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.



Collinson ME (1986) Früchte und Samen aus dem Messeler Ölschiefer. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 85: 217–220.

Collinson ME, Manchester SR and Wilde V (2012) Fossil fruits and seeds of the Middle Eocene Messel biota, Germany. Abhandlungen Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung 570: 1–251.

Franzen JL, Gingerich PD, Habersetzer J et al. (2009) Complete primate skeleton from the Middle Eocene of Messel in Germany: morphology and paleobiology. Plos One 4(5): 57231–57227 Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005723.

Franzen JL and Michaelis W (eds) (1988) Der eozäne Messelsee – Eocene Lake Messel. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 107: 1–452.

Goth K (1990) Der Messeler Ölschiefer ein Algenlaminit. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 131: 1–143.

Joyce WG, Micklich N, Schaal SFK and Scheyer TM (2012) Caught in the act: first record of copulating fossil vertebrates. Biology Letters doi:10.1098/rsbl.2012.0361.

Lutz H (1992) Giant ants and other rarities: the insect fauna. In: Schaal S and Ziegler W (eds) Messel – An Insight into the History of Life and of the Earth, pp. 53–67. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Mayr G (2000) Die Vögel der Grube Messel – ein Einblick in die Vogelwelt Mitteleuropas vor 49 Millionen Jahren. Natur und Museum 130(11): 365–378.

Mayr G (2006) Fine feathered fossils of the eocene – the birdlife of Messel. Vernissage, Series UNESCO World Heritage Sites 13(21): 38–43.

Mertz D, Harms FJ and Gabriel G (2004) Arbeitstreffen in der Forschungsstation Grube Messel mit neuen Ergebnissen aus der Messel‐Forschung. Natur und Museum 134(9): 291–293.

Micklich N (2002) Die Ichthyofauna des eozänen Messelsees – Besonderheiten und paläoökologische Implikationen. Schriftenreihe der Deutschen Geologischen Gesellschaft 21: 240–241.

Morlo M, Schaal S, Mayr G and Seiffert C (2004) An annotated taxonomic list of the Middle Eocene (MP11) vertebrata of Messel. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 252: 95–108.

Schaal S and Schneider U (1995) Chronik der Grube Messel. Gladenbach: Verlag Kempkes.

Schaarschmidt F (1992) The vegetation: fossil plants as witnesses of a warm climate. In: Schaal S and Ziegler W (eds) Messel – An Insight into the History of Life and of the Earth, pp. 27–52. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Schulz R, Harms FJ and Felder M (2002) Die Forschungsbohrung Messel 2001: Ein Beitrag zur Entschlüsselung der Genese einer Ölschieferlagerstätte. Zeitschrift für angewandte Geologie 4: 9–17.

Storch G (1990) The Eocene mammalian fauna from Messel – a paleobiogeographical jigsaw puzzle. In: Peters G and Hutterer R (eds) Vertebrates in the Tropics, pp. 23–32. Bonn: Museum Koenig.

Storch G (1992) The mammals of island Europe. Scientific American 226(2): 64–69.

Wedmann S (2005) Annotated taxon‐list of the invertebrate animals from the Eocene fossil site Grube Messel near Darmstadt, Germany. Courier Forschungsinstitut Senckenberg 255: 103–110.

Wedmann S, Bradler S and Rust J (2007) The first fossil leaf insect: 47 Million years of specialized cryptic morphology and behaviour. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the USA 4: 565–569.

Wilde V (2006) The green eocene – the diverse flora of a paratropical climate. Vernissage, Series UNESCO World Heritage Sites 13(21): 14–19.

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.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Schaal, Stephan(Nov 2012) Messel. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0001626.pub3]