Skip navigation

The NaturePlus Forums will be offline from mid August 2018. The content has been saved and it will always be possible to see and refer to archived posts, but not to post new items. This decision has been made in light of technical problems with the forum, which cannot be fixed or upgraded.

We'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to the very great success of the forums and to the community spirit there. We plan to create new community features and services in the future so please watch this space for developments in this area. In the meantime if you have any questions then please email:

Fossil enquiries:
Life Sciences & Mineralogy enquiries:
Commercial enquiries:


The introduction to this trip and day 1 are covered here by Emma Bernard as we're both taking you through our adventures in Morocco.



Friday 20 September started out very sedately, we got into the jeeps and began our 235km drive to Arzou. However, about an hour into the drive we started to smell something terrible. In the rear of the jeep we assumed it was something being burnt somewhere, it was only when we saw the middle jeep pull over we realised different.


Out leapt the passengers from the smoking jeep. Luckily we were near a town with a garage where the driver managed to take the stricken jeep. We all crammed into the remaining two vehicles, with the luggage on the roof rack and continued our drive. The plan upon reaching Arzou was to split the group, with mineralogists going to a volcano and the palaeontologists going to Bakrit to search for sharks teeth. However, just before we got to the volcano we had a quick stop in a cedar forest to visit the monkeys that live there.



The Monkeys near Arzou

As I've never been to a volcano and collected scientific samples, I asked whether or not I would be able to disband from the palaeontologists and go with the mineralogists. Luckily, this request was granted and I was whisked off with Dr Emma Humphries-Williams, Mark Graham (a fellow palaeontological deserter!) and the Ores Curator. Emma was looking for mantle xenoliths as part of her research on understanding how volcanoes form.


team xenolith.jpg

Team Mantle Xenolith.

From left to right: Emma Humphries-Williams, Me (Zoe Hughes), Mark Graham and the Ores Curator.


Both groups arrived at the volcano and we had an initial wander about with a quick description of how it had formed. Then back to the jeeps for a field work spread of tinned tuna, the most amazing olives and a traditional Moroccan flatbread (since arriving back to the UK I have been missing these simple but fantastic lunches!)


quarry 2.jpg

The quarry dug into the side of the volcano. You can see our jeeps in the distance and some of the group in the centre. The cone itself is off to the right, beyond the edge of the photograph.



The quarry from a different angle. Behind me (I took this photo) is the crater.


crater montage.jpg

This is the crater, constructed from a series of photos. The quarry above is now behind me.


After lunch the rest of the palaeontologists got in their jeeps in order to go to Bakrit to search for sharks teeth. We descended into the quarry next to the volcano. We hunted for xenoliths, with Emma instructing us on which rocks were likely to contain them (the heavy ones). When we had a pile we all took in turns to break them open to (hopefully) reveal the green xenolith inside. There were some small lava flows present that we took samples from for Emma’s research into the volcano.



Mark Graham and me taking some rock samples.

Mantle xenoliths are fragments of rock from deep below the Earth’s surface (up to 70 kilometres deep!). These fragments have been picked up by the magma as it ascends from the mantle. Explosions fragment the surrounding mantle and allow it to be carried in the magma to the Earth’s surface within a matter of days. Emma is interested in these fragments because they tell us about how the magma travels to the Earth’s surface and also where the magma comes from. She does this by using lasers and acid (not together) in the lab to reveal the chemistry of the minerals within the rock.


Most mantle xenoliths are made of olivine, clinopyroxene, orthopyroxene and spinel; garnet can be present depending on the pressure present when the xenolith was extracted from the mantle.



What a mantle xenolith looks like and the minerals it contains. This one was found at the volcano in Arzou on this trip. It has been cut and polished since we returned to the Musuem.


With the xenoliths we found in Morocco, Emma hopes to find out whether or not there are any unusual minerals present which will tell her about any processes that may have changed the mantle composition and therefore may result in volcanoes forming in the area more easily. This is particularly interesting in this area of Morocco as most volcanoes normally form at the edges of tectonic plates, where either the plates are moving apart (like at the mid-Atlantic ridge) or where one plate is colliding with another creating a subduction zone. However Morocco is far from the edge of a tectonic plate (The closest active one is the mid-Atlantic ridge or the East African rift). Emma is using the mantle xenoliths to work out why there are (extinct) volcanoes in Morocco (and Africa as a whole).



The tectonic plates outlines in black. The arrow shows the approximate location of the volcano at Arzou and its location at the centre of the plate.

While we were at the volcano it started to rain rather heavily. As my rain coat had been driven off in the jeep with the palaeontologists, I had to use my imagination to keep warm and dry by fashioning a bin bag into a coat.


Bag dry shot.jpg

My high fashion attempt to keep dry in the rain.


When our time at the volcano was drawing to an end, Emma had a final sort through of her samples for the best ones to bring back to the Museum. As each xenolith takes some time to process and they are rather heavy, only really good xenoliths are particularly useful.


emma with xenoliths.jpg

Emma happily sorting out her haul of xenoliths.


Off we went to meet the palaeontologists so we could drive to our hotel in convoy for the night in Midelt...


Don't forget to check the Fossil Fish blog and come back here for more as Emma and I are writing about each day in turn. Many, many thanks to Emma Humphries-Williams for helping me to write this post (making sure I got the science of xenoliths correct because it is not my field of expertise) and providing the lovely xenolith images!


Over the weekend as you may have noticed if you follow my Twitter feeds (@NHM_Brachiopoda and @NHM_Cephalopoda) I have been on the Isle of Wight. We arrived on a very wet afternoon on Friday 8 November.


The main reason for our trip was to participate in the Dinosaur Isle Museum's "Blast from the Past" event which gathers local collectors, universities and museums together to talk to the public about palaeontology, fossil collecting and metal detecting.


table 650.jpg

Me with our display of cephalopods.

Me and my collegues - Dr Martin Munt, Dr Lorna Steel, Dr Christine Stullu-Derrien, Dr Ria Mitchell and Zuzanna Wawrzyniak - had a stall showing the diversity of fossil cephalopods through time and the plant and arthropod fauna of the Rhynie Chert. Lots of people came to talk to us, asking questions about the specimens and bringing their own fossils for us to identify.


On Monday Christine came back to the Museum as she's very busy at the moment but the rest of us stayed on the Isle of Wight to do some fieldwork. We wrapped up warm with lots of layers and waterproofs and braved the weather on Yaverland beach near Sandown. I found some dinosaur ribs and a fish vertebra.

When we went up to Dinosaur Isle that is close by for lunch, we realised our waterproofs had failed and we were all utterly soaked so instead of going back out into the dire weather we were invited to visit the Isle of Wight off-site store to have a look at their collections.


Yaveland combo 650.jpg

Our group on Yaverland beach getting rather wet and windswept.


Alex Peaker and Martin New of Dinosaur Isle showed us lots of wonderful fossil plants, dinosaurs and invertebrates while Lorna took the opportuinty to have a look at their fossil crocodiles.


On Tuesday the weather was much better and we took a trip to a Pleistocene mammal locality on the east of the island called Saltmead Beach, which is near Newton. Luckily the military firing test zone was not in action that day as we had to cross it in order to get to the beach. After a long walk across a water-logged field and down the beach we finally made it to the site. Lots of bone fragments were found, most likely from bison. These will be passed along to our fossil mammal curator.



Left: Lorna and Zuza looking for Pleistocene bones.

Right: The beach at Saltmead near Newtown.



After lunch we visited an Eocene site known as the insect limestone. Here there were pieces of the limestone strewn on the beach which you can then break open with a hammer. If you are lucky you may find insects such as ants and beetles or even fossil plant remains. In our case, Zuzanna was the lucky one as she found a lovely beetle that our arthropod curator was very excited to recieve for the collection.


Insect limestone.jpg

Left: Ria breaking up the limestone. Centre: Looking carefully for tiny insects.

Right: The insect limestone.


When we got back to the house Zuzanna started the process of removing the salt from the bison bones we had found. She did this by soaking them in tap water overnight to draw the salt out. In the process, however, a small shore crab emerged from one of the bones! We put it in a tupperware tub (with no lid) with some seaweed from the bone and sea water from the sample bag. In the morning on the way back to the ferry we released him in a suitable pebbly location with seaweed.



Left: The crab we rescued
Right: I'm about to release him!