Primeval crocodile attack in Messel

Fossil bird feathers are apparently leftovers from ruminants

Fossil bird feet from the pit Messel testify to crocodile attacks 47 million years ago. © Springer Heidelberg
Read out

Unpleasant Death: About 47 million years ago, large, land-living birds in the pit Messel probably ended up as prey of hungry crocodiles. Evidence of this is fossilized bird feet, which researchers have now examined and identified as food remains. The finds not only paint a picture of the predator-prey relationships of the former marshland. They also show that birdlife there was far more diverse than previously thought.

The pit Messel near Darmstadt is considered a paleontological treasury. Nowhere else in Europe have so many complete and well-preserved ancient fossils been recovered. About 47 million years ago, a tropical marshland, Messel offered optimal conditions for the preservation of even feathers, hair and soft tissues of many living things.

The oil shale is especially famous for sensational discoveries such as the over 70 specimens of the equine species Propalaeotherium and Eurohippus as well as the extremely well-preserved skeleton of an early primate. Birds are particularly abundant in the fossil treasure: over 1, 000 skeletons, petrified stomach contents and fossilized feathers are now in the collection cabinets of Gerald Mayr and his colleagues from the Senckenberg Society for Natural Research.

Attack from the water

The ornithologist has now devoted himself to eight previously unseen bird feet that have been found in the sediments of the UNESCO World Heritage in recent years. The condition of the only isolated limbs gave the researcher thereby clear evidence of how the animals found their end almost 50 million years ago: Apparently they fell victim to a robber.

The investigated fossils reveal that the species diversity of the birds was higher than previously thought. Springer Heidelberg

"The broken bones and the missing ends of the bird's legs on seven of the examined bones suggest that the birds were attacked and eaten, " says Mayr. He has also identified the probable deaths. Therefore, there is a lot of evidence of crocodiles, because to catch the relatively large birds, the ruffian must not be too small and big predatory mammals or Fish are not known from Messel. display

"But there are seven described crocodile species that lived in Messel Lake, " explains Mayr. Since the fossil birds were land-living animals, the reptiles probably caught their prey alive in the bank or flying deep above the surface of the water. Mayr suspects: The crocodiles grabbed the birds on one leg, which was then torn from the body, as the prey animals tried to flee.

Previously unknown species

What was bad for the birds is a good thing for the Messel researchers: the bones belong to relatively large animals and are therefore a rarity. So far, small birds have been identified in the Hessian fossil find site. "We do not have much evidence of larger birds", says Mayr.

However, the scientists are unable to determine exactly what types of fossilized remains are. For this, the bones are in too bad a condition. "Nevertheless, we can deduce from the fossils that these finds are new for Messel." According to Mayr, the bones belong, at least for the most part, to species that have hitherto been unknown to Messel.

The new discoveries show that the diversity of the local bird life was even higher than previously thought. For the researchers, this completes the picture of Messel's multifaceted bird fauna, which is comparable to today's fauna of the Neotropics, Madagascar and New Guinea. (Palaeobio Palaeoenv, 2016; doi: 10.1007 / s12549-016-0243-2)

(Senckenberg Research Institute and Nature Museums, 06.09.2016 - DAL)