Fossils found in Morocco show giant arthropods once ruled the seas

Emmanuel Martin/Farid Saleh/University of Exeter/Cover Images

After success in the World Cup, Morocco is now fascinating scientists as well as soccer fans.

That's because discoveries at a major new fossil site in the country suggest giant arthropods - relatives of modern shrimps, insects and spiders - ruled the seas 470 million years ago.

Early evidence from the site at Taichoute, once undersea but now a desert, records numerous large "free-swimming" arthropods.

More research is needed to analyse these fragments, but based on previously described specimens, the giant arthropods could be up to 2m long.

An international research team said the site and its fossil record are very different from other previously described and studied Fezouata Shale sites from 80km away. As a result, Taichoute opens new avenues for paleontological and ecological research.

"Everything is new about this locality - its sedimentology, palaeontology, and even the preservation of fossils - further highlighting the importance of the Fezouata Biota in completing our understanding of past life on Earth," explained lead author Dr Farid Saleh, from the University of Lausanne and Yunnan University.

Dr Xiaoya Ma, from the University of Exeter and Yunnan University, added: "While the giant arthropods we discovered have not yet been fully identified, some may belong to previously described species of the Fezouata Biota, and some will certainly be new species."

The Fezouata Shale was recently selected as one of the 100 most important geological sites worldwide because of its importance in understanding the evolution during the Early Ordovician period, about 470 million years ago.

Some fossils show exceptional preservation of soft parts such as internal organs, allowing scientists to investigate the anatomy of early animal life on Earth.