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The most dangerous place on Earth 100 million years ago

The Sahara is a harsh environment today. It used to be much, much, worse.

Image source: University of Portsmouth
  • A new study compiles a comprehensive record of a fossil-rich area of southeastern Morocco.
  • Giant swimmers in a long-gone river system fed huge terrestrial and flying predators.
  • The area was home to a diverse population best studied from afar.

Set the Wayback Machine to 100 million years ago. Where do you want to go? Well, where you really don't want to go is the Sahara. According to the lead author of a new study of Cretaceous rock formations in southeastern Morocco, the region was "arguably the most dangerous place in the history of planet Earth, a place where a human time-traveller would not last very long."

A ferocious, ravenous community

Geographical setting of the Kem Kem region and outcrops

Geographical setting of the Kem Kem region and outcrops

Image source: Ibrahim N, Sereno PC, Varricchio DJ, Martill DM, Dutheil DB, Unwin DM, Baidder L, Larsson HCE, Zouhri S, Kaoukaya A.

The paleontologist/comparative anatomist quoted above is Nizar Ibrahim of the University of Portsmouth in the U.K. The rock formation he and his colleagues mapped has been known as the Kem Kem beds, and it reveals a very different Sahara than we know today. The study proposes rechristening the sites as the "Kem Kem group," incorporating two distinct formations: the Gara Sbaa Formation and the Douira Formation.

100 million years ago, a massive river system ran through the area. It was home to some absolutely massive theropods, including the fearsome saber-toothed Carcharodontosaurus, which measured over 8 meters in length. The giant carnivore had huge, powerful jaws with long — up to eight inches — serrated teeth. There was also the fleet-footed Deltadromeus — which means "delta runner" — and various large-bodied pterosaurs screaming down from the skies to grab prey.

The prey was enormous, too. Fish that lived in the river system included lungfish and prehistoric coelacanths, some "four or even five times as large as today's coelacanth," according to co-author David Martill. Then there was the Onchopristis, a freshwater hark with deadly rostral teeth, "like barbed daggers, but beautifully shiny," he says, as well as a nightmare full of large crocodyliforms.

The study sums it up: "No comparable modern terrestrial ecosystem exists with similar bias toward large-bodied carnivores."

A paradoxical site

Example Kem Kem localities

Image source: Ibrahim N, Sereno PC, Varricchio DJ, Martill DM, Dutheil DB, Unwin DM, Baidder L, Larsson HCE, Zouhri S, Kaoukaya A.

The Kem Kem group is comprised of exposed fossils on the face of a long-winding escapement near the Moroccan-Algerian border, at the northwestern edge of the Sahara Desert. The beds are fossil-rich and are more accessible (and the fossils themselves more exposed) than at other such sites in northern Africa. Similar fossils have been found by other researchers in the western desert of Egypt, as well as in the northern and central Sahara. The most recent calculation of the fossils' age is that they hail from the late Albian-early Cenomanian.

One of the site's most interesting characteristics, of course, and a source of some controversy, is that it contains both continental and marine species. Therapods are also represented to an unexpectedly large degree. Some have suggested the fossils come from two different, overlaid environments from two different periods. Others are troubled by the large number of incomplete specimens. The study, however, assumes the river-system view.

Collection of Kem Kem fossils has been going since at least the 1940's, and many have found their way into collections around the world. As part of this study, Ibrahim visited these far-flung specimens across several contents. Some of the fossils are well-documented, and some have uncertain provenances, making the task of constructing a cohesive, accurate picture of the site a challenge. Still, says Martill, "This is the most comprehensive piece of work on fossil vertebrates from the Sahara in almost a century, since the famous German palaeontologist Ernst Freiherr Stromer von Reichenbach published his last major work in 1936."

19th-century atlas offers glimpse of North Sea's fish-rich past

O.T. Olsen's gorgeous 'Piscatorial Atlas' (1883) describes a world now destroyed and forgotten

Image: Wellcome Collection. Public domain.
  • In little more than a century, fish stocks in the North Sea have declined by 99%.
  • For people living today, a grey and exhausted sea is all they know.
  • O.T. Olsen's Atlas of the North Sea's fish species is a reminder of the richness that once was.
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House plants do not purify the air, study shows

Beautiful? Yes. Air purifiers? Not so fast.

Photo by Katya Austin on Unsplash
  • A new meta-analysis at Drexel University shows that house plants are not effective for purifying the air of toxins.
  • A 1989 NASA report that claimed indoor plants are purifying was not conducted in realistic living conditions.
  • Indoor plants have positive effects on our mental health, just not in regards to air quality.
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The platypus is headed for extinction, warn Australian scientists

Australia's beloved and bizarre egg-laying mammal could start vanishing in coming years if current trends continue.

  • Platypuses are nocturnal, semiaquatic animals that are endemic to Australia and Tasmania.
  • A new study suggests that the species could lose half its population over the next 50 years, due mainly to drought, human development and climate change.
  • In 2019, the United Nations reported that some 1 million species of plants and animals are at risk of extinction.
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Some shark species have evolved to walk

The relatively quick evolution of nine unusual shark species has scientists intrigued.

Image source: Mark Erdmann
  • Living off Australia and New Guinea are at least nine species of walking sharks.
  • Using fins as legs, they prowl coral reefs at low tide.
  • The sharks are small, don't be frightened.
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