National Geographic : 2000 Feb
By HILLEL J. HOFFMANN NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC EDITORIAL STAFF Photographs by JONATHAN BLAIR t takes 30 minutes to drive from downtown Frankfurt to the Messel pit, a bowl-shaped depression flanked by train tracks and a garbage-processing plant. The pit is quiet now. A handful of huts stand where bucket dredges and tracked vehicles once hauled out oil shale. A guard patrols a perimeter fence-the only clue that Messel still produces anything of value. Tens of thousands of fossils have been unearthed here. They've survived air raids (specimens were stashed at scattered locations during Allied bombings), poachers, and an attempt to convert the pit into a trash dump. In 1995 the pit earned the protection of the United Nations when UNESCO declared Mes sel a World Heritage site. At Frankfurt's Senck enberg Research Institute Stephan Schaal (right, holding a snake fossil) and Jorg Haber setzer are creating a digital catalog of the finds. Messel captures a critical moment in the history of life on Earth during the Eocene, or "dawn of new times." Europe was an island (map), and the mining pit was covered by a lake. A mass extinction had killed off dino saurs and thousands of other species 16 mil lion years earlier, clearing the way for the explosive diversification and dispersal of mammals. At Mes sel, paleontologists get their first good look at some of the new arrivals in their evolu tionary youth. Messel's horses, for example, look little like their living relatives. They're elfin leaf browsers-with multiple hoofs on each leg not yet adapted for life on the open plains. The Messel fossils are renowned for their state of preservation. Most fossils in Millions of years ago 75 A Extinction of Dinosaurs museums are assembled from isolated bones and teeth. To reconstruct an animal's diet, behavior, or posture, researchers rely on educated extrapolation. Not at Messel, where many fossils are found whole, in repose, as if the animals had curled up in the rock for a nap. Even soft tissues are sometimes preserved as dark outlines. Gerhard Storch, a paleontol ogist at Senckenberg, points to a fossil of a hedgehog-like mammal covered with coarse hair. "I feel like I'm working with living animals," he says, shaking his head in wonder, "not just old bones." JONATHAN BLAIR photographed fossils from the Devonian period for the May 1999 issue. 49 45 I Messel Fossils arq-llr-r;llcl"X"