Drones enable the first detailed mapping of the High Plateaus Basin in the Moroccan Atlas

Drones enable the first detailed mapping of the High Plateaus Basin in the Moroccan Atlas

The CENIEH has used this technology to assess how the landscape of this area in the Atlas chain has evolved, which is key to understanding human evolution in North Africa during the Quaternary

drones Atlas
Alfonso Benito driving the drones. Credits: M.G:Chacón (IPHES)

The Centro Nacional de Investigación sobre la Evolución Humana (CENIEH) has led a paper just published in the Journal of Maps, according to which, with the help of drones, it has been possible to obtain high-resolution aerial images and topographies, fundamental to compiling the first detailed map of the High Plateaus Basin, a region in Eastern Morocco key to understanding human evolution in North Africa during the Quaternary.

“We used the drones from our Digital Mapping and 3D Analysis Laboratory to analyze how the landscape in this intramountain basin in the Atlas chain has evolved, and thus distinguish the different geological formations”, says the lead author of this work, Alfonso Benito Calvo, head of the Geomorphology and Formation Processes line of research at CENIEH.

In the zone studied, there are abundant geological materials on great plains marked by fluvial channels which led finally to the formation of shallow lakes and wetlands. From that moment, deep valleys began to be incised, leaving fluvial terraces and buttes, formed under arid conditions with frequent climatic changes.

“Numerous archaeological remains of different chronologies are preserved today in this geological record, indicating the great potential of the region for studying the archaeological history of North Africa from the Pliocene to the present day”, states Benito Calvo.

This work was conducted under the auspices of a Spanish-Moroccan project, directed by the IPHES (Instituto Catalán de Paleoecología Humana y Evolución Social), in Tarragona, and Mohammed I University (Oujda, Morocco), and has institutional support from the local and regional authorities of the Moroccan province of Jerada,  the Fundación Palarq and the Ministerio de Cultura y Deporte.

Aerial photo of Gara Soultana, in the valley of El Haï river. Credits: Alfonso Benito Calvo

Full bibliographic information

Benito-Calvo, A., Haddoumi, H., Aouraghe, H., Oujaa, A., Chacón, M. G., & Sala-Ramos, R. (2020). Geomorphological analysis using small unmanned aerial vehicles and submeter GNSS (Gara Soultana butte, High Plateaus Basin, Eastern Morocco). Journal of Maps, 16(2), 459-467. doi: 10.1080/17445647.2020.1773329.

Press release from CENIEH


Rare fossils provide more detailed picture of biodiversity during Middle Ordovician

Rare fossils provide more detailed picture of biodiversity during Middle Ordovician

Middle Ordovician
Maine fossils from Portugal are shedding light on Middle Ordovician, where there had been a gap in the fossil record. Credit: Julien Kimmig / KU News Service

LAWRENCE -- A clutch of marine fossil specimens unearthed in northern Portugal that lived between 470 and 459 million years ago is filling a gap in understanding evolution during the Middle Ordovician period.

The discovery, explained in a new paper just published in The Science of Nature, details three fossils found in a new "Burgess Shale-type deposit." (The Burgess Shale is a deposit in Canada renowned among evolutionary biologists for excellent preservation of soft-bodied organisms that don't have a biomineralized exoskeleton.)

"The paper describes the first soft-body fossils preserved as carbonaceous films from Portugal," said lead author Julien Kimmig, collections manager at the University of Kansas Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum. "But what makes this even more important is that it's one of the few deposits that are actually from the Ordovician period -- and even more importantly, they're from the Middle Ordovician, a time were very few soft-bodied fossils are known."

Kimmig and his KU Biodiversity Institute colleagues, undergraduate researcher Wade Leibach and senior curator Bruce Lieberman, along with Helena Couto of the University of Porto in Portugal (who discovered the fossils), describe three marine fossil specimens: a medusoid (jellyfish), possible wiwaxiid sclerites and an arthropod carapace.

"Before this, there had been nothing found on the Iberian Peninsula in the Ordovician that even resembled these," Kimmig said. "They close a gap in time and space. And what's very interesting is the kind of fossils. We find Medusozoa -- a jellyfish -- as well as animals which appear to be wiwaxiids, which are sluglike armored mollusks that have big spines. We found these lateral sclerites of animals which were actually thought to have gone extinct in the late Cambrian. There might have been some that survived into the Ordovician in a Morocco deposit, but nothing concrete has been ever published on those. And here we have evidence for the first ones actually in the middle of the Ordovician, so it extends the range of these animals incredibly."

Kimmig said the discovery of uncommon wiwaxiids fossils in this time frame suggests the animals lived on Earth for a far greater span of time than previously understood.

"Especially with animals that are fairly rare that we don't have nowadays like wiwaxiids, it's quite nice to see they lived longer than we ever thought," he said. "Closely after this deposit, in the Upper Ordovician, we actually get a big extinction event. So, it's likely the wiwaxiids survived up to that big extinction event and didn't go extinct earlier due to other circumstances. But it might have been whatever caused the big Ordovician extinction event killed them off, too."

According to the researchers, the soft-bodied specimens fill a gap in the fossil record for the Middle Ordovician and suggest "many soft-bodied fossils in the Ordovician remain to be discovered, and a new look at deep-water shales and slates of this time period is warranted."

"It's a very interesting thing with these discoveries -- we're actually getting a lot of information about the distribution of animals chronologically and geographically," Kimmig said. "Also, this gives us a lot of information on how animals adapted to different environments and where they actually managed to live. With these soft-body deposits, we get a much better idea of how many animals there were and how their environment changed over time. It's something that applies to modern days, with changing climate and changing water temperatures, because we can see how animals over longer periods of time in the geologic record have actually adapted to these things."

The fossils were discovered in the Valongo Formation in northern Portugal, an area famed for containing trilobites. Credit: Julien Kimmig / KU News Service

Co-author Couto discovered the fossils in the Valongo Formation in northern Portugal, an area famed for containing trilobites. When the animals were alive, the Valongo Formation was part of a shallow sea on the margin of northern Gondwana, the primeval supercontinent.

"Based on the shelly fossils, the deposit looks like it was a fairly common Ordovician community," Kimmig said. "And now we know that in addition to those common fossils jellyfish were floating around, we had sluglike mollusks roaming on the ground, too, and we had bigger arthropods, which might have been predatory animals. So, in that regard, we're getting a far better image with these soft-bodied fossils of what these communities actually looked like."

According to the KU researcher, scientists didn't grasp until recently that deposits from this period could preserve soft-bodied specimens.

"For a long time, it was just not known that these kinds of deposits survived in to the Ordovician," Kimmig said. "So, it is likely these deposits are more common in the Ordovician than we know of, it's just that people were never looking for them."

Kimmig led analysis of the fossils at KU's Microscopy and Analytical Imaging Laboratory to ensure the fossils were made of organic material. Leibach, the KU undergraduate researcher, conducted much of the lab work.

"We analyzed the material and looked at the composition because sometimes you can get pseudo fossils -- minerals that create something that looks like a fossil," Kimmig said. "We had to make sure that these fossils actually had an organic origin. And what we found is that they contain carbon, which was the big indication they would actually be organic."

 

Press release from the University of Kansas


Medicinal plants may be a key to understanding other cultures

Medicinal plants may be a key to understanding other cultures

medicinal plants herbal medicine ethnobotany Amazigh Morocco High Atlas
Irene Teixidor-Toneu together with one of the Amazigh women who contributed to her thorough research on plant use in the High Atlas. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

A new methodology for comparing herbal medicine across societies can also be used to understand the transfer of cultural traditions.

“I did a thorough documentation of the natural remedies, mostly plants, used by the Amazigh people in the High Atlas. Then, I studied how modernization in its various forms influences the use of plants,” explains Irene Teixidor-Toneu, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Oslo, Norway.

“To summarize, there is a change in the use of substances, since people are open to medication prescribed by the doctor. At the same time, traditional knowledge and beliefs concerning plant use are kept alive, although traditions also change over time.”

Having spent almost a year in the Moroccan High Atlas mountains, ethnobotanist Irene Teixidor-Toneu finished her PhD on the use of medicinal plants in Amazigh (Berber) villages.

Her scientific article, describing the methodology, was published in the October issue of the journal Nature Plants. She is currently working at the Natural History Museum in Oslo, where her methods will be applied to map the use of medicinal plants in Scandinavia from Viking times until today, in a project that was launched in November 2018.

"The traditional way of life is under threat a lot of places, it's not simply about biodiversity, says Irene Teixidor Toneu. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

Modern or traditional medicine?Her PhD dissertation was devoted to the transmission of knowledge about medicinal plants used by a defined group of people.These were some of the basic questions Teixidor-Toneu studied:

  • Why are certain plants selected for medical use?
  • How are they used?
  • How does usage change over time?

If you were to ask a pharmacist, one obvious explanation to why certain plants are used,is that they contain phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are compounds developed in order help plants thrive or fight competitors, predators, or pathogens. Many phytochemicals have therapeutic effects.

However, there is always a combination of reasons why a plant is selected for use, according to Teixidor-Toneu.

From her field work in the High Atlas in Morocco. Credit: Irene Teixidor Toneu

Faith and loreEthnobiology is defined as the interdisciplinary study of how human cultures interact with and use their native plants and animals. Ethnobotany is defined as the plant lore of indigenous cultures, also the systematic study of such lore.

Irene Teixidor-Toneu explains:

“In studies of plant diversity and conservation, there are a lot of ecological models that don’t take people into account at all. If you think of the vegetation in the Mediterranean area, as an example, nothing makes sense if you don’t consider humans and their influence. After all, the region has been shaped and developed by man for millennia.”

From colouring to foodMost of us probably think of food, spice and medicine, when the subject of plant use is brought up. However, there is a multitude of historic and present practices. Like fumigation.

Fumigation is the physical process of burning and making smoke out of a plant. This can be ritual or medical or a combination of both. It can be done to clean out a dirty room, to remove fleas and ticks and other insects. In Morocco, the Amazigh burn plant that are rich in resins in order to clean the stables for their animals.

Other uses vary from producing and dyeing textiles, making furniture and utensils, construction of houses to providing fodder and veterinary medicine.

The interdisciplinary aspect is one reason why Irene Teixidor-Toneu finds ethnobotany so fascinating:

”There has been a patchwork of approaches and methods because people from different backgrounds have come together, with no common theoretical framework. Researchers from the humanities and natural scientists often have different approaches. In recent years, we have seen some articles trying to unite and define ethnobiology as one discipline, but there are still many ways to regard the interaction of people and plants.”

Constructing family treesTeixidor-Toneu has provided a significant contribution through her perspective article recently published in Nature Plants, with co-authors Fiona Jordan (evolutionary anthropologist, University of Bristol) and Julie A. Hawkins (phylogenetist, University of Reading).

Basically, it is a summary of the theoretical analysis for her PhD work. The article proposes a framework to study plant uses. This framework uses phylogenetic comparative methods applied to anthropological data, which involves – to put it simply - the construction of language family trees.

For some time, it has been used by anthropologists to gain understanding of the evolution of political, religious, social and material culture. It has not previously been applied to plant use, as pointed out by the editor of Nature Plants in the editorial:

“Normally we associate the use of (…) phylogenetic analyses to determine the relationships between species and groups of organisms, tracing their evolution back to putative common ancestors. (…) Teixidor-Toneu et al. have applied comparative phylogenetic methods, not to plants themselves but to the medicinal roles to which they have been put. Even within ethnobotany this is not a common approach, but the ability to use multiple types of data can produce robust and detailed information about how cultural information is transmitted”

Medicinal plants are of special interest because of their role in maintaining people’s health. Phylogenetic comparative methods can enable researchers to study the diversity of medicinal plant applications across cultures, and also to infer changes in plant use over time.

These methods can be applied to single medicinal plants as well as the entire set of plants used by a culture for medicine, known as a pharmacopoeia.

One of the Berber villages in Imlil in the Moroccan High Atlas, where Irene Teixidor-Toneu did her field studies. Credit: Dag Inge Danielsen/UiO

Plants and cultural knowledge are both endangered“I think the main significance of our paper is that it opens up new opportunities for studying plant use. At the moment, we are well aware that that biodiversity is threatened. Cultural diversity and traditional lifestyles are also threatened. In other words, many plants as well as the knowledge about how to use them, are endangered. Therefore, there is an urgent need to understand how various threatening factors interact and how use and knowledge change over time,” Irene Teixidor-Toneu explains, and adds:

“We are trying to understand plant use across cultures. The first thing we need to understand is how cultures are related. We use phylogeny models, or pedigrees, to trace relationships between people and cultures, based on language similarities.”

“Having traced evolutionary relationships between cultures, we can identify and try to understand the ways plants are used in different cultures. Within this framework we can also study how uses change, and it can be linked to geographical models. So, we end up with what we could call a biocultural geography.”

Full bibliographic information

Comparative phylogenetic methods and the cultural evolution of medicinal plant use. Irene Teixidor-Toneu, Fiona M. Jordan & Julie A. Hawkins. Nature Plants volume 4, pages 754–761 (2018)

 

Press release from Titan.uio.no/ (NO)