber families in this whole region have been involved in the mining and restoration of fossils for generations. Hand-dug trenches are mined with picks, shovels, hammers and chisels, the hard limestone rocks are extracted, then air-blasted to remove excess matrix from the fossils. Many fossils are polished for display purposes and sale, other large pieces of ornamental ‘marble’ may be carved and polished to make decorative items such as tables, wash basins, baths, fountains, jewellery and even Coca Cola bottles!
These items can be purchased in Erfoud and in the souks of Marrakech and Agadir. Large items like the fountains can be purchased online and shipped worldwide. These fossils are mostly Devonian in age, about 420 to 360 million years ago, but many of the famous crinoids 9 sea-lilies that look like flowering plants but are actually relatives of starfish and sea-urchins) and Orthoceras Marbles are Late Silurian and thus up to 425 million years old.
The phosphate deposits of Khouribga Province are the largest in the world and contribute significantly to Morocco’s economy due to their use in the manufacture of fertilizers and in the chemical and ceramics industries but they also contain a wealth of excellently preserved fossils such as shark’s teeth and mosasaurs, a type of giant, carniverous marine lizard.
Species new to science are being discovered here all the time, but it is not difficult to find more common and beautiful vertebrate specimens by yourself. Or you can buy specimens locally very cheaply. These specimens are Late Cretaceous to Eocene in age and thus cover a period of time from 80 to 55 million years ago.
The Kem Kem Basin, near to the border with Algeria in the South East of Morocco is another rich source of vertebrate material. But here, as well as fish, there are turtles, crocodiles, pterosaurs (flying reptiles) and dinosaurs to be found, perhaps more common here than anywhere else in the world.
The most renowned of these is Spinosaurus, a giant amphibious meat-eating dinosaur with dagger-teeth that was even bigger than the infamous Tyrannosaurus rex. Fifty feet long and with a sail on its back, it really was a monster! The rocks are late Cretaceous and about 98 to 92 million years old.
OTHER FOSSIL LOCALITIES
The Atlantic coast near Agadir produces many beautiful and sometimes huge ammonites from the Late Cretaceous Period, including the uncoiled or semi-coiled heteromorphs which are much sought after by collectors.
The fossilized stromatolite reefs of the Ouarzazate area look like an alien landscape and, indeed, NASA use the area to test out Moon / Mars Rover vehicles. These reefs were formed 600 million years ago in the Ediacaran, even before the trilobites evolved, by colonies of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that built domed structures from calcium carbonate. One of the oldest life-forms on Earth.
Ordovician trilobites about 450 million years old may be found plentifully around Alnif and between Alnif and Mharech wonderful, spinose Devonian specimens are mined. These Moroccan Devonian specimens are highly prized and very beautiful with their distinctive, shiny, black-on-grey appearance and can be very expensive for some of the weirder and rarer varieties, but they take weeks and many man-hours to prep,
The Fezouata formation of Lower Ordovician age can be accessed alomg the Draa valley and this is a notable Konservat-Lagerstatte, or a fossil bed where soft parts of creatures and soft-bodied organisms are preserved. The new species being studied here are very important to our understanding of the evolution of life on Earth. The oldest known horseshoe crabs and the first giant filter-feeder have recently been discovered in these deposits.
There’s always a negative, and regarding the fossils in Morocco it’s the abundance of fakes and ‘Frankenfossils’ – fossils made from pieces of incomplete or poorly preserved specimens cobbled together to make something new. Look out for plaster cast, air bubbles in resin copies and signs of glue. And don’t forget to haggle!
Fossils in Morocco are very varied in age and type, but good quality specimens can be found easily or purchased cheaply. Come and see for yourself!