Episode 160 – The Messel Pit

Listen to Episode 160 on PodBean, YouTube, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts!

One of the best fossil sites in the world is a former mining site in Germany. It preserves an exceptional record of an Eocene ecosystem, including thousands of exquisitely preserved fossil specimens. This episode, we discuss the history and discoveries of The Messel Pit.

In the news
Giant lacewing larvae stalked Jurassic waters in Mongolia
First fossil evidence that leaves could fold shut as early as the Permian
Giant and tiny theropod dinosaurs have diverse growth strategies
This ankylosaur had a surprisingly bird-like throat structure

An Extraordinary Pit

The Messel pit is a famous fossil locality in Germany, preserving many thousands of exceptionally well-preserved plant and animal fossils from the early Eocene, 47-48 million years ago. At that time, the pit was a large maar lake – a volcanic crater that filled in with water – surrounded by a near-tropical dense forest. The sediments that collected in the deep, oxygen-poor waters of the lake eventually became a deposit of oil shale filled with fossils.

Left: An outcrop of Messel Pit oil shale. Image by Wilson44691
Right: Fossils at Messel are often found by splitting slabs of oil shale. Image by Wilson44691

The first significant fossil discovery recorded from the Messel oil shale was the skeleton of an alligator-relative (Diplocynodon) excavated in 1875, but for many years, the fossils were not considered the main attraction of the site. Instead, the oil shale was a valuable mining resource. Before mining operations ended in the 1960s, millions of tons of rocks were removed from the Messel Pit. In 1995, the site became designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site due to its “outstanding universal value” as a resource for understanding Earth history.

The Fantastic Fossils of the Messel Pit

Vertebrate animals at Messel are often preserved as complete, articulated skeletons, and they commonly exhibit fine details such as scales, fur, and other soft tissues.
Top: The fish Palaeoperca. Image by Petter Bøckman.
Bottom: The turtle Allaeochelys. Image by Tila Monto, CC BY-SA 3.0
Some of the most famous fossils from Messel are early mammals, some representing entirely extinct groups, and others providing insights into the early evolution of familiar lineages.
Left: The early primate Darwinius. Image from Franzen et al, 2009
Top right: The hopping mammal Leptictidium. Image by Ghedoghedo, CC BY-SA 3.0
Bottom right: The ancient rodent Masillamys. Image by Gerbil, CC BY-SA 3.0
Birds and bats are both extremely common as Messel fossils. With their delicate bodies, these animals are typically poorly represented at most fossil sites, making Messel a valuable resource for understanding the evolution of these groups.
Left: The bird Messelornis. Image by Ghedoghedo, CC BY-SA 4.0
Right: The bat Palaeochiropteryx. Image by Tommy, CC BY 2.0
Even invertebrates are commonly well-preserved at Messel. These are often preserved as compressed remains between the layers of oil shale, similar to fossil leaves, which are also preserved well here.
Left: A fossil beetle. Image from Torsten Wappler, CC BY-SA 3.0
Right: The fossil spider Lutetiana. Image from Selden and Wappler, 2019, CC BY 3.0
To our delight, crocs and snakes are also represented at Messel by exquisite fossil specimens.
In fact, some of the most significant fossil snake research of the last decade has come from Messel.
Top: The alligator Diplocynodon. Image by Ziko van Dijk, CC BY-SA 3.0
Bottom: The snake Eoconstrictor (formerly Palaeopython). Image by Ghedoghedo, CC BY-SA 3.0

Some incredible Messel Pit discoveries:
Evidence of fungus-infected “zombie” ants
Turtles fossilized in the act of mating
Pregnant horse fossil
Structural coloration in fossil bird feathers
Bird gland preserved as soft tissue, including lipid molecules
World’s oldest fossil python
Live birth in a fossil snake
Three-in-one fossil: bug inside lizard inside snake

Learn more

The fabulous fossils of Messel
The evolutionary secrets within the Messel Pit
The Messel Pit – UNESCO

The recolonisation of volcanically disturbed Eocene habitats of Central Europe (technical, open access)

And just for good measure
Exquisitely Preserved Fossil Snakes of Messel (technical, open access)


If you enjoyed this topic and want more like it, check out these related episodes:

We also invite you to follow us on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram, buy merch at our Zazzle store, join our Discord server, or consider supporting us with a one-time PayPal donation or on Patreon to get bonus recordings and other goodies!

Please feel free to contact us with comments, questions, or topic suggestions, and to rate and review us on iTunes

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s