Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt

Messel Research and Mammalogy

The Department of Messel Research was created in 1993 as part of the Senckenberg Research Institute.


The primary objective of the department is the investigation and reconstruction of the Eocene Lake Messel and its surroundings by departmental employees and volunteers by way of  

  1. taxonomic-morphological examinations of the constantly expanding collection of vertebrate fossils
  2. research projects on phylogenesis, biostratigraphy, paleoecology, paleoenvironment, and paleobiogeography 
  3. the development of models of the history of the lake area and the structural genesis of the isolated geological pit-like formations, as well as of the lake sediments (the Messel Formation).

These objectives will also be implemented in the middle and long-term through collaborative projects with national and international colleagues.

The scientific work is attributed to the Senckenberg research areas Biodiversity and Systematics and  Biodiversity and Earth System Dynamics.  

Departmental Organization

Pursuant to the recommendation of the German Science Council, there are no strictly divided areas in this department. Instead, the department comprises three widely diverse sections that in structure and function are fluidly interrelated. Each section is administered by a scientific managerial position. The actual activities of these sections are manifested by work groups.

The fields of activity of the three sections are

  • Excavation and preparation; geology: Messel Research Station ( Dr. Wedmann/ Dr. Schaal )
  • Messel collections, documentation, and public relations: Senckenberg Research Institute and Messel Research Station (departmental director Dr. Schaal)
  • Paleobiology and vertebrate radiology: preparation support, micro X-rays, and microtomography in paleobiological and zoological investigations ( Dr. Habersetzer)

The department contains eight work groups, whose purpose is the creation of permanent organizational and human-resources structures into which short-term projects can be integrated (such as various interdisciplinary projects and the project forums of the Forschungsbohrung [Investigative Boring] 2001).

Work Group 1: Excavation and Preparation

The Messel Research Station engages up to ten student interns, who perform the excavation in the Messel Fossil Pit under the supervision of a scientist, preparators, and technical assistants. During excavation, basic data on specimens (such as spatial position and orientation) and data on unusual or distinguishing features are gathered and documented. Following temporary storage, the recovered and secured fossils (Insecta, Pisces, Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves, Mammalia) are prepared at the Research Station.

Messel (excavation)

Work Group 2:  Messel Geology

Boring and creating stratigraphic profiles, investigating stratigraphic, petrographic, and mineralogical features, and surveying and mapping of the Messel Formation and its surroundings all serve to answer various questions concerning the genesis and history of the fossil site up through its limnological aspects. Specimen quantity revealed during excavation is examined in relation to depth and lateral distribution. The fundamental structures related to the history of the lake area, its sedimentation, and its structural genesis are investigated.       

Messel (Investigative Boring 2001)    

More on the geology and the Investigative Boring [Forschungsbohrung] 2001 ...

More on boring outside of the Messel Fossil Pit ...

Work Group 3: Paleobiology

This work group is primarily involved with research projects on the paleobiology and taxonomy of mammals (bats, predators) and reptiles (snakes, lizards) in which locomotion and feeding habits in particular are investigated. The increased understanding of the individual groups and evidence of the interactions of the Messel fauna are used in reconstructing the Eocene Messel ecosystem. Information about the food chains in Lake Messel is obtained in part through limnological research projects (on the occurrences of particular insects in gastrointestinal contents and petrified excrement, or coproliths, of Messel fish, for example).  

Messel bats (flight biology)    

More on Messel bats

More on Messel snakes

Work Group 4: Digital Media

The application of digital image processing techniques (X-ray, SEM , digital documentation of finds) supports the constant expansion and refinement of the extensive image archives on Messel. The objective is to continue making use of new methods in interdisciplinary ways for paleobiological research projects. This group is charting new territory not only by animating purely virtual objects (for public relations, for example), but also by creating 3-D video "virtual flights" through real objects. (Upper pictures: trabecula architecture of a humerus; lower pictures: virtual flight through a cochlea; both created through extremely high-resolution micro-computertomography).  

screenshots of 3-D-animations (Messel) 

 Work Group 5: X-Ray (Roentgen) Applications

The X-ray work group comprises scientists involved in research projects on microradiographic (and recently also micro-computertomographic) analyses. For specialized applications of X-ray technologies in paleontology and zoology, often very complex techniques are developed in-house. In addition, preparators and technical assistants use X-ray images as an aid in preparing specimens as well as for documenting "embedded preparations" (where one side of the fossil is prepared and protected with artificial resin, while the other side is left embedded in the natural sediment).

Messel Credont (skull with X-ray insets)    

More on X-ray techniques

Work Group 6:   Documentation of Messel and the Fossil Collection

The task of this work group is the care of the Messel fossil collection (Insecta, Pisces, Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves, and Mammalia) of more than 15,000 specimens, as well as of the literature (the Messel library) and the research results in the form of publicly accessible databanks. The Department of Messel Research has a close working relationship with researchers in other Senckenberg departments (such as Paleobotany, Ornithology, and Mammalogy) and with scientists throughout and outside of Germany. In recent years, the numerous bird fossils have been the preferred specimens to be examined, X-rayed, and prepared at the Senckenberg Research Institute, resulting in many newly described bird groups. 

 More on Messel birds ...

More on Messel snakes


 Messel primitive horse (pregnant mare) 

Work Group 7: Public Relations

The Messel exhibit is regularly updated through recently discovered specimens and current findings in paleontology and geology. The present exhibit, for example, has been expanded with many new fossil specimens through the auspices of the "Aktion 1+1=3" program of the Metzler Bank and through the cooperation of private collectors. Further responsibilities of this group include giving tours of the Messel exhibit, the collection, and the UNESCO World Heritage Messel Pit Fossil Site; organizing special exhibits, lectures, and interviews; providing support for visiting film teams; working with the Messel Science and Culture Advisory Board; and being closely involved in the conceptualization and actualization of the Messel Visitors' and Information Center.       

Messel exhibition (Senckenbergmuseum)

More on the Messel exhibition ...

Work Group 8: Operations

The fossil site (an open-pit mine) and the Messel Research Station are operated according to federal mining regulations concerning the investigation of this natural heritage area and the accessibility of excavation sites. The primary operational tasks of this groups are: sump drainage and water treatment, the securing and surveillance of the slopes and cliffs of the pit, maintenance of the paths and fences, fire prevention (especially the control of smoldering fires), supervision of the area according to mining regulations, development of conditional, primary, and special operating plans, the commissioning of third-party services (such as water pumping), and the conception of the yearly excavation plans for ensuring smooth-flowing excavation and research activities.

Messel Pit Fossil Site (World Heritage monument)

Future Perspectives

  1. Regular excavation activities at the Messel Pit Fossil Site
  2. Paleontological and biological investigations of the Messel Formation
  3. Basic history of the lake area, its sediments, and its structural genesis
  4. Further cooperation with national and international scientific colleagues and institutions, including collaborating on research projects (for example, projects with the GGA Institute – the Leibniz Institute for Applied Geosciences – for the clarification of the structural genesis of isolated Eocene events in the Messel region)
  5. Continued development of micro-computertomography and 3-D technologies.
  6. Creation of multi-media materials and conventional fossil reconstructions for the Senckenberg Natural History Museum and the future Messel Fossil Pit Visitors’ and Information Center.