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09/05/2012 - The Rhine: Five millions years older than first thought

Frankfurt am Main / Tubingen, 16.05.2012. Scientists at the Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoecology (HEP) at the University of Tubingen and the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt have examined the age of the Rhine based on fossils. They have discovered that the river is five million years older than previously believed. The accompanying study is published today in the specialist journal “PLoS ONE”.

Fossil antlers of the deer Paradicrocerus elegantulus
– sign of the beginning of the mid-Miocene
 © Senckenberg

The Rhine is not an unknown entity in Europe – on its journey to the North Sea it flows through Switzerland, Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. In addition, the catchment area of the river, which is around 1,233 kilometres long, also encompasses almost all of Luxembourg as well as small parts of Belgium, France, Lichtenstein and Italy. Yet as famous as the river may be, its original age is still disputed. 

“Up to now it has been assumed that the Proto-Rhine is around ten million years old,” explains Prof. Madelaine Böhme, leading author of the study and head of the HEP working group “Terrestrial Palaeoclimatology”, and continues: “But based on our examination of fossils from a site near Sprendlingen we now believe that the river is at least five million years older.”

Geweih Zeichnung
Sketch of a fossil antler section © Senckenberg

The mammalian fossils in the Sprendlingen and Eppelsheim areas have been considered for 200 years by vertebrate palaeontologists to be the yardstick for the Neogene – the time span between 23 million and around 2.5 million years ago. The sites became famous around the world for the first ever discovery of a fossil ape (1822) and the first scientific descriptions of 19 large mammal species in the early 19th century.

The allocation of a time period to the Deinotherium sands that were found there – which contain numerous other fossils along with the teeth and bones that provided the name of the proboscidean – has often been the subject of scientific debate. 

Irrigation system of the large central European
rivers 15 million years ago (mid-Miocene) © Senckenberg

“For this reason we examined a new sample with over 300 mammalian fossils, leaves and fossilized wood. In the process we found the teeth and bones of different deer species that lived in Central Europe at the beginning of the Middle Miocene – in other words, in the period between 14 and 16 million years ago, “ explains Böhme. “The results of the examinations of fossil plant residues that were found above and below the mammalian sites reinforce our conclusions.”

The results have immediate consequences for the understanding of the development of the Main Basin and the Upper Rhine dig in geological history. Because the findings were made in the oldest known deposits of the Rhine, it must also be at least five million years older.

The conclusions of the Senckenberg scientists have an impact upon the entire chronological categorization of the flora and fauna of the Middle to Late Miocene – this, despite the fact that until now the sites near Sprendlingen had been a timing determinant for palaeontologists only. 

Prof. Dr. Madelaine Böhme
University of Tubingen
Department of Earth Sciences
Senckenberg Center for Human Evolution and Palaeoecology (HEP)
Tel.: 0151-22385151

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Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung
Judith Jördens
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Madelaine Böhme, Manuela Aiglstorfer, Dieter Uhl, Ottmar
Kullmer (2012): The Antiquity of the Rhine River: Stratigraphic Coverage of the Dinotheriensande (Eppelsheim Formation) of the Mainz Basin (Germany), PLoS ONE, http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0036817

The research of life forms in their diversity and their ecosystems, climate research and geology, the search for past life and finally the understanding of the entire earth/life system – that is what the SENCKENBERG Gesellschaft für Naturforschung works towards. Exhibitions and museums are the windows to natural history research, by which means the Senckenberg shares the latest scientific knowledge with the public and provides an insight into past ages and the diversity of nature. More information is available at www.senckenberg.de.

The research focus of the University of Tubingen, founded in 1477, includes: integrative neurosciences; translational immunology and cancer research; microbiology and infection research; molecular biology; language and cognition; media and education; geo- and environmental research; archaeology and anthropology. The University of Tubingen has almost 26,000 students from Germany and abroad. 400 professors and over 4,000 scientists teach and research in seven faculties. At present there are five special research areas, six special research areas Transregio,  five graduate colleges and the excellence cluster: the Werner Reichardt Centre for Integrative Neurosciences (CIN) at the University of Tubingen. More information at: www.uni-tuebingen.de

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