Messel

Abstract

The Messel site, Germany, is a former maar with lake sediments including a laminated algal rock, the dark‐brown to black Messel oilshale. It became famous with the discovery of its extraordinarily well‐preserved fossils of Middle Eocene age, 47 mya. The spectrum of fossil specimen is unusually extensive and contains plants, insects, fishes, reptiles, amphibian, birds and mammalian fossils. Some insects are preserved with their structural colours and vertebrates can be found with complete and articulated skeletons and even with gut contents. Anaerobe bacteria trace hair, feathers and skin. Messel site enables a view to the evolution and radiation of mammals after the extinction of dinosaurs. The palaeoclimate for the Messel forest was proved by a flora which suggests an equable warm and humid climate with some seasonality. Messel site is unique for the lower Eocene and became United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World heritage site in the year 1995.

Key Concepts:

  • A natural catastrophe established the basis for the Messel maar; numerous water vapour explosions created a volcanic crater, where freshwater lake and oilshale developed.

  • Messel flora is interpreted as the remains of a warm and humid palaeoclimate with some seasonality.

  • Preservation of 7 pairs of turtles are the first records worldwide of fossilised copulating vertebrates.

  • The discovery of the oldest preserved anteater made it possible to reconstruct a connection to South America via Africa before the existence of the maar Messel.

  • Preservation of complete skeletons, including hair and feathers enable scientists to make statements to the individual strategies of vertebrate locomotion.

  • Gut contents in vertebrates and coprolites offer a unique opportunity to study feeding and food web.

  • Some insects like jewel beetles and leaf beetles are preserved with their structural colours, which give them an iridescent metallic hue.

Keywords: Europe; messel pit; oilshale; fossil vertebrates; fossil insects; fossil flora; preservation; Eocene

Figure 1.

Compound leaf of the walnut family Juglandaceae in the Messel oilshale. This family is today distributed predominantly throughout temperate to subtropical climates. Length 15 cm. Collection of Senckenberg Research Institut, Frankfurt am Main. Photograph: E. Haupt.

Figure 2.

Stag beetle of the family Lucanidae found commonly in Messel oilshale, with iridescent metallic hue. Length 52 mm. Collection of Senckenberg Research Institut, Frankfurt am Main. Photograph: E. Haupt.

Figure 3.

A small species of primeval horse, Propalaeotherium parvulum of Messel with a shoulder height of approximately 30 cm, approximately the size of a modern fox‐terrier. The stomach and intestinal contents, the black material below the pelvic bone and the ribs, are food remains consisting of leaves. This fossil was transferred from the oilshale into artificial resin. Collection of Senckenberg Research Institut, Frankfurt am Main. Photograph: E. Haupt.

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References

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Further Reading

Koenigswald WV and Storch G (1998) Messel – Ein Pompeji der Paläontologie. Sigmaringen: Thorbecke Verlag.

Schaal S, Brahm EE, Habersetzer J et al. (2004) Literaturübersicht und Schriftenverzeichnis zur wissenschaftlichen Erforschung der Fossilienfundstätte Messel. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 252: 243–245.

Schaal S and Ziegler W (eds) (1992) Messel – An Insight into the History of Life and of the Earth, p. 322. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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Schaal, Stephan(Nov 2012) Messel. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. http://www.els.net [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001626.pub3]