Ancient Deadly Lake Now Holds Incredible, 50-Million-Year-Old Fossils

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The Messel Pit, located about 22 miles southeast of Frankfurt, Germany, isn't much to look at, no more than a dull splotch of gray amidst a serene, earth tone landscape of rolling hills and densely packed trees. Locked within, however, is a menagerie of exquisitely fossilized life dating back 47 million years.

At this time, during what's called the Eocene Epoch, the pit was a small, yet surprisingly deep lake within a tectonically-active landscape. Scientists hypothesize that shifting earth intermittently triggered the release of concentrated gases that seeped out of the lake and enveloped nearby fauna. Rendered unconscious, these animals would fall in and slowly drift down through the oxygen-deprived waters to the muddy floor below, where compacting soil and vegetation slowly preserved them over millions of years.

Today, that soil and vegetation is now petrified oil shale. More than 150 years ago, this shale drew the attention of miners. Organized operations began in the 1900s, turning up a wealth of fossil finds in the process. When shale mining became uneconomical in the late 1960s, operations halted. The site was briefly considered for a landfill, but scientists and citizens spoke out loudly against it. Messel became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

Now safely reserved for scientists and the general public, Messel Pit has yielded tens of thousands of fossils in the past couple decades, including pygmy horses, insects, early primates, cat-like predators, rodents, and lots of fish, some so well preserved that you can make out their colors and fur. Here is a selection:

Xanthopimpla messelensis, a parasitoid wasp recently described in PLoS ONE.


Two individuals of the turtle species Allaeochelys crassesculpta, that apparently died while mating.


Paleoperca proxima, an early perch.


When Darwinius masillae, a very early primate, was revealed, its discoverers hailed it as a world-changing discovery. "This fossil rewrites our understanding of the evolution of will probably be pictured in all the textbooks for the next 100 years," co-discoverer Jorn H. Hurum said. Hurum's excitement was not mirrored by more skeptical scientists, who appreciated the unprecedented completeness of the find, but did not consider the species to be a "missing link."


A jewel beetle with the color of its exoskeleton remarkably preserved.

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