Sunday, 7 March 2021


Aioloceras besairiei (Collingnon, 1949)
A stunning example of the internal suturing with calcite infill in this sliced Aioloceras besairiei (Collingnon, 1949) ammonite from the Upper Cretaceous (Lower Albian) Boeny region of Madagascar. This island country is about 400 kilometres off the coast of East Africa in the Indian Ocean and a wonderful place to explore off the beaten track.

Madagascar has some of the most spectacular of all the fossil specimens I have ever seen. This beauty is no exception. The shell has a generally small umbilicus, arched to acute venter, and typically at some growth stage, falcoid ribs that spring in pairs from umbilical tubercles, usually disappearing on the outer whorls. I had originally had this specimen marked as a Cleoniceras besairiei, except Cleoniceras and Grycia are not present in Madagascar. This lovely, seen in cross-section, is now far from home and in the collection of the beautiful Dawn Walsh. It is an especially lovely example of the ammonite, Aioloceras besairiei, making it a beudanticeratinae. Cleoniceras and Grycia are the boreal genera. If you'd like to see (or argue) the rationale on the name, consider reading Riccardi and Medina's riveting work from back in 2002, or Collingnon from 1949.

The beauty you see here measures in at a whopping 22 cm, so quite a handful. This specimen is from the youngest or uppermost subdivision of the Lower Cretaceous. I'd originally thought this locality was older, but dating reveals it to be from the Lower Albian, so approximately 113.0 ± 1.0 Ma to 100.5 ± 0.9 Ma.

Aioloceras are found in the Cretaceous of Madagascar at geo coordinates 16.5° S, 45.9° E: paleo-coordinates 40.5° S, 29.3° E.; and in four localities in South Africa: at locality 36, near the Mzinene River at 28.0° S, 32.3° E: paleo-coordinates 48.6° S, 7.6° E. 

We find them near the Mziene River, at a second locality north of Hluhluwe where the Mzinene Formation overlies the Aptian-Albian Makatini Formation at 28.0° S, 32.3° E: paleo-coordinates 48.6° S, 7.6° E; and at Haughton Z18, on the Pongola River in the Albian III, Tegoceras mosense beds at 27.3° S, 32.2° E: paleo-coordinates 48.0° S, 7.8° E.

If you happen to be trekking to Madagascar, know that it's big. It’s 592,800 square kilometres (or  226,917 square miles), making it the fourth-largest island on the planet — bigger than Spain, Thailand, Sweden and Germany. The island has an interesting geologic history.

Although there has been a geological survey, which was active extending back well into French colonial times, in the non-French-speaking world our geological understanding of the island is still a bit of a mystery. 

Baobab Adansonia deciduous trees
Plate tectonic theory had its beginnings in 1915 when Alfred Wegener proposed his theory of "continental drift." 

Wegener proposed that the continents ploughed through the crust of ocean basins, which would explain why the outlines of many coastlines (like South America and Africa) look like they fit together like a puzzle. Half a century after Wegener there is still no agreement as to whether in continental reconstructions Madagascar should be placed adjacent to the Tanzanian coast to the north (e.g., McElhinny and Embleton,1976), against the Mozambique-Natal coast (Flores 1970), or basically left where it is (Kent 1974, Nairn 1978).

There have been few attempts apart from McKinley’s (1960) comparison of the Karoo succession of southwestern Tanzania with that of Madagascar to follow the famous geological precept of “going to sea.” One critical reason is that although there may be a bibliography of several thousand items dealing with Madagascan geology as Besairie (1971) claims, they are items not generally available to the general public. The vital information gained of the geology of the offshore area by post-World War II petroleum exploration has remained largely proprietary. Without this data to draw upon, our understanding remains incomplete. I don't actually mind a bit of a mystery here. It is interesting to speculate on how these geologic puzzle pieces fit together and wait for the big reveal. Still, we have good old Besairie from his 1971, Geologie de Madagascar, and a later précis (Besairie, 1973).

We do know that Madagascar was carved off from the African-South American landmass early on. The prehistoric breakup of the supercontinent Gondwana separated the Madagascar–Antarctica–India landmass from the Africa–South America landmass around 135 million years ago. Madagascar later split from India about 88 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous, so the native plants and animals on the island evolved in relative isolation. It is a green and lush island country with more than it's fair share of excellent fossil exposures. Along the length of the eastern coast runs a narrow and steep escarpment containing much of the island's remaining tropical lowland forest. If you could look beneath this lush canopy, you'd see rocks of Precambrian age stretching from the east coast all the way to the centre of the island. The western edge is made up of sedimentary rock from the Carboniferous to the Quaternary.

Red-Tailed Lemurs, Waiwai & Hedgehog
Madagascar is a biodiversity hotspot. Just as Darwin's finches on the Galápagos were isolated, evolving into distinct species (hello, adaptive radiation), over 90% of the wildlife from Madagascar is found nowhere else. 

The island's diverse ecosystems, like so many on this planet, are threatened by Earth's most deadly species, homo sapien sapiens. We arrived back in 490 CE and have been chopping down trees and eating our way through the island's tastier populations ever since. Still, they have cuties like this Red-Tailed Lemur. Awe, right?

Today, beautiful outcrops of wonderfully preserved fossil marine fauna hold appeal for me. The material you see from Madagascar is distinctive — and prolific.

Culturally, you'll see a French influence permeating the language, architecture and legal process. There is a part of me that pictures these lovely Lemurs chatting away in French. "Ah, la vache! Regarde le beau fossile, Hérissonne!"

We see the French influence because good 'ol France invaded sleepy Madagascar back in 1883, during the first Franco-Hova War. Malagasy (the local Madagascarian residents) were enlisted as troops, fighting for France in World War I.  During the Second World War, the island was the site of the Battle of Madagascar between the Vichy government and the British. By then, the Malagasy had had quite enough of colonization and after many hiccuping attempts, reached full independence in 1960. Colonization had ended but the tourist barrage had just begun. You can't stop progress.

If you're interested in learning more about this species, check out the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology, Part L (Ammonoidea). R.C. Moore (ed). Geological Soc of America and Univ. Kansas Press (1957), p L394. Or head over to look at the 2002 paper from Riccardi and Medina. 2002. Riccardi, A., C. & Medina, F., A. The Beudanticeratinae and Cleoniceratinae (Ammonitina) from the Lower Albian of Patagonia in Revue de Paléobiologie - 21(1) - Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle de la ville de Genève, p 313-314 (=Aioloceras besairiei (COLLIGNON, 1949). You have Bertrand Matrion to thank for the naming correction. Good to have friends in geeky places!

Collignon, M., 1933, Fossiles cenomaniens d’Antmahavelona (Province d’ Analalave, Madagascar), Ann. Geol. Serv. Min. Madagascar, III, 1934 Les Cephalopods du Trias inferieur de Madagascar, Ann. Paleont. XXII 3 and 4, XXII 1.

Besairie, H., 1971, Geologie de Madagascar, 1. Les terrains sedimentaires, Ann. Geol. Madagascar, 35, p. 463.

J. Boast A. and E. M. Nairn collaborated on a chapter in An Outline of the Geology of Madagascar, that is very readable and cites most of the available geologic research papers. It is an excellent place to begin a paleo exploration of the island.

If you happen to parle français, check out: Madagascar ammonites: