Eocene paleontological record of Messel Pit Fossil site


Ceropria messelense with 48 million year old structura

The darkling beetle Ceropria messelense with 48 million year old structural colours and a petal on one elytron. (Photo: Senckenberg).

Geological Period

Paleogene / Eocene (Ypresian – Lutetian)

Main geological interest

Stratigraphy and sedimentology


Geopark BergstrassOdenwald, Hesse, Germany.
49°54’46.0″N, 8°45’15.0″E

The darkling beetle Ceropria messelense with 48 million year old structural colours and a petal on one elytron. (Photo: Senckenberg).

The richest geosite in the world for understanding the living environment of the Rocene, as it includes exceptionally well-preserved fossils.

An inventory of more than 50.000 fossils (e.g. incl. > 45 mammal species, > 100 plant families, ca. 50 bird species and > than 80 insect species) exists. Complete fossils of animals provide a unique insight into an early stage of mammal evolution and diversification. For interpreting mammals, insects, plants and other organisms in “paratropical” ecosystems and in other (esp. holarctic) floras and faunas the Messel fossils are uniquely important. They allow the reconstruction of the behaviour and interactions of organisms and comprise a large number of holotypes. The UNESCO World Heritage Site Messel Pit is a flagship in geoscience popularization and in collaboration with Global Geoparks Network partners. Situated in the northern part of UNESCO Global Geopark Bergstrasse-Odenwald, both institutions collaborate since 2003 and by this are a best practice example of synergies across the UNESCO programme designations.

View from the visitor platform into the Messel Pit WHS, Germany, with its dark, fossiliferous oilshale. (Photo: Welterbe Grub Messel gGmbH).

The Eocene was an epoch in the evolution of life on earth, when mammals became firmly established in all the principal land ecosystems and took to the air (Vianey-Liaud et al., 2019; Schaal, 2020). The Messel Pit provides the single best site which contributes to the understanding of this period (Smith et al., 2018). The pre-eminence of Messel thus derives from its universal importance as a record of the development of the vertebrates. Messel is also exceptional in the quality, quantity and diversity of fossils. While most fossil vertebrate remains yield only fragments of bones, Messel offers fully articulated skeletons, the outline of the entire body as well as feathers, hairs and stomach contents (Wappler et al., 2015). Significant scientific discoveries have and are being made at Messel. Sauropsids, fishes, insects and plants all contribute to an extraordinary fossil assemblage. The finds cover the entire spectrum of the organisms in a biodiversity and quality hitherto unmatched by any other site. Furthermore, Messel is also the only fossil site of this status which remains truly preservable. The Messel Pit is a best practice example of collaboration between UNESCO entities in the long term (McKeever et al., 2014; Frey 2018).

The first scientific publication about the Messel Pit was published in the year 1876. Nearly a hundred years later, in 1975 the first popular scientific publication was made. Regular and continous scientific investigations started in 1965 by the Hesse State Museum in Darmstadt, followed from 1975 onwards by the Senckenberg Society for Nature Research, Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Scientific publications since 1968 started to skyrocket. The institutions continue their scientific investigations until now.

Geological map of Messel Pit (Grube Messel) in the middle of Sprendlinger Horst in the north-eastern Upper Rhine Graben (Photo: Grube Messel gGmbH).

Frey, M.-L. (2018) ‘Visitor Centre at the Messel Pit World Heritage Site—Platform for the greater public, science and World Heritage’, in R. Dornbusch, F. Hansell, and K. Manz (eds) Welterbe Vermitteln—Ein UNESCO Auftrag. Sächsisches Industriemuseum; IWTG/TU Bergakademie Freiberg, UNESCO Commission: Bonn, Germany. (Industrie-Archäologie, 19).

McKeever, P.J., Frey, M.-L. and Weber, J. (2014) ‘Global Geoparks and Geological World Heritage—A Case Study from Germany’, World Heritage, 70, pp. 34–40.

Schaal, S.F.K. (2020) ‘25 Jahre UNESCO-Welterbe Messel Pit Fossil Site’, in. (Senckenberg – natur forschung museum, 150), pp. 168–174.

Smith, K.T., Schaal, S.F.K. and Habersetzer, J. (2018) ‘Messel – An Ancient Greenhouse Ecosystem’. E. Schweizerbart‘sche Verlagsbuchhandlung. Available at: https://www.semanticscholar.org/paper/MESSEL-An-Ancient-Greenhouse


Vianey-Liaud, M., Marivaux, L. and Lehamnn, T. (2019) ‘A Reevaluation of the Taxonomic Status of the Rodent Masillamys Tobien, 1954 from Messel (Germany, Late Early to Early Middle Eocene, 48–47 M.Y.)’, Fossil Imprint, 75(3–4), pp. 454–483. Available at: https://doi.org/10.2478/if-2019-0028. Wappler, T. et al. (2015) ‘Specialized and Generalized Pollen-Collection Strategies in an Ancient Bee Lineage’, Current Biology, 25(23), pp. 3092–3098. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.09.021.

Pascal Schmitz
Welterbe Grube Messel gGmbH, Rossdörferstr. 108, 64409 Messel, www.grube-messel.de

Marie-Luise Frey
Welterbe Grube Messel gGmbH, Rossdörferstr. 108, 64409 Messel, www.grube-messel.de

Anne Koett
Hessisches Landesamt für Naturschutz, Umwelt und Geologie, Postfach 3209, 65022 Wiesbaden, www.hlnug.hessen.de

Torsten Wappler
Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt, Friedensplatz 1, 64283 Darmstadt, www.hlmd.de

Jutta Weber
Geo-Naturpark Bergstrasse-Odenwald, Nibelungenstr., 41, 64653 Lorsch, www.geo-naturpark.de

Sonja Wedmann
Senckenberg Forschungsstation Grube Messel, Markstr. 35, 64409 Messel, www.senckenberg.de\sonja-wedmann