Exciting Discovery: Over One Hundred Genera of Eocene Fossil Plants | Paleontology

A survey of the extensive Middle Eocene fruit and seed collections at the Messel Fossil Site in Germany revealed 140 genera, representing more than 34 families of ancient seed plants.

A fossil hairy fruit with remains of light-colored secretions from the Middle Eocene of the Messel site (Collinson et al / © Senckenberg)

The survey results, published today in a 250-page monograph in the series Abhandlungen der Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschungshow that the Messel site had one of the most diverse floras in the world from the middle Eocene – the period between about 49 and 37 million years ago.

Dwarf horses, the primate Ida and jewel beetles – the spectacular finds from the Messel pit near Darmstadt are known worldwide. However, the plant fossils found 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, have described at least 140 genera of fossil plants. Seeds and fruits, as well as numerous leaves, flowers and pollen grains were recovered during excavations in previous decades but had not been studied in detail before.

“We found many remains of a diversity of flowering plants and some conifers,” explained Dr. Volker Wilde, head of the paleobotany section at SRI and lead author of the monograph. “More than 60 plant types could not be assigned to any known family – these are genuine new findings.”

A fossil moonseed fruit from the Middle Eocene of the Messel site (Collinson et al / © Senckenberg)

Ten of the described flowering plant families were previously unknown to the Messel pit, three genera were even first described 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 the wind, some depended on animals to spread them, while others developed explosive capsules to disperse 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,” said the paleobotanist. “Fruits and seeds in the digestive tract of vertebrates indicate that they were an important part of their diet. Tiny holes in the seeds also show that the famous Messel weevils also fed on certain plants.

The flora is also ideal for reconstructing the climatic and environmental conditions of the Eocene. After analyzing around 30,000 plant remains, the team suggests that there was a warm tropical climate with seasonal variations.

“We believe that the Messel Trough was surrounded by more or less tropical multi-storey rainforest, similar to those in regions of comparable climate today. We also identified a high proportion of lianas and several marsh plants – practically on our doorstep, it was a real jungle there at Messel 47 million years ago,” Dr Wilde said.

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Bibliographic information: Margaret E. Collinson, Steven R. Manchester and Volker Wilde. Fossil fruits and seeds from the Middle Eocene Messel biota, Germany. 2012, 251 pp, 2 figures, 3 tabs, 76 plates; ISBN: 978–3–510–61400–4