Faysal Bibi just returned from Abu Dhabi for filming part of a documentary by PBS and Smithsonian Channel on the evolution of elephants. Shooting took place at the site of Mleisa 1, which records the trackways of prehistoric elephants that walked across the Abu Dhabi landscape 7 million years ago. The site is important because it preserves the footprints of a herd of individuals, suggesting that Miocene elephants exhibited similar social structure as elephants today.
In January 2018, Faysal Bibi led an international team in a paleontological survey of the upper Atbara River and Setit River Valleys in eastern Sudan. Previous work had documented the presence of middle to late Pleistocene sites in the region and our team discovered many more new localities and a diverse fauna. This work was supported by a National Geographic Explorer’s Grant and the German Research Foundation (DFG), and included Johannes Müller (MfN), Robert Bussert (TU Berlin), Brian Kraatz (Western U.), and colleagues Ali Eisawi from Neelain University and Omer el Bedri from African University in Khartoum.
In April 2017, our team described a new species of fossil hippopotamus from the late Miocene Baynunah Formation in the United Arab Emirates. In a study published in the journal Palaeovertebrata, scientists led by Jean-Renaud Boisserie described the species Archaeopotamus qeshta, a primitive hippo with close relatives previously described from late Miocene to early Pleistocene sites in Kenya and possibly Tanzania. The new species name ‘queshta’ comes from the Egyptian name for the modern hippopotamus ‘sayed qeshta’ (سيد قشطى) which means ‘Mr. Cream’.
Reference: Boisserie, J.-R., M. Schuster, M. Beech, A. Hill, and F. Bibi. 2017. A new species of hippopotamine (Cetartiodactyla, Hippopotamidae) from the late Miocene Baynunah Formation, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. Palaeovertebrata 41:doi: 10.18563/pv.41.1.e2
Our team has just announced the discovery of a cheek tooth of a fossil monkey from the Al Gharbia region of Abu Dhabi Emirate, United Arab Emirates. This research is published today in the prestigious journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
From anatomical comparisons, we determined that the UAE fossil monkey was related to the ancestors of living guenon monkeys. Guenon monkeys are today known only from Africa south of the Sahara, and are especially diverse in the rain forests of Central and West Africa. Interestingly, guenons were only known from a scant fossil record as old as 4 million years ago, and only from Africa. Until now. At around 7 million years old, the Al Gharbia fossil monkey is the oldest guenon monkey known in the world, and the first record that guenons ever ranged outside of Africa.
The discovery of a fossil guenon monkey in the U.A.E. offers another reminder of how different Arabian climate and environments must have been 7 million years ago. The presence of rivers and woodland areas fits with our team’s previous discoveries of fossil hippopotamus, crocodiles, swamp rats, fish, turtles, and other water-loving animals and even fossil tree trunks in the Al Gharbia region.
The Al Gharbia fossil guenon is only the second specimen of a fossil monkey known from the entire Arabian Peninsula (the first is also from Al Gharbia but was less informative).
The fossil tooth is very small (just over half a centimeter in length) and was found by our team on the island of Shuwaihat. We were in the process of sieving through sands looking for tiny fossils such as rodent teeth and snake bones. We estimate the body mass of the Al Gharbia fossil monkey to have been between 4 and 6 Kg, which is similar to many guenons living today.
Though it is only known from a single tooth, the Al Gharbia fossil guenon provides compelling evidence of the existence of these animals in Arabia in the past, far beyond their modern-day range. It also highlights that monkeys living seven million years ago had no problems dispersing between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. This matches with the many fossil antelopes, hippos, crocodiles, rodents, giraffes, elephants, and carnivores that we have found in Al Gharbia to date that also indicate strong and continuous faunal connections with Africa.
Images of the fossil tooth in multiple angles. Scale bar = 1mm. (photo: Erik Lazo-Wasem)
Read the full press release here.
Abu Dhabi Authority for Tourism and Culture Arabic language press release here.
Reference: Christopher C. Gilbert, Faysal Bibi, Andrew Hill, and Mark J. Beech. 2014. Early guenon from the late Miocene Baynunah Formation, Abu Dhabi, with implications for cercopithecoid biogeography and evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1323888111
Our team has published two papers reviewing all the fossil species that we and previous teams have found from the Baynunah Formation of the Al Gharbiya region of Abu Dhabi Emirate.
The first is titled Before archaeology: life and environments in the Miocene of Abu Dhabi (pdf), from the book Fifty Years of Emirates Archaeology (editors D. Potts & P. Hellyer), published in 2012.
The second, also a book chapter, is titled Late Miocene Fossils from the Baynunah Formation, United Arab Emirates: Summary of a Decade of New Work (pdf), from a recently published book called Fossil Mammals of Asia (Columbia Univ. Press, editors X. Wang, M. Fortelius, L. Flynn).
In addition to providing information on the wide range of animals that existed in Abu Dhabi in the Late Miocene, these papers also review the history of discovery of fossils in the Al Gharbia region. The reviews (especially the second one) also compare the similarity of these late Miocene fossil animals to those from Africa and Asia, showing that the region at the time housed a mix of African and southern Asian animals that is not recorded anywhere else.
To anyone previously unfamiliar with the subject, these reviews show quite clearly the diversity of prehistoric animals that used to live in this part of the Arabian Peninsula. This large diversity of everything from shells to crocodiles, rodents, birds, monkeys, and elephants was supported by a river system that once flowed through what is now the U.A.E., and that has long since gone dry and disappeared.
Our team has just published the discovery and description of a large fossil cane rat from the Al Gharbia region of Abu Dhabi Emirate, U.A.E. Cane rats today are only known from two species living in Africa, so it is very interesting to know that they once roamed across parts of the Arabian Peninsula.
The fossil cane rat is around 7 million years old and comes from the Baynunah Formation which is a sequence of river-deposited sands that are exposed in the western region of Abu Dhabi Emirate.
We named the new fossil rodent Protohummus dango. The genus name Protohummus honors chick peas (Arabic: hummus) because the fossil teeth of this rodent were large, somewhat round, and stained yellowish-brown by the fossilization process, coming to resemble chick peas. The species name dango is from that of a local Emirati dish made of boiled chick peas.
From an evolutionary analysis, we concluded that Protohummus is a sort of ‘missing link’ in the evolution of the cane rat family (Thryonomyidae). Previous thryonomyid fossils were either already very similar to the living species, or else differed in many features. At 7 million years in age, Protohummus from Arabia fills an evolutionary gap between the thryonomyid Paraulacodus, an older, more conservative form known from Africa and Pakistan, and the living Thryonomys, known only from Africa.
Here’s also a link to an article by The National newspaper about the discovery.
Kraatz, B. P., Bibi, F., and Hill, A., and Beech, M., 2013, A New Fossil Thryonomyid from the Late Miocene of the United Arab Emirates and the Origin of African Cane Rats. Naturwissenschaften. DOI 10.1007/s00114-013-1043-4
In February 2012 we published a study on the fabulous fossil elephant trackways at the site of Mleisa 1. We made a separate page for this here