x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Scientists hurry to save region's past

Racing against Al Gharbia development, researchers have already uncovered ancient remains including elephants and a crocodile.

Researchers have surveyed Al Gharbia's fossil sites since mid-December as part of a collaborative project between Adach and the Peabody Museum of Natural History.
Researchers have surveyed Al Gharbia's fossil sites since mid-December as part of a collaborative project between Adach and the Peabody Museum of Natural History.

Scientists are in a race against time to study and record Al Gharbia's extensive network of fossil sites as plans are pushed forward to open up Abu Dhabi's remote region to tourism and industry. So far, remains of animals which roamed the land long before humans have been collected from some 40 locations in the province, until recently known as the Western Region. The sites are all within a layer of sand and clay known as the Baynunah Formation and are the only known remnants in Arabia of life eight million years ago, a period known as the Late Miocene.

Abu Dhabi then was a very different place. Rather than the current desert landscape, the emirate resembled east Africa, with slow-flowing rivers and rich vegetation. Fossil discoveries show that acacia trees used to grow here and remnants of crocodiles, at least two kinds of elephants, ostriches and a sabretooth cat have been found. "This is the only fossil site from that epoch in Arabia," said Faysal Bibi, a paleontologist from the Peabody Museum of Natural History at Yale University in the US.

With his Yale colleague Prof Andrew Hill, Mr Bibi, is leading a team of scientists who have been surveying some of the region's fossil sites since mid-December. The visit is part of a five-year collaboration between the museum and the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach). The project, now in its third year, is expected to uncover more fossil sites along the Baynunah Formation, which covers some 5,000 square kilometres - from Ruwais to Jebel Baraka, along the coastline and then further into the desert.

Two weeks ago at Jaw Al-Dibsa, which is 45km inland, the jaws and parts of the skeleton of an ancient elephant were found. The scientists also retrieved the skeleton and skull of a young crocodile, which must have been between a metre and 1.5 metres long, from an area known as Hamra, Mr Bibi said. The public can learn more about the discoveries on Thursday, when Prof Hill and Mr Bibi give a lecture at 7pm in the Ibn Majid Hall at the Cultural Foundation in Abu Dhabi, Adach's headquarters. It will help people understand just how much life on the planet can change, Mr Bibi said.

"These animals were living here at a time when humans were not," he said. "It is a testament that we are part of this much larger history of life that comes and goes. These major notions of change are something that most people do not consider." Scientists go a step further, trying to draw as precise a picture as possible of what the ecosystem looked like, he said. What animals lived in Abu Dhabi eight million years ago? Were they migratory? What happened to the ecosystem over time? How does it compare with sites in other geographical regions from the same time, such as sites in Pakistan, the Mediterranean and north and east Africa? Answering those questions will allow the scientists to "figure out long-term patterns to the development of life" and also predict the environmental consequences of climatic changes in future, Mr Bibi said.

Finding new sites is an arduous and time-consuming task and time is the one thing the scientists are short of. Al Gharbia's coastline is a possible location for oil and gas and tourism and development are inevitable. "Many sites that we were able to work previously are now not available to us," Mr Bibi said. The team is recording the co-ordinates of each fossil site and putting them on a database managed by Adach.

"We have already taken measures to protect some of the sites," said Dr Mark Beech, a team member and the cultural landscapes manager in Adach's historic environment department. Dr Beech's department has made sure that some of the most important sites are fenced off to stop people driving through them. Adach is also sharing information with the Environment Agency-Abu Dhabi and is developing protocols to communicate with other agencies.

"So far, our main strategy is to fence off some of the sites, expand the database and keep other government agencies informed," he said. "The problem is that it is really a very large site." Many of the fossil sites are within the Marawah Marine Biosphere Reserve, but more is needed to ensure protection, Dr Beech said. "What we need is more protected areas along the coast. This is crucial as the Western Region is a remote area that will soon be developed.

"Many of these sites are also important for flora and fauna. They are also beauty spots along the coastline." vtodorova@thenational.ae