A survey of the extensive fruit and seed collections from the Middle Eocene of the Messel fossil site in Germany has revealed 140 genera, representing more than 34 families of ancient seed plants.
The results of the survey, published today in a 250-page monograph of the series Abhandlungen der Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung, show that the Messel site had one of the world’s most diverse floras of the Middle Eocene – the period between about 49 and 37 million years ago.
Dwarf-horses, the primate Ida and jewel beetles – the spectacular discoveries from the Messel pit near Darmstadt are known worldwide. However, the plant fossils from there are also unique.
A team of paleobotanists, including scientists from the Senckenberg Research Institute (SRI) in Frankfurt, the University of London and the Florida Museum of Natural History, described at least 140 genera of fossil plants. The seeds and fruits, as well as many leaves, flowers and pollen grains were recovered during excavations in the previous decades but they had not been studied in detail before.
“We have found numerous remains of a diversity of flowering plants and some conifers,” explained Dr Volker Wilde, Head of the paleobotany section at the SRI and senior author of the monograph. “More than 60 types of plants could not be assigned to any known family – they are genuine new discoveries.”
Ten of the described families of flowering plants were previously unknown at the Messel pit, three genera were even described for the first time for the Eocene.
“We are impressed not only by the large number of different plant families but also by the variety of dispersal strategies they had developed even at that time”, Dr Wilde said. “Some developed wings on their seeds and relied on wind, some depended on animals to spread them, while others developed exploding capsules to scatter their seeds over a wide area.”
“From the flora described we are also able to draw conclusions about the diet of animals 47 million years ago”, the paleobotanist said. “Fruits and seeds in the digestive tracts of vertebrates indicate that they were an important part of their food. Tiny holes in seeds also show that the famous Messel weevils also fed on certain plants.”
The flora is also ideal for reconstructing climatic and environmental conditions of the Eocene. Having analyzed around 30,000 plant remains, the team suggests that there was a warm tropical climate with seasonal variations.
“We believe the Messel pit was surrounded by a more or less tropical multi-storey rainforest, similar to those in areas with a comparable climate today. We also identified a high proportion of lianas and several marsh plants – virtually on our doorstep, it was a real jungle out there at the Messel 47 million years ago,” Dr Wilde said.
Bibliographic information: Margaret E. Collinson, Steven R. Manchester and Volker Wilde. Fossil Fruits and Seeds of the Middle Eocene Messel biota, Germany. 2012, 251 pp, 2 figs, 3 tabs, 76 plates; ISBN: 978–3–510–61400–4