NEW HAVEN – Thousands of animal fossils, many of them representing species never seen before, have been unearthed in Morocco by Yale scientists Peter Van Roy and Derek Briggs, it was announced last week.

In a find that may yet rival the famous Burgess Shale discovery of 1909, these new fossils recall a time in the Earth’s past when land was all but devoid of life, the climate was warm and the seas teamed with small, strange-looking creatures. Even the continents would have been all but unrecognizable to the cartographers of today.

Researchers say that what makes this discovery significant is that many of the fossils represent soft-bodied species, which don’t often show up in the fossil record. It’s also the first time that anyone has found a good record of soft-bodied animals from the geologic period known as the Ordovician, 490 to 443 million years ago. The Moroccan fossils are from the early years of that period, whose life gave us much of the petroleum and natural gas reserves that we use today.

“This is the first early-Ordovician find of comparable interest to the Burgess Shale discovery,” said Briggs, who also is the director of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. “We’re looking at a very diverse, very well-preserved array of animals.”

At this point, the find is still playing catch-up ball with the Burgess Shale discovery, which offered a treasure trove of some 65,000 organisms; the Burgess discovery is in the Canadian Rockies of British Columbia, and are from the Cambrian period, which was just prior to the Ordovician.

“So far, we have 1,000 to 1,500 specimens so far,” said Briggs, who said that many thousands more species will likely be discovered in the coming months as researches continues both in the laboratory and in the field. They note that the new find will also tell us much about hard-shelled creatures already identified, because their soft parts now can now be seen for the first time.

“It offers an excellent look at what life typically was like in the Ordovician, Van Roy said.

Many of them are arthropods, the vast phylum of animals that today includes insects, crabs, centipedes and spiders.

Many others, Briggs said, are belong to a poorly understood grouping of creatures called “lobopods,” or lobed-legged animals, that died out hundreds of millions of years ago.

The desert expedition was funded in part by National Geographic, and their findings were published in the May issue of Nature.


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