The fossil treasure chest that was home to ‘missing link’ Ida


When the 47million-year-old fossil dubbed ‘Ida’ was revealed to the world, attention soon turned to the anonymous German shale pit where it was first unearthed.

The astonishingly well-preserved remains of the primate-like animal could prove to be the so-called ‘missing link’ which would help prove Darwin’s theory of evolution.

But Ida is just one of thousands of fossils recovered from the Messel pit. It is a disused quarry near the village of Messel, about 20 miles south-east of Frankfurt. Bituminous shale was mined there, but because of its plethora of fossils, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995.

Yet it is the richest fossil site in the world for understanding the early development of mammals – and therefore ultimately man himself.

‘Ida’: The discovery of the fossil could prove Darwin’s theory of evolution

Anonymous: The Messel shale pit was declared a World Heritage Site in 1995. Ida was discovered there in 1983 and held by a private collector before being sold this year for $1million

A small bird found at Messel near Darmstadt, shows how well its feathers and body tissues have been preserved


Although mammals only make up two per cent of the total finds, 45 species have been uncovered in the pit.

They include animals resembling primates, horses, marsupial possums, tapirs, rodents, bats and hedgehogs. There are also 43 species of birds, 31 species of reptiles and more than 10,000 fossil fishes.

The pit reveals a snapshot of the Eocene Epoch 48million years ago.

This was a time when mammals became firmly established as the rulers of the land, invaded the seas as whales and took to the air as bats. During the period North America, Europe and Asia were in continuous land contact.

Many of the pit’s fossils are exceptionally well preserved. Usually only  fragments of bones are found but Messel has yielded up full skeletons and the outlines of entire bodies as well as feathers, hair and even stomach contents.

Hyrachyus minimus is an extinct grazing mammal. It was a 5ft long beast suspected to be the ancestor of modern tapirs and rhinoceroses

A paleontologist shows off a fossillised fish embedded in a piece of slate

The fossil Amia kehreri from Messel measures 8.9″ long. Fins and vertebra can be seen


The ancient lake basin is currently 180 feet deep but the oil shale bed extends some up to 380 feet deeper.

It would once have been surrounded by lush sub-tropical forests supporting an incredible diversity of life. The Messel lake bed was probably a centre point for drainage from nearby rivers.

Oil shale would have formed over a long period from mud and dead vegetation the lake bed. The lake bottom had low oxygen levels and was little disturbed by currents, so it was ideal for preserving fossils.

Scientists believe Messel was once in a tectonically active region with sub-surface shifts releasing deadly gases that killed organisms in and around the lake. This would account why there are so many non-aquatic fossils among the remains.

Animals like this giant beetle fell into the lake which existed at Messel about 48 million years ago, sank to the bottom and settled in soft mud that was eventually to become a bed of slate


Well-preserved: An extinct species of horse discovered in the pit.

A Diplocynodon darwini, an extinct alligator, was completely removed from the oil shale and resin mix for display

Unfortunately many of the precious remains were lost during 1884 and 1971 when the site was actively mined for the oil inside the bituminous shale. The first fossil of a crocodile was discovered in 1875 but formal excavation did not begin until 1919.

It was not until 1966 that systematic excavations were carried out and the remains preserved by a ‘transfer’ technique, with resin applied to the removed fossils. But after 1971 hundreds of amateur fossil-hunters – many not properly equipped – were allowed to dig at random on the site.

Over the next two decades a number of precious fossils, including the impressive Ida, were removed by private collectors. In the early 1990s the pit narrowly escaped being turned into a landfill site.

Thankfully the area was eventually declared a natural world heritage site in 1995 and an amnesty on previously collected fossils was put into effect to get privately owned collections back into public ownership and available to science.

Digs by Darmstadt University are ongoing and experts hope the Messel pit still has plenty more fossil treasures to yield up.

Allognathosuchus, an extinct ancestor of alligators and crocodiles. It had stout jaws and bulbous teeth probably for crushing molluscs


The Masillamys beegeri was an early rodent with a 20cm long body and 20cm long tail. The short legs suggest a springy form of movement. Four rodents have been unearthed

A bat from the Eocene Era which was a crucial period in the early development of mammals




Plenty more Cool Stuff

5 Responses to “The fossil treasure chest that was home to ‘missing link’ Ida”

  1. This fossils looks alive and they give us the existence of them on the earth

  2. It is really amazing how well preserved some of those fossils are!

  3. The article is usefull for me. I’ll be coming back to your blog.

  4. Janice Holland says:

    I’m reading Link right now. Thank you for the pictures of the physical setting and other fossils. It’s amazing to me that this piece of our Earth moved so far from its original location while taking these creatures along for the ride.

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