They are much more than just the indicators of presence of oil and gas reserves. Fossils provide a detailed glimpse into the past. Pieced together into a ‘tree of life’, these petrified remains of prehistoric organisms when unearthed form an important line of evidence to understand the process of evolution.
From the type of fossils uncovered from a particular location, you can, for instance, tell what kind of environment existed there when the fossil was formed. You can also tell how ancient plants and animals obtained their food, reproduced, behaved and died.
Study of fossil remains thus opens a door to a whole new world of discovery. And Mohammed al-Thani, a recent Business graduate from College of North Atlantic-Qatar (CNA-Q), is curious to know what stories are hidden in almost two hundred fossil remains that he has collected in his free time.
Working closely with a mentor and scientist Dr Aurora M Castilla, Acting Research Director of Environmental and Chemical Sciences Group Qatar Environment and Energy Research Institute (QEERI), Hamad Bin Khalifa University (HBKU), Mohammed has unearthed these fossils from the Unesco Biosphere Reserve of Al Reem in the North West of Qatar.
They are about 45 million years old, this much he knows. In conversation with Community, Mohammed says he wants to get to the bottom of each fossil’s individual and collective story.
Dr Jacques LeBlanc, a geologist from Qatar Petroleum, has been voluntarily helping him with the identification of some groups and ageing of the fossils.
Mohammed, however, feels the more expert palaeontologists are needed to examine the fossils and identify the species they belong to. And he is well on his way to achieve this proficient view.
The fossils he collected in Al Reem are now deposited in a collection of the General Directorate of Natural Reserves, Private Engineering Office until they are transferred to the Qatar Museum for their study and use in public exhibitions.
“When I was young I knew they find fossils from different places all across the world, but I never knew I would be able to find fossils in Qatar,” says Mohammed.
“Some 12 years ago, I was with one of my uncles at our private farm and he gave me a shell and said this was a fossil. I did not know its value back then,” he recalls.
Fast forward to November 2013, he was hunting for houbara and while trailing the bird through its footprints he found a rock with fossil marks petrified in it. He stopped right there and then went on to search the area for fossils.
On that day he found almost 10 big pieces of fossils but he did not know anything about their age and other specifications. “Back then, I thought they must be some 1000 years old or so,” Mohammed smiles.
In a few months during the course of his fossils’ discoveries, Mohammed met Dr Aurora and her other biologist colleagues. He showed them the pictures of the fossils in his phone. Seeing the pictures, they were all excited to see the real pieces.
The next weekend, Mohammed took them to the site. More discoveries were made. In 2014, Mohammed actively started looking for someone who could tell him more about the fossils and their age.
With the help of Dr Aurora, he met Dr LeBlanc, who helped him understand the age and the genus of the fossils. But he, too, could not ascertain much more than that. Yet, Mohammed now had some information to start with.
“It turned out that one of the pieces we found in the Biosphere Reserve was a big piece from 45 million years ago, and it was a Nautilus. Scientists call this species a living fossil because the shell has not changed much after millions of years,” says Mohammed.
He would drift more than 16 kilometres from the road into the desert site where he made his first discoveries. Mohammed says elders from his family have been hunting in that area for decades, but he was the first one from his family who explored it with the view to find fossil remains from there.
It is an area which is also frequented by tourists and Mohammed is concerned that some of them have been taking the fossils away from the area. From one piece of fossil shark, most of the teeth are gone.
Then there are a lot of species of sea urchins in Qatar and many can be found fossilised. These fossils, however, are also very attractive for many tourists who like to collect them. While Mohammed urges people to collect these fossils, he wants them to keep them inside the country in order to preserve its cultural heritage.
Mohammed says he knows many of the genuses of the fossils he collected, but he wants to know more about their species and details about their age and lives. He found fossils from different directions in the country, and was surprised to notice that the shape and size of the fossils varied with the shape and terrain of the location.
“I found one from an area which was almost 15 kilogram in weight and was shaped differently from the similar one I found from another site. So they might be from the same group but different species and might have different ages,” he explains.
Mohammed searches for fossils mostly in winter when the weather in the desert is favourable. It takes him about one hour to get there. By now, he has become so familiar with the area that he does not even require the help of GPS to navigate through the desert.
“From the shapes and forms of rocks, I can tell there would fossils or not. It is a big area and we sometimes find dozens of fossils from a small patch of 15 square feet. There are many out on the surface while some are buried deep,” says Mohammed. Rain reveals more of them when sand recedes with rain water.
Mohammed’s hobby of collecting fossils is not just limited to Qatar. In his collection, he has fossils collected from Madagascar, for instance. And he has bought some rare ones from Germany, Switzerland and other European countries. He keeps them in his showroom at home.
There, he has a collection of some 170 fossils from Qatar as well. The bulk of it will now go to the Qatar Natural History Museum where hopefully they will be studied thoroughly. With more research, he hopes his collection of fossils will reveal more information about that part of the history of his country which still remains unstudied.
For Mohammed, the hobby goes on, and with it the process of further discovery.
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