This past year, Morocco has made headlines for its scientific discoveries and innovations – some of which have been game-changing. If you’re in the country, you can visit the locations linked with these finds. Here are our top five scientific discoveries in Morocco.
Scientific Discoveries in Morocco: Home of the First Humans
Where: Jebel Irhoud in south-western Morocco
The first humans may well have been Moroccan. An ancient cave in Morocco seems to have been home to the earliest members of our species. This ranks number one on our scientific discoveries in Morocco.
Shannon McPherron at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and his team dated human-like fossils and ancient tools found at Jebel Irhoud and were surprised to find that they were between 250,000 to 350,000 years old. It was previously thought that Homo sapiens first appeared on the scene 150,000 years later. Further analyses confirmed that pieces of an adult skull and other remains recently found at the site have features consistent with those of our species.
Some scientists argue, however, that the fossils are not quite those of modern humans. The shape of the jawbone, as one example, is slightly different. But others think the similarities are close enough and that they were one of us.
The discovery is also prompting some scientists to rethink the history of our species. Evidence has shown that Neanderthals and humans, which share a common ancestor, evolved separately about 500,000 years ago. So in the future we may find that Moroccans weren’t the first humans after all. In the meantime they can stake their claim to fame!
Scientific Discoveries in Morocco: The Last African Dinosaur
Where: Mines at Sidi Chennane in the Oulad Abdoun Basin in northern Morocco
Dinosaurs died out 66 million years ago but one of the last survivors in Africa was recently discovered in Morocco. This ranks number two on our scientific discoveries in Morocco.
Nick Longrich from the University of Bath and his team found a jaw bone at the mines of Sidi Chennane that belongs to a rare new species, Chenanisaurus barbaricus. It is similar to T.Rex, which lived in North America, but smaller in stature. The dinosaur and its relatives were top predators in Africa.
The fossil dates back to the end of the Cretaceous when dinosaurs were wiped out. Few dinosaur fossil have been found in Morocco from this time period. The researchers suspect the dinosaur remains could be the first from this era ever found in Africa as a whole.
Scientific Discoveries in Morocco: Tree-Climbing Goats that Help Forests Grow
Where: In Argan trees in south-western Morocco, close to Agadir
Trees filled with goats seem like they belong in a fairy tale. But it’s a common sight in south-western Morocco. This ranks number three on our scientific discoveries in Morocco.
In this region of the country, goats climb up Argan trees to eat fruit and leaves, often because they don’t find grazing pastures at ground level due to a lack of rainfall. The goats may not just be filling their bellies though. Miguel Delibes from the Doñana Biological Station in Seville, Spain and his team found that they may be helping Argan trees disperse their seeds too, by regurgitating them and spitting them out. It was previously thought that the nuts were expelled through their excrement. But they are quite large – reaching sizes of 22 mm by 15 mm – so the researchers were skeptical about whether they could pass through their bodies whole.
To put goats to the test, they fed them a variety of seeds of different sizes from a range of plants. As they suspected, large seeds were usually spat out rather than excreted. Often the seeds were spit after having been swallowed and spending time in their first stomach compartment. Like cows, goats regurgitate cud for further chewing to aid digestion.
The researchers found that most of the time, these partially-processed seeds could still sprout. So the goats seem to be doing their part to scatter Argan seeds and help new trees grow. That is, if the nuts are not collected by people first to make Argan oil, a popular beauty product and food that is an important source of income in the area.
Even More Scientific Discoveries: Mourning Monkeys
Where: Mountainous regions, particularly the Rif in the north and the Middle Atlas Mountains
Moroccan monkeys may have developed habits that differ from the rest of their kind. Barbary macaques – the only wild monkeys you will see in Morocco – have been caught performing rituals. This ranks number four on our scientific discoveries in Morocco.
Some of these rituals follow the injury or death of a group member. This behaviour hasn’t been observed in other populations. The observations are part of growing evidence that non-human animals tend to their dead, which was previously considered as uniquely human.
At Ifrane National Park, macaques often wander into busy roads nearby and can get hit by cars as a result. Patrick Tkaczynski from the University of Roehampton in London and his colleagues recently studied how these macaques responded to the injury or death of their fellow group members. In one case, a high-ranking female called Mary was severely injured after being hit by a bus. When she retreated to a nearby tree, two adult males joined her and seemed to inspect her wounds. Another monkey watched over her all night.
Mary died the next morning but her night companion still stayed nearby. Others came to groom her. The researchers were surprised since the macaques usually spend most of the day eating. When the researchers came to remove her body later in the day, a few males charged at them.
Some of the monkeys observed by Tkacynski and his team also showed signs of distress when a group member died. But when a baby monkey dies their mothers may have a more unique response. Bonaventura Majolo from the University of Lincoln in the UK and her student caught female Barbary macaques in the middle-Atlas mountains self-suckling after their offspring died. One of the females regularly sucked her own breasts for about 106 days after her young’s death. Majolo speculates that it could be a way of dealing with the loss since breastfeeding in humans and other species releases a hormone called prolactin, which is known to reduce stress.
Females were also seen sucking on their own breasts before their infants died, though. So it could also be a tactic to improve milk flow or relieve breast pain from suckling. Only females in one of the two troops observed by the researchers exhibited the behaviour so it could be culturally-learned. Self-suckling is very rare in animals and has only been observed before in chimpanzees and goats.
Barbary macaques are the only species of macaque living outside of Asia and the only primates other than humans found in Africa north of the Sahara. They are also endangered, primarily due to habitat loss caused by human activities. In Morocco, they are also often captured and sold as pets.
Be Careful with this Discovery: How to Milk a Scorpion?!
Where: Near the desert and in hot and dry urban areas like Marrakesh, although in the summer they can be seen across the country
What’s the safest way to extract poison from a scorpion? Using a robot may be the best bet. This ranks number five on our scientific discoveries in Morocco.
Although travellers try to avoid scorpion venom, it is often sought out for medical uses. Components of the poison are being studied to develop new drugs. These drugs supress the immune system for use after organ transplants, for example, or combat malaria. Fluorescent molecules attached to the toxin are also being investigated for cancer treatment, to ‘light up’ tumours so that they can be targeted more precisely.
Removing venom from scorpions is currently risky though as it is carried out manually. So Mouad Mkamel from Ben M’sik Hassan II University in Casablanca, Morocco and his colleagues recently developed an alternative that can be operated from a distance. The portable device can be clamped onto a scorpion’s tail to electrically stimulate it to secrete the toxic liquid while a remote control is used to manage the process from afar. It also allows the scorpion to be milked faster and reduces the chance of harming it.
Scorpions thrive in hot, dry conditions so are particularly prominent during the summer. But not all scorpions are dangerous: there are thought to be over 50 species in Morocco, where just 22 of them are extremely poisonous.
About the Author
Sandrine Ceurstemont is a freelance science writer currently based in Morocco. Her interests range from bizarre animal behaviour to the unknowns of the vast underwater world to new robots. Since living in Morocco, she has become interested in local innovations and has written about one of the world’s largest solar power plants in Ouarzazate. She frequently writes for New Scientist and the BBC.