Field trip to the Messel Pit, Germany, September 2, 2008
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Thomas A. Dillhoff, Everett, Washington
Cast of a primitive horse fossil (Propalaeotherum parvulum) and a model of what it might have looked like in life.
Worldwide, the Eocone epoch was warmer than today with warm temperate and tropical forests present across a large part of the earth. Latitudinal temperature gradients were smaller than in modern times which made for equable climates and low seasonality. The fossils at Messel provide evidence of a tropical climate at the time when sediments were laid down, in contrast to the temperate climate of modern Germany.
The Messel deposit was formed when freshwater sediments were deposited into a crater formed following a volcanic eruption. The sedimentary formation is more than 200 meters thick at the center of the deposit, and represents over one million years of deposition (Buness, et al., 2005). The diversity of plants and animals preserved at Messel is astounding, making it one of the most important fossil sites from the Eocene.
Plants and animals washed into the lake were often preserved in exquisite detail. Soft tissues, feathers, stomach contents, and even original pigments are sometimes seen. Great care must be taken to properly prepare and preserve the fossils, however. The oil shale has high water content, and will typically crumble as it dries. Because of this, preparation is a tricky business. Small fossils are typically placed in a container of glycerin to replace the water and prevent crumbling. Larger specimens are impregnated with epoxy resin, and the oil shale is completely removed. Details of the preparation techniques are described in Micklich and Drobek, 2007.
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