Learn about Kazakhstan’s prehistoric life through Aktolagay

If you’ve ever wondered what life on Mars would look like, head to the Aktolagay Plateau in West Kazakhstan.

Located nearly 1,000 km southeast of the capital Nur-Sultan, the mesmerizing landscape of otherworldly snow-white rock formations are probably the closest you’ll get to extra-terrestrial worlds without actually going there.

Flanked by the Alshynsay and Togalay sands, the Aktolagay Plateau spans the southern and northern reaches of the Aktobe Province. Nestled along the border of the Aktyubinsk and Atyrau regions, the dazzling terrain of Paleogenic snow-white rocks are a geological treasure.

From the fossils of ancient land and sea animals to dinosaur vertebrates, they offer us a window into prehistoric life in Kazakhstan.

Into the depths of the Turgai Sea

It might seem hard to believe but the arid expanse surrounding the plateau was once part of the Turgai (or Turgay) Sea or Turgai Strait.

Also known as the West Siberian Sea, the Turgai Sea was a large shallow body of saltwater. Its reach extended from the north of the present-day Caspian Sea to the “paleo-Arctic” region.

In fact, it was so expansive that about 150 million years ago, during the middle of the Mesozoic period, it separated the North America, Europe and Asia territories from South America, Africa and Australia.

But the end of the Mesozoic era also saw the quick decline of the strait.

One of the key reasons was the formation of the Caucasus, Köpet Dag, Tien Shan and Pamir mountain ranges which disrupted its flow.

Instead, this created a sea that connected Western Siberia to the Caspian Sea. Geological evidence suggests that seals used this route for migration.

By now, the sea stretched from the Caspian and Aral seas right up to the Mangyshlak Peninsula and the Volga, the longest river in Europe. Connected to the Arctic ocean, the sea also caused major floods across Europe.

The sea of life

Beyond its magnitude, the Turgai Sea was also a thriving ecosystem.

A key reason was its relatively shallow depths which reached up to 200 meters. Favourable thermal conditions also created ideal ecosystems for organisms to thrive.

Apart from corals and sea lilies, another common organism found here were bivalve molluscs like clams, oysters, mussels and scallops.

The presence of sea urchins at the bottom of the sea bed also helped boost molluscs numbers. The molluscs would attach themselves to the shells of sea urchins to get around and populate the sea bed.

This, in turn, allowed belemnites, or squid-like animals to thrive. Sadly, evolution has caused most of these organisms to go extinct.

All except one – the Nautilus pompilius, also called the pearly nautilus.

Found in the Indo-Pacific area, Nautilus pompilius is a relative of the ancient molluscs and a modern-day relative of marine organisms like squid, octopus, and cuttlefish.