I love fossils. How can you not? The preserved remains of organisms no longer here. A glimpse into life so far back in time we can’t even begin to contemplate its vastness. Evidence that this was a real creature. Alive. Moving. Breathing. They really are incredible. What is even more incredible is that it’s extremely rare to become a fossil. An animal needs just the right conditions: to be quickly buried so no scavengers to pull apart their bodies, and fine sediment lacking oxygen so there are no worms or other critters in the mud to munch away at them.
That’s only the beginning. Once buried the body has to survive the intense pressure as tonnes and tonnes of sediment falls on top. After the body is replaced by minerals it’s not over. There’s the rocks being moved: pushed deep down, or thrust above land. The remains could easily be destroyed. With all this movement rocks will often heat up and melt, removing any evidence that life was preserved. If, eventually, the rock is finally exposed for a lucky fossil hunter to find it, there’s the risk that the rain or sun could destroy it first. There is an awful lot of luck involved whether or not an organism is fossilised. An awful lot.
Some scientists suggest that 99.9% of all organisms that have lived on Earth in the last 3 billion years have not fossilised. That’s an enormous number of animals and plants that have lived at some time in the past. What we see in museums is just a tiny fraction of life that was once here.
There are some fossil sites that give extraordinary views into the past. The Burgess Shale in Canada and Quingjiang site in China, preserve dozens of animals that swam in the seas when large life really began 540 million years ago. Rancho La Brea, in California provides a snapshot of the Late Pleistocene life in and around Hollywood. China is discovering beautifully preserved dinosaurs, lots with their feathers still showing. There is one fossil site that I remember seeing brought alive by David Attenborough’s Lost World series: the Messel Pits in Germany.
I was delighted to receive a new book all about Messel to review. When I tore open the padded brown envelope, I carefully pulled out the book, and flicked through the pages. I actually gasped. It was beautiful.
Edited by Krister Smith, Stephan Schaal and Jörg Harbersetzer, Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem is dedicated to the Messel Pits. These editors are all specialists who have worked for decades at the Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum in Frankfurt. The chapters are all written by experts from across the world, who are all leaders in their field in their certain topics. It was a little disappointing to see that only 5 collaborators out of 28 were women. A better balance would have been nice to see.
It’s split into easy chapters, about the site, the ecosystem, and the animals they have found. The title of the book, Messel: An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem, gives it away that it’s not really a book written for the general public. The text needs a lot of background knowledge, sentences are pretty long, and it’s not that welcoming to the non-expert. It’s not a popular science book. It’s not a quick-reference guide. And actually, that’s okay. Because it is a beautiful book. The non-expert can still learn a lot from it.
The Messel Pits are a pretty spectacular site. Near the little village of Messel in Germany, oil shale deposits have been mined since the 18th century. The first fossils were found in the late 1800s, and since then thousands have been excavated. Messel Fossil Pit became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995. And with very good reason. The fossils here are exceptional. They are so well preserved, the soft parts can be seen. Hair can be seen. Even the wings of flies can be seen.
Around 48 million years ago, collapsed volcanic craters formed deep lakes in the Messel area. Over around a million years the lakes filled up with sediments. These sediments are packed with incredibly preserved fossils. So well preserved because the sediment was very fine, and the bottom of the lake was deep enough that there was no oxygen, so there were not many animals living there to eat up any dead animals that fell down there. There are not just fossils of freshwater animals like fish and turtles, but lots of land animals too, from insects to monkeys. With so many land and water animals being found in the sediments, it looks like the collapsed volcanoes were still a little active, and their rumbling insides released gas (like carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide), which suffocated the animals.
I love how the book chapters take you through the different groups of animals and plants that have been found. Not only are the photos of the fossils some of the sexiest photos you will ever see, but they show you how incredibly rich life was here 48 million years ago. The insects are spectacular. With images and detail, we discover giant ants, weird flies, and stunning jewel beetles. The reptiles are unreal, with exquisite detail of their skeletons. And the mammals are just spectacular, clearly showing the outline of the fur. Even if you just got the book for the photos of these remarkable creatures, it would be more than worth it.
The book isn’t a coffee table book full of beautiful photos. It brings together all the research from the study of the incredible finds. The history, the delicate, painstaking preparation of the fossils, the most up to date discoveries are all included in this book. X-rays, 3D scans, reconstructions all help to place these extinct creatures on the tree of life.
All the amazing fossils that have been found here show us what life was like here 48 million years ago. It was an incredibly rich ecosystem. In the forests alongside the lakes, there were early horses, giant ants, crocodiles, snakes, bats, monkeys and so many more species. It was an environment as rich as a tropical rainforest is today. This unique site lets us look in unbelievable detail at what life was like here 48 million years ago. This book gives so much detail about life here, you can’t help but be transported back in time.
Written by Jan Freedman (@JanFreedman)
Smith, K. T., Schaal, S. F. K., & Hebersetzer, J. Eds. 2018. Messel: An ancient Greenhouse ecosystem. Senkenberg. [Book]