There are many reasons to be glad you’re not a Late Cretaceous fish. Zarafasaura would be a pretty big one.
Its deceptively elegant name comes from the Arabic for giraffe, and a reminder that we’re actually dealing with an enormous prehistoric reptile. About the length of a bus, this huge 7-9 metre (23-30 ft) plesiosaur adorably flapped its way through the seas around modern-day Morocco, looking for prey to spear with its needle-like teeth.
Like the legendary “Nessie”, it belonged to the long-necked and small-headed plesiosauroids. It was also part of the Elasmosauridae inner circle, the largest, and last, of the plesiosaurs to ever swim the earth.
While not dinosaurs, they enjoyed the same, awesomely catastrophic demise 65 million years ago, and Zarafasaura was an unintentional cheerleader of that theory.
Being the first “official” elasmosaur found in Late Cretaceous Africa, Zarafasaura hinted at several things. Firstly, that its family rampaged across oceans worldwide, because until a group of crushed skull bones appeared in 2010, Africa was the only plesiosaur-less continent in that time period, 145-65 million years ago.
Secondly, that one size didn’t fit all. Although it was similar to other plesiosaurs found in Asia and North America, Zarafasaura had a few regional quirks of its own, such as the shape and placement of some of its skull bones like the palate (roof of the mouth) and squamosal (above and behind the ear).
What did this mean? That the entire, worldwide population of plesiosaurs was extremely diverse and widely spread, so it would have taken something apocalyptic to wipe all of them out without exception. So even if there wasn’t tens of millions of years’ difference between us, it couldn’t have been humans, hurrah!
We’ve still found other ways to mess with it, though.
For instance, the more complete specimen that Lomax and Wahl described in 2013 – based on parts of its skull, limbs, pelvis and vertebrae – had already been Frankensteined into a mounted version and sent to the Wyoming Dinosaur Center in 2006.
Its design was also based on another plesiosaur, Hydrotherosaurus, and this, coupled with the bits of resin used to fill in the missing parts, made analysing it trickier. Still, it at least gave some hope that some of the other piece-meal plesiosaur remains found in the area, currently thrown into the shady, “wastebasket” species Plesiosaurus mauritanicus, could also turn out to be Zarafasaura.
Another mounted version of Zarafasaura made considerably more waves in 2017. Unfortunately they were political rather than prehistoric.
Parts from four different individuals made their way from Morocco’s phosphate beds into the Frankfurt Trade Fair, and eventually the hands of Italian fossil collectors Iacopo Briano and Luca Cableri. After painstaking reconstruction work, their full size 9-metre (30ft) model was ready for private auction. It was due to go on sale at the Drouot hotel in Paris, March 2017, for the princely sum of €450,000.
Until the Moroccan authorities came a-knocking.
Illegal trade in dinosaur fossils isn’t only a thing in Sunday afternoon kids’ movies, as you may remember from the post about Irritator.
The Association for the Protection of the Geological Heritage of Morocco (APPGM) raised concerns about the source of the skeleton, and that a “national treasure” was being snatched from the public eye. Briano and Cableri, and the auctioneer, insisted that correct paperwork had been signed and authorised, but to avoid any drawn out legal proceedings, they agreed to hand the skeleton over to the Moroccan government, specifically the department of Mining and Energy. I’ll answer your question about that in a second.
The collectors were understandably less than enthused, given that they believed they had purchased the remains legally, and had spent time and money reconstructing a whole skeleton out of them. Although the Moroccan authorities reimbursed them for the restoration, Briano lamented that no museum in Morocco had sufficient space for it and that it might be relegated to a few backroom boxes.
Now to your likely question: what does the Ministry of Mining and Energy have to do with a dinosaur skeleton?
Are they using it for literal fossil fuels?
Firstly, that’s a rubbish joke. Secondly, Morocco is the world’s largest exporter of phosphate, and there are fossils aplenty in the various beds.
In the Late Cretaceous, when Zarafasaura was flapping and sweeping its way through the ocean, that ocean was the Tethys, and it joined with the Atlantic round about where Morocco is today. Over time, the water receded, creating three gulfs – Oulad Abdoun being the one where Zarafasaura was found – and the conditions were right for creating phosphates, to the point that the gulfs were linked by a “Phosphates Sea”.
A more spectacular change was to occur though, and unfortunately Zarafasaura was most likely around to see it.
The Cretaceous-Tertiary – or KT- boundary is where the mass extinction of dinosaurs and about 70% of life on Earth died out, 65 million years ago. It’s generally agreed that this was caused by a comet striking the Gulf of Mexico, whose dust and other horrendous effects would have blotted out the sun, caused temperatures to fall and then increase again with a global warming effect, as well as acid rain, tsunamis and other blockbuster-worthy disasters.
Fish remains show a drop in temperature around this time, which may have killed off various plankton and other prey, and paraded up the food-chain until Zarafasaura and its cohorts felt the bite for a change. As mentioned earlier, plesiosaurs were so diverse, widely spread, and specific to certain areas, that it must have been some kind of hefty, global sucker punch to wipe all of them out of existence.
Even if their bones are a mess, we can still marvel at their marine majesty.
Name meaning: Zarafasaura oceanis – “Giraffe reptile” (from the Arabic for “giraffe”), and from Greek, “daughter of the ocean”.
What? Giant, prehistoric marine reptile. Think Nessie.
Where? Late Cretaceous Morocco, when it was a sea, anyway, 70-66 million years ago.
How big? Estimates range from 7-9 metres / 23-30 feet long, although the latter is based on the above reconstructed skeleton.
Probable motto: I’d have probably left you in bits too.
Just to prove I’m not fibbing:
Dessibourg, Olivier. 2017. “Les mésaventures d’un terrible lézard marin“. Le Temps. [French]
Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. No date. “Plesiosaur“. Britannica.com.
“Geologists demand return of Moroccan ‘Nessie’“. 2017. Middle East Online.
Lomax, Dean R. and Wahl, William R. 2013. “A new specimen of the elasmosaurid plesiosaur Zarafasaura oceanis from the Upper Cretaceous (Maastrichtian) of Morocco“, Paludicola 9(2):97-109.
2010. “The selachians’ faunas of the Moroccan phosphate deposits and the KT mass-extinctions“, Historical Biology, 22(1-3):71-77.
Prostak, Sergio. 2013. “Paleontologists Describe First Near-Complete Specimen of Moroccan Plesiosaur Zarafasaura oceanis“. Science News.
Sciences et Avenir avec AFP. 2017. “Le plésiosaure mis aux enchères retourne au Maroc“. Sciences et Avenir. [French]
“Shedding light on an isolated skull: a newly described elasmosaur skeleton from the Late Cretaceous of Morocco“. 2016. Deposits Magazine.
Vincent, Peggy et al. 2011. “Zarafasaura oceanis, a new elasmosaurid (Reptilia: Sauropterygia) from the Maastrichtian Phosphates of Morocco and the palaeobiogeography of latest Cretaceous plesiosaurs“, Gondwana Research 19(4):1062-1073.
“Zarafasaura Vincent et al. 2011 (elasmosaur)“. No date. Fossilworks.
Featured image credit: Photo by incidencematrix.