Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt


The common frame for running and future projects at the Palaeobotanical Section in Frankfurt includes aspects of both, sedimentology/facies and systematic (palaeo)botany and may therefore be called “Terrestrial Palaeoecology”. This is a direct expression of an interdisciplinary tradition of Senckenberg palaeobotany between geo- and biosciences. Therefore, most of the actual research projects in Frankfurt consequently are a continuation and further development of traditional research programs at Senckenberg. The may be assigned to the following major subjects.

1. Paleogene

A major research focus of Palaeobotany at Frankfurt is actually on plant remains of Paleogene age and their sedimentological context, especially in Germany. Running projects are especially dealing with sediments of Eocene age in terrestrial and marginal marine settings, such as the lacustrine sediments of Messel and Eckfeld and the lignite mining districts of Helmstedt and the Geiseltal. For Eckfeld, there is a close cooperation with the Natural History Museum Mainz/State Collections for Natural Sciences Rhineland-Palatinate in Mainz which is running the excavations at the site and curating the material, and for the Geiseltal with the collections of the former Geiseltalmuseum in Halle (Saale). Projects include systematic work on individual taxa of fruits/seeds, flowers, pollen/spores, leaves and, sometimes, wood fom Messel and Eckfeld which is done in close cooperation with external experts and specialists (e.g., MARGARET E. COLLINSON, London, HERBERT FRANKENHÄUSER, Mainz, STEVEN R. MANCHESTER, Gainesville, Florida, USA). A monograph of the fruits and seeds from Messel should be mentioned here as a recent result of these studies. Present work mainly includes Juglandaceae, Nymphaeales, conifers, ferns and some selected taxa of unknown affinity. The pollen which is preserved in-situ in flowers at Messel and Eckfeld is used in another project as a base for comparisons with dispersed pollen taxa and may help in refining their systematic assignment.


Pollen of the grapevine family (Vitaceae )
from the Middle Eocene "oilshale" of Messel

The completion of systematic palynological studies at Eckfeld allowed for a reconstruction of the development of the lake and the vegetation in its surroundings by studying samples from a core (BIRGIT NICKEL). Later, OLAF KLAUS LENZ started similar studies on a research core from the Messel pit (Messel 2001) which were mainly supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG). Still ongoing analyses of the data include modern statistical methods. In a first step reconstruction of the re-occupation of the area devastated by the eruption ca. 48 Millio years ago by the vegetation became possible. Analyzing quantitative changes in the composition of the pollen and spores as recovered from the oil shale of the Middle Messel Formation clearly revealed orbital cyclicity as the driving force. This proves a surprisingly similar mechanisms for climate change in greenhouse and icehouse systems of the Cenozoic with the only difference in the scale of the changes. Furthermore, varve countings for the first time directly revealed ENSO-cyclicity for Eocene lacustrine sediments.

Another famous lagerstätte for the terrestrial Middle Eocene in Germany is the former lignite mining district of the Geiseltal near Halle (Saale). Prior to final flooding of the mining area five field campaigns were conducted here between 2000 and 2003 in close cooperation of the Section with the Geiseltalmuseum in Halle. They mainly served for securing data and samples of remnant sections spanning much of the middle Eocene land mammal stage “Geiseltalian”. Most of the >1500 individual samples and a number of plant fossils have not yet been studied and form a base for future research. The same is true for several thousand samples which have been collected in a number of sections in pit Schöningen Southfield of the Helmstedt lignite mining district. Altogether they span the time from the uppermost Paleocene to the middle Eocene and therefore include the critical episodes of the so-called Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) and succeeding climate excursions. Initial palynological studies already show interesting results with regard to climate and vegetation of the respective period. But, a great number of samples and some more sections still remain to be studied.

Cuticle with stomata from a leaf  from Middle Eocene coal of the Geiseltal

2. Mesophytic and the transition Mesophytic/Cenophytic

Work on material and outcrops of Mesozoic and, especially, Lower Cretaceous age is continued on a low level. The palynology of the Upper Triassic Kössen Beds from the orthern Calcareous Alps was successfully studied in a PhD-project by BJÖRN HOLSTEIN; the project was funded by the German Research Foundation (DFG). Systematic work on selected plant fossils of Triassic/Lower Jurassic and Lower Cretaceous age, including megaspores, is going on. Another long-term project is devoted to a stepwise revision of the flora of the NW-German Wealden-facies which is of Berriasian to early Valanginian age. Cooperation with the Palaeobotanical Section at Dresden and the Naturkundemuseum in Berlin has started on plant material from the upper part of the Lower Cretaceous of Brazil. Research on Lower Cretaceous material presently is mainly fed by material of the Senckenberg-collection.

Ginkgo-Gewächses Isoetes

Leaves of an extinct giinkgoalen from the NW German Wealden-facies (Berriasian, Lower Cretaceous)

Megaspore of an isoetalean lycophyte from the Barremian of  Brilon-Nehden (Sauerland)

 3. Palaeozoic

Most of the other scientists belonging to the Department for Palaeontology and Historical Geology have traditionally focussed their research towards the Palaeozoic, especially towards the Devonian of the Rheinisches Schiefergebirge. The pioneering studies of KRÄUSEL and WEYLAND on Devonian plant fossils, and of TIWARI and SCHAARSCHMIDT on Devonian palynology were part of this tradition. Following a recent re-organisation of the Devonian research group, palaeobotany and, especially, palynology became again included as an integral and important part of the ongoing interdisciplinary biostratigraphic and palaeoecologic studies of predominantly clastic successions. As a consequence, a new Section for Palynology and Microvetebrates of the Palaeozoic with RAINER BROCKE as head has been established and has taken over most of palynological research in the Era. The present studies in the Devonian include actuogeologic comparisons in cooperation with the Research Station at Wilhelmshaven. A major cooperation project of the Department including the Palaeobotanical Section is devoted to the Devonian of Turkey, especially the Devonian of the Taurids. It is jointly funded by the International Bureau of the BMBF on the German side and the TÜBITAK on the Turkish side. Further inner-departmental cooperation including the Section is directed towards the Lower and early Middle Devonian of the Eifel (W-Germany).


Aneurophyton germanicum

Aneurophyton germanicum KRÄUSEL & WEYLAND from the Middle Devonian of the Rheinisches Schiefergebirge


It should be mentioned here that there are some subordinate activities with regard to permineralized material from the upper Palaeozoic. They especially include exceptionally preserved silicified material of early conifers from the Lower Permian (“Rotliegend”) of Schöneck-Kilianstädten in the Wetterau near Frankfurt, but much remains to be done here as far as time allows.

5. Other

For some time the Section is now involved in cooperation projects with Organic Geochemistry. Some important studies have been carried out on the terpenoids of extant and fossil conifers from the Late Mesozoic and Cenozoic by ANGELIKA OTTO as a postdoc in cooperation with WILHELM PÜTTMANN (University of Frankfurt) and BERND R.T. SIMONEIT, Corvallis, Oregon, USA. They showed a great potential for terpenoids as specific biomarkers of the different conifer families in turn allowing for unraveling the botanical affinity of some extinct conifers and the origin of amber. Another project initiated in cooperation with WILHELM PÜTTMANN (University of Frankfurt) and STEPHAN HOERNES (University of Bonn) and funded by SPP 1054 dealt with the "Variation of chemofossils and stable isotopes in coals and plant remains from the Westphalian/Stephanian boundary of the Euramerican Carboniferous". One of the results was the recognition of cordaites as biological source for specific arborane/fernane derivatives in a PhD-thesis by STEPHAN AURAS. Presently cooperation started at the Schöningen section with RICHARD PANCOST (Bristol) and MARGARET E. COLLINSON (London) on organic-geochemical proxies for changes in climate and peat-forming environments within the Paleogene greenhouse phase.