The Rise of Animal Life Conference brought together international researchers working on the early diversification of animal life, with a symposium bringing focus to promoting geological heritage. The Conference was organized by the Cadi Ayyad University, and hosted in the magnificent Palais des Congrès in Marrakech. As a newcomer to the city, it was a stunning and inspiring location for an event. The coordinator Khadija El Hariri and her organising team deserve commendation for putting on such an interesting and diverse conference in wonderful surroundings.
The Conference opened on the 5th of October with a ceremony including welcome messages from high-level members of the University, many of whom emphasized the need for preserving Morocco’s valuable geological localities. Derek Briggs (Yale University, USA) then gave the first plenary of the Conference; an interesting and historical talk comparing the Moroccan Lower Ordovician Fezouata biota to those from other exceptionally preserved Ordovician localities. Then followed a cheerful (and remarkably sober) reception.
Full days of talks ran on the 6th and 7th, with the geological heritage symposium running in tandem on the latter day. The conference talks were organized into eight topical sessions across the two days, interspersed with four more hour-long plenaries. Jean Bernard Caron (Royal Ontario Museum, Canada) gave us a fascinating tour of fieldwork at the Burgess Shale localities, and the biota at Marble Canyon; starting off the first two sessions on arthropods. These took us on a trip through the assemblages at several different localities, and explored many aspects of arthropod morphology, behaviour and diversity. David Harper (Durham University, UK) began the subsequent two sessions on the Ordovician with a talk on the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. The following day Addi Azza (Ministry of Energy and Mining, Water and Environment, Morocco) spoke about the promotion and conservation of Morocco’s geological heritage, and Abderrazak El Albani (Université de Poitiers, France) gave the final plenary on early multicellularity from Gabon. Sessions on the Precambrian, Cambrian, and Fezouta, simultaneous to the Geological Heritage talks, explored ichnology, various other localities including the Emu Bay Shale, and a range of taxonomic groups.
A number of posters were arranged throughout the reception area of the Palais des Congrès. These presented diverse research ranging from Anti-Atlas Moroccan assemblages and geological boundaries in the country, to trilobite ontogeny, and Cambrian eocrinoids. Tribute was paid throughout the conference to Jacques Destombes, one of the key figures in the understanding of Moroccan stratigraphy, and Mohamed ‘Ou Said’ Ben Moula, the discoverer of the Fezouata Lagerstätte.
The following day a group of around 60 participants assembled outside the Palais des Congrès for the post-conference field trip. We piled into a small fleet of 4x4s, with our luggage stacked on top, and set off into the desert. The first day gifted us with some beautiful panoramic views of the Cambrian–Ordovician boundary at outcrops through the Atlas Mountains. The long journey to the southeast ended in Zagora, where we finished the day marvelling at constellations and supernovae from high-powered telescopes erected on the roof of our hotel.
The next day we drove back towards Ouarzazate. The morning included stops to examine the geological context of the Fezouata Lagerstätte, followed by an outdoor lunch in the Draa Valley date palm forest (with much opportunity for foraging). In the afternoon the group visited the amazing site of the Lower Ordovician Burgess Shale-type Fezouata Formation excavations, with Bertrand Lefebvre (Université Lyon 1, France) and Peter Van Roy (Yale University, USA) providing expert knowledge, and Ou Said himself excavating a new location. Bertrand and his team explained the surrounding geology, and the recent work by the Université Lyon 1 in collaboration with their Moroccan colleagues. Graptolites were the most common find amongst field trip participants, but the specimens Ou Said had laid out for us to see were the most remarkable, including juvenile horseshoe crabs and a giant anomalocaridid carapace. We also saw some fabulous tourist sites, including the Taourirt Kasbah in Ouarzazate, and a tour through Aït Ben Haddou, an ancient fortified city built around a mountain, and used as a location for several Hollywood films (think Gladiator and Lawrence of Arabia).
Our return to Marrakech from the desert heralded the end of the Conference, and our time in Morocco. Huge thanks are owed to everyone who made RALI 2015 such a thoroughly enjoyable and exotic conference and field-trip!