Welcome to my final set of musing and recollections about our recent Moroccan trip, led by Nizar Ibrahim. Mostly I’ll be talking here about the amazing desert birds we got to see, but I also have stuff to say about the mammals, and – of course – about the fossils…
One of the birds I most wanted to see – in fact it was top of my list – was the remarkable Greater hoopoe lark Alaemon alaudipes [see photo at top here for Richard’s photo of one of these birds], and eventually we were to see four or five of these (though never more than one at the same time). Alaemon occurs across Africa and is also present in Asia as far east as Pakistan (there are two species: the other is, surprise surprise, the Lesser hoopoe lark A. hamertoni). The Greater hoopoe lark really is an amazing bird. It’s large (for a lark), long-legged, and with a long, decurved bill and black and white wing markings that make it highly distinctive in flight. The first individual was seen near the great sand dunes between Merzouga and Taouz. A few minutes later, we watched in amazement as a Southern grey shrike Lanius meridionalis pursued a smaller bird only a few metres from our car [Richard’s photo of the individual is shown below]. Neat.
What with the numerous Desert larks and another species we were to see later on, the bird-watching on the trip did seem ‘lark heavy’. I had hoped that it would be, but unfortunately I never got to see two of the most remarkable species of the region: the Black-crowned sparrow-lark Eremopterix nigriceps and the Thick-billed lark Ramphocoris clotbey. Larks (alaudids) are Old World birds with a distribution centred on Africa (one species – the Shore or Horned lark Eremophila alpestris – has made it into the Americas), and many species are specialised for deserts and dry scrublands. In pre-1980s literature on passerines it was sometimes said that larks were the only group of oscine passerines that seemed at all distinctive in terms of skeletal morphology, and as a result they were often listed first among the oscine groups (as if they were the most primitive). More recently, DNA hybridisation work led to the inclusion of larks within Passeroidea (alongside pipits, waxbills, weavers, finches, sparrows, icterids and so on) while later studies of mtDNA were to indicate a basal position within Sylvioidea (treecreepers, tits, wrens, kinglets, swallows, bulbuls, babblers, warblers and so on). Writing this has inspired me to get working on my promised passerine supertree article(s)… but don’t hold your breath.
As mentioned previously, we had some luck with mammals, getting excellent views of Fennec fox for example. At one of the hostels I was also able to see lots of bats flying around during the evening (they were constantly calling and actually making quite a lot of noise), though I have no real idea what sort of bats they were: my impression is that they were free-tailed bats. At one of the field sites in the south-east, Dave found a bovid horn which appears to have belonged to a gazelle (and not a goat: goat remains were encountered at several places). As I write, this horn is in Portsmouth (I’m not) and I failed to photograph it. Its discovery is interesting because gazelles are now rare in Morocco, having been virtually hunted to extinction across most of the country. Cuvier’s gazelle Gazella cuvieri apparently still hangs on in the region, but is so rare that it was thought during the 1970s to have become locally extinct. The horn Dave found is not strongly ridged enough to belong to this species (Kingdon 1997). Dama gazelle G. dama – the largest extant gazelle – used to occur in Morocco but hasn’t been seen since the 1950s so far as I can tell. The smallest gazelle, the Dorcas gazelle G. dorcas, still occurs in Morocco, and I think the horn belongs to this species.
One of the several desert villages we stayed at was Taouz. Here we were to have our closest look at Trumpeter finches Bucanetes githagineus [shown at top here, image © Bob Loveridge]: birds which I’d seen early on in the trip but had originally assumed to be rare and elusive. Elusive? No: like the White-crowned black wheatears and Desert larks, they were unafraid of people and virtually tame. As you can see from Bob’s photo, we got to within just a few metres of them. A male Sardinian warbler Sylvia melanocephala [shown at bottom of adjacent composite; © Bob Loveridge] was also present at the same place (one of several we saw on the trip). I was happy with all of this, but I was pretty surprised when Richard reported a few minutes later that he’d been watching babblers in the same little stand of trees. I’d completely missed them, and given that they were high on my list of ‘birds to see’ I rushed back in search of them.
These were Fulvous babbler Turdoides fulva (the only species of the EFGR that occurs in northern Africa) [shown in middle of adjacent composite; © Bob Loveridge]. They move with a strange gait that combines both running and hopping and hang out in little family groups. Babblers (timaliids) are an immense and highly diverse group of sylvioid passerines that occur throughout the Old World tropics: one species often classified as a babbler, the Wrentit Chamaea fasciata, occurs in western North America, but recent work suggests that it isn’t a babbler in the strict sense. Laughing thrushes, minlas, yuhinas, shrike-babblers, tit-babblers, wren-babblers, scimitar-babblers, babaxes, liocichlas, sibias and others have been included in the group, but there has long been a suspicion that the group is simply a waste-basket for diverse Old World passerines that are not really close relatives. Indeed, recent genetic work has shown this to be the case (the relationship between ‘Timaliidae’ of tradition and with Zosteropidae and Sylviidae has proved complicated. This isn’t the place to elaborate).
In case you’ve forgotten, we weren’t just driving around looking for birds, but of course visiting key field sites and looking for Kem Kem fossils. And we ended up with a bunch of them: essentially, with representatives of all the major groups you might hope to find (though no abelisaur or Deltadromeus skulls, I’m sorry to say). Significant turtle, pterosaur and theropod specimens. Bits and pieces of gigantic crocodyliforms, very interesting skull material from a small crocodyliform, and more. I can’t say any more than that, as this material has yet to be studied, let alone published on.
I’d previously found carcharodontosaur teeth, but I was even happier when I found a partial vertebra (busted open so that it’s fantastic camellate interior was obvious). We also found several foot elements (and other fragments) from a large theropod presumed to be a Carcharodontosaurus and also saw several of the broad cervical vertebrae that are attributed by some authors to Carcharodontosaurus and by others to the enigmatic Sigilmassasaurus (Russell 1996, Sereno et al. 1996). If you follow Andrea Cau’s Theropoda you’ll know of his recent proposal that Sigilmassasaurus is in fact a coelurosaur close to Ornitholestes and Bahariasaurus. Incidentally, on the subject of Cretaceous non-avian theropods, how cool is Austroraptor cabazai (Novas et al. 2008)? Shame about the incredibly dull generic name however!
Anyway, it was at our final field site – a remote location far to the south and seemingly in the middle of nowhere – that we were to make our most spectacular discovery. While setting up camp at this location, we encountered a large solifuge, and as a consequence it became known as Camp Solifuge. This was to prove our base for several days of exploration, and it was at one of our exploration sites that – right near the end of our trip – we discovered an immense bone, one of the largest yet excavated from the Kem Kem. While walking ahead of the others, Dave and Nizar initially noticed just the end of the bone poking out from the side of a sandstone ledge way up on the side of a hill. They began excavating, and it just became bigger and bigger: once we removed the overburden and revealed its full extent it approached a metre in length. Its large size indicated that it was most likely from a sauropod, and while it was clearly a limb bone we were never completely sure what bone it was (let me emphasise that there is little opportunity for ‘proper science’ when you’re busy with excavation in the middle of the desert). Getting this bone jacketed, down the hill and into the vehicle, and then back to civilisation, proved a major ordeal and Dave’s land rover really strained to take the extra weight (I won’t tell you how many tyres we had to change on the journey back home). A length of ‘about a metre’ is of course not particularly big for a sauropod limb bone, but – believe me – it’s big enough when you have to get the blasted thing out of the ground and down a hill.
It was also at Camp Solifuge that I had one of the most memorable experiences of the trip. At about 4-30am I was woken up by the loud and constant hooting of a large owl. I thought this was pretty cool and decided to get up to listen to it properly. Dave was up too, and we stood there, for about 20 minutes, listening to the constant hooting. Another owl, more distant, replied to the first one. I imitated it and it paused before continuing – my imitation was obviously not good enough. We never saw these owls, but reckoned that they were Eagle owls, in which case they had to be the desert subspecies/species Bubo bubo ascalaphus/B. ascalaphus. Listening to big desert owls hooting in the pitch black of the early morning might not sound like a particularly magical experience but, for me, it was. Elsewhere in Morocco we saw Short-eared owl Asio flammeus and Little owl Athene noctua, which isn’t bad going. We also heard a weird laughing call during the early morning but could never work out what it was.
And so, with our load substantially increased by the remains of sauropods and other Cretaceous animals, we began the long journey home. After a month away I must admit that getting home and back to my family was, by now, my priority, and I was sorely hoping that we didn’t find anything else. I also had a desperate craving for Domino’s pizza (specifically, pepperoni passion).
Purely for the sake of curiosity, we stopped at Volubilis: preserving what are perhaps the best archaeological ruins in northern Africa, it was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. Roman towns are very nice and all, but the ruins were absolutely alive with birds, many of which were again pretty tame. Serins Serinus serinus flew around in small flocks, and Stonechats Saxicola torquata, Crested larks Galerida cristata [shown at right of adjacent pic; © Bob Loveridge] and Blue rock thrush Monticola solitarius frequented the ruins [shown at left; © Bob Loveridge]. Near the café I saw my second Common bulbul Pycnonotus barbatus. Corn buntings Miliaria calandra were present as well but we never got that close to them. Again, there were no lizards, which surprised me.
On the long drive home through Spain and France, we saw (among many other things) Goshawk Accipiter gentilis, Black kite Milvus milvus, Red kite M. migrans and Grey partridge Perdix perdix. In France we saw a male harrier: what appeared to be black bands were present on its secondaries, and this was surprising because they would indicate that it was most likely a Montagu’s harrier Circus pygargus. This would be strange indeed as Montagu’s harrier is a migratory species that only occurs in Europe during the summer (the European populations migrate to sub-Saharan Africa during the autumn while those of northern Asia go to India). However, its wings were proportionally shorter than are those of Montagu’s and this and some other features have led me to conclude that it was more likely an unusually marked Hen harrier C. cyaneus. I have a photo if anyone wants to check it out, though it’s not at all good and hence not shown here.
In Spain we found a dead Long-eared owl Asio otus at the side of the road [adjacent images © Bob Loveridge]. It was in immaculate condition and no more than a few hours old. In fact it was so fresh looking that Richard and I even considered the possibility that it might be stunned and soon to return to life. But, no. Poor creature. Back at Portsmouth, I got Bob to take good photos of its amazing feet, one of which is tightly clenched (so much so that the toes cannot be moved) while the other is relaxed. All the talons are long and strongly curved, with that on digit II being the longest. As I’ve noted here before, I always look at the ventral surfaces of bird claws. Long-eared owls have smoothly convex surfaces to the talons on digits I, II and IV, but obvious ventral crests are present on digit III. These crests shouldn’t be called keels as they don’t run along the midline: instead, they extend along the lateral and medial margins of the ventral surface. So far, all the birds I’ve looked at have ventral crests of some sort on at least some of their pedal claws (as do lizards and mammals like cats). In fact owls are unusual in lacking ventral crests on digits I, II and IV (Manning et al. 2005).
Anyway… of course, lots more happened, but I think you get the picture. A local journalist, Freddy Rostand, described our Moroccan trip as a ‘most excellent adventure’, and this does just about sum it up. For press stories see the University College Dublin version here and the Daily Mail version here; for an, err, interesting performance from Dave Martill go here. Well done and thanks to Nizar for organising everything, and let me reiterate again what an outstanding success the whole expedition was.
Next: Christmas cards!
Refs – –
Kingdon, J. 1997. The Kingdon Field Guide to African Mammals. Academic Press, San Diego.
Manning, P. L., Payne, D., Pennicot, J., Barrett, P. M. & Ennos, R. A. 2005. Dinosaur killer claws or climbing crampons? Biology Letters 2, 110-112.
Novas, F. E., Pol, D., Canale, J. I., Porfiri, J. D. & Calvo, J. O., 2008. A bizarre Cretaceous theropod dinosaur from Patagonia and the evolution of Gondwanan dromaeosaurids. Proceedings of the Royal Society B doi:10.1098/rspb.2008.1554
Russell, D. A. 1996. Isolated dinosaur bones from the Middle Cretaceous of the Tafilalt, Morocco. Bulletin du Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris 4e série, 18, Section C, nos. 2-3, 349-402.
Sereno, P. C., Dutheil, D. B., Iarochene, M., Larsson, H. C. E., Lyon, G. H., Magwene, P. M., Sidor, C. A., Varricchio, D. J. & Wilson, J. A. 1996. Predatory dinosaurs from the Sahara and Late Cretaceous faunal differentiation. Science 272, 986-991.