Messel Fossils

Konservat-Lagerstatte means literally 'conservation warehouse' and is a term given by palaeontologists to a site of exceptional fossil preservation. Messel has yielded abundant fossils with soft tissue preservation, including hairs, feathers and stomach and intestine contents. This tells us something about the feeding habits, ecology and environment of the Messel floras and faunas.

Organisms are believed to have entered the lake by transport down rivers and by wind. This rainforest-enclosed lake also attracted mammals and reptiles to its shores, which drowned or were suffocated by the CO2 released by intermitent turnover of the lake bottom.

Algae - Species like Tetraedron and Botryococcus are believed to have used the lake's higher plants (eg. Messel 'waterlilies') as a substrate. Death and subsequent decay of seasonal algal blooms is thought to be one cause of the lake bottom's low oxygen conditions.

Bacteria - Clostidia is an anaeorobic heterotroph, present today in similar environments, which could have been responsible for the mapping of the soft tissues. It is not yet known whether the internal structures of bacterial cells are preservable. They are petrified (turned to mineral) by their own CO2 production combined with precipitated Fe from nearby weathered rocks.

Fishes - There have been over 10,000 fossil fishes found at Messel, 100 times the numbers of birds and reptiles recovered. The specimens are mostly from high in the water column and this indicates that the water column was stratified.

Reptiles and amphibians - Snakes, crocodiles, turtles, frogs, lizards and salamanders have been found. Specimens are whole and articulated, compared to the many broken specimens from other Tertiary fossil localities, because the deep bottom is so undisturbed.


Palaeopython sp.

Insects and Spiders - Because the colour of insect cuticles is mediated largely by refracted light and is not organic pigmentation, fossils still show spectacular colours and patterns. Flying insects are in superabundance and are, like the bats and bird (see below) thought to have been poisoned by the atmosphere over the lake, enclosed by the dense forest. Water dwelling insects are not so abundant; those present are thought to have been transported in via rivers. Cuticles have, however, been found in fish coprolites and in snake and other insect digestive tracts. Scales from moth wings are also known to have been preserved. Because the environment is a tropical/subtropical rainforest the number of insects species present is expected to be in the thousands. Spiders and crustaceans (whose cuticles are also found in coprolites) are rare.

Mammals - Mammals make up only 2% of the fauna, the rest being mainly insects and fishes. Fossils include hoofed mammals, like the Messel horse, Propalaeotherium (of which over 70 have been found), and arboreal rodents and primates. Leaves and fruits have been found in their Propalaeotherium's gut, indicating that they foraged on the ground for their food. They have aslo been found containing embryos at different stages of development. Most are preserved in a relaxed position, indicating either drowning (this subtropical lake was possibly prone to flooding) or by suffocation by the release of CO2, hydrogen sulphide and ammonia from the lake bottom. This CO2 release if also thought to be responsible for the high numbers of bats and birds found. The morphology of Palaeochipterygidae indicates that these bats were low fliers, and they are believed to have died while swooping over the lake to catch insects. Higher flying bats (Hassianyetyerididae) are present but not in such high abundance It has been suggested that preservation of some specimens is so good that they may be used in studies of bat sonar systems.

Propalaeotherium sp. 'Messel Horse'

Messel Bats - Wings folded back in diving/falling position

Birds - As explained above, birds are thought to be abundant since they literally fell out of the sky as they flew over the lake. Preservation is extremely good, with bacteria mapping even single barbules on feathers. Feather pigmentation is also possibly preserved in a specimen of Araeotrogoridae. In the Eocene there were no large predatory mammals and large birds, like Diatryma (figured below) were top of the terrestrial food chain.

Bird with Feathers & Diatryma

Plants - Lake Messel was situated in a dense rainforest, shown by the presence of preserved plant material, including palm leaves, fruits, wood, pollen and some water plants. Transformation of original cuticle chemicals is thought to be the source of high amounts of kerogen in the shale.

Sponges - Collagen fibres and spicules of fresh water sponges have been found.

Food chain

This simple foodchain has been infered from fish intestine contents, coprolites (poo) and comparisons with modern ecosystems. It is thought that, for long periods of time, the upper part of the water column was oxygenated and organisms were able to live and feed here.

5th Level Consumers: Crocodiles, Mammals

4th Level Consumers: Adult Fish

3rd Level Consumers: Small Fish

2nd Level Consumers: Insects eg. Hetroptera

1st Level Consumers: Grazing Insects eg. Trichoptera

Primary Producers: Algae eg. Tetraedron

Substrate: Messel 'Waterlilies'

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