04 December 2015

4. Grube Messel

The creodont Lesmesodon behnkeae
Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt
Location: Hesse, Germany
Formation: Messel Oil Shale
Age: Eocene (47 Ma)

A few million years and a hemisphere removed from Fossil Lake, another lakeside rainforest is preserved in a pit mine south of Frankfurt.  Messel is the fossil record's 9th Symphony: immediately recognizable, intensively studied, and sublimely beautiful.  All of the fossils uncovered here - be they plants, invertebrates, amphibians, reptiles,  or birds - are amazingly well preserved, often including soft tissue and detail down to the cellular level.  It is the mammals, though, that really steal the show.  These range from perissodactyls (including pregnant horses preserved with fetuses intact), to carnivores (and their creodont relatives, such as the Lesmesodon pictured here), to primates (such as the much-publicized Darwinius).  Small mammals that are often rare in the fossil record, including rodents, bats, and hedgehogs, are relatively common at Messel, and even some completely unexpected taxa, such as marsupials and pangolins, make an appearance.

Visit: The pit itself, a World Heritage Site, has an excellent visitor's center that can be easily visited as a day trip from Frankfurt, Darmstadt, or Heidelberg.
Fossils: Many museums around the world, especially in Europe, have a handful of Messel specimens.  The largest collections and most impressive exhibits are at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt and the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt.
Is there a book full of gorgeous fossil photos that I can gift to a paleontologically-minded friend?:  There is!  In fact, there are a couple, but one was published as part of a limited run in Germany, so it's a bit hard to find a copy (I can vouch for its being excellent, though).

This post is part of my 2015 Paleontology Advent Calendar, a series of vignettes on lagerstätten - sites of exceptional fossil preservation - that document changes in climate and environments through the Cenozoic.  You can see the other posts here.

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