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26/07/2018 - Messel: Petrified Habitat

Frankfurt, 07/25/2018. Turtles that died while mating, more than seventy prehistoric horses, colorful iridescent insects, over 100 different plant genera, or “Ida,” the juvenile primate: The fossil specimens found at the World Heritage Site “Messel Pit” are globally unique. In the new Senckenberg book “Messel -  An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem” that was published today, 28 international scientists offer insights into this outstanding fossil site on more than 350 pages.

The Messel Pit almost ended up as a landfill – and Dr. Stephan Schaal, head of the Department for Messel Research at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum was among those who fought for the preservation of this unique fossil depository. “It is unimaginable what treasures we would have lost if the plans for a landfill had been pushed through 30 years ago! We pay a heartfelt tribute to all our comrades-in-arms who fought for its preservation and helped to keep this ‘window into geological history’ open for researchers and the public – honorary and volunteer fossil hunters, hundreds of interns, technical assistants and preparators as well as countless international researchers,” acknowledges Schaal in the preface to the new book.

 Following the publication of Senckenberg’s first Messel book (Messel – A Window into the History of the Earth and Life, 1988), thousands of additional exciting discoveries were unearthed at the fossil site and published in hundreds of scientific papers. These new results, together with much improved analytical methods since that time, were the reason for the new Senckenberg book. “Since Messel has gained a worldwide reputation by now, particularly in scientific circles, it seemed appropriate to simultaneously publish an English edition of the book,” adds paleoherpetologist Dr. Krister Smith.

 When the first fossil – a crocodile – was discovered in 1876, there was no indication that the open-pit oil shale mine in the Hessian community of Messel would one day become such a significant World Heritage Site. About 100 years later, Senckenberg commenced its research activities at the Messel Pit. Since July of 1992, Senckenberg also assumed control of the mining operation and founded the Department for Messel Research.

“The numerous, exceptionally well-preserved Messel fossils offer insights into an approximately 48-million-year-old ecosystem. At that time, the area was dominated by a greenhouse climate with high carbon dioxide levels, heavy precipitation, and a mean annual temperature of about 18 degrees – a condition that we are currently approaching once again due to the man-made climate change,” explains Schaal.

To date, the fossil site has yielded representatives of all major vertebrate groups as well as insects and plants – and scientific extrapolations suggest that it holds many yet undiscovered species. It can be assumed that several future generations will be kept busy exploring the fossil site.

“In the coming year – after a two-year hiatus – we hope to be able to resume or excavation activities in the Messel Pit,” offers Schaal as a preview.

A comprehensive overview of the geology and paleontology of the Eocene habitat can be found in the new Senckenberg book “Messel – An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem” that was published today. On more than 350 pages, 28 renowned researchers inform the readers about the origin of the Messel crater, color preservation in fossils, the Messel gecko, the evolution of echolocation, the ancestor of the hummingbirds, headless ant eaters, novel methods for analysis and preservation, the world-famous prehistoric horses, and much more. Over 390 illustrations (mostly in full color) not only make this book a standard volume for scientists but also paint a vivid picture of the bygone Messel world for fossil lovers and interested amateurs alike.


Dr. Krister Smith
Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum Frankfurt
Phone 069 7542- 1218

Dr. Stephan Schaal
Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museum Frankfurt
Phone 069 7542-1250

Judith Jördens
Press Office
Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung
Phone 069 7542- 1434

Publication (English and German)

English Edition:
Krister T. Smith, Stephan F. K. Schaal, Jörg Habersetzer (Eds)
MESSEL – An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem
2018, XV, 355 pp, 393 figs, 2 tables, 21 x 27.2 cm, Senckenberg-Buch 80
ISBN 978-3-510-61411-0, bound, 54.90 Euro
Stephan F. K. Schaal, Krister T. Smith, Jörg Habersetzer (Hrsg.)

MESSEL – Ein fossiles Tropenökosystem
2018, XV, 355 pages, 393 illustrations (mainly in color), 2 tables in full color, 21 x 27.2 cm, Senckenberg-Buch 79
ISBN 978-3-510-61410-3, bound, 44.90 Euro
Press copies available upon request!

Press Images

Stag beetle (Lucanidae), length 30 mm (incl. pinchers). Photo: Senckenbergg

Decomposed perch Amphiperca multiformes and current-dependent distribution of its scales and skeletal elements next to a complete specimen that was deposited later. Scale: 2 cm. Photo: Senckenbergg

Terrestrial frog Eopelobates wagneri with preserved soft parts in the torso area. Scale: 5 cm. Photo: Senckenberg

The Messel swift Scaniacypselus szarskii. Birds are the most species-rich group of vertebrates in Messel. Scale: 1 cm. Photo: Senckenberg

Skeleton of the “Hessian” prehistoric horse Propalaeotherium hassiacum. Scale: 10 cm. Photo: Senckenberg

Press images may be used at no cost for editorial reporting, provided that the original author’s name is published, as well. The images may only be passed on to third parties in the context of current reporting.
This press release and the images are also available at www.senckenberg.de/presse.


To study and understand nature with its unlimited diversity of living creatures and to preserve and manage it in a sustainable fashion as the basis of life for future generations – that has been the goal of the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung (Senckenberg Nature Research Society) for the past 200 years. This integrative “geobiodiversity research” and the dissemination of research and science are among Senckenberg’s primary tasks. Three nature museums in Frankfurt, Görlitz and Dresden display the diversity of life and the earth’s development over millions of years. The Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung is a member of the Leibniz Association. The Senckenberg Nature Museum in Frankfurt is supported by the City of Frankfurt am Main as well as numerous other partners. Additional information can be found at www.senckenberg.de.

Press contact

Dr. Sören Dürr
Tel.: 069 7542-1580

Judith Jördens
Tel.: 069 7542-1434
Mobil: 0172-5842340

Anna Lena Schnettler
Tel.: 069 7542-1561

Dr. Alexandra Donecker
Tel.: 069 7542 1209


Forschungsinstitut und Naturmuseum
Senckenberganlage 25
60325 Frankfurt


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