Monday, 19 September 2016

Snake eats lizard eats beetle: Fossil food chain from the Messel Pit examined

Date: September 7, 2016
Source: Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum

In cooperation with CONICET in Argentina, Senckenberg scientists examined a spectacular discovery from the UNESCO World Heritage site Messel Pit: A fossil snake in whose stomach a lizard can be seen, which in turn had consumed a beetle. The discovery of the approximately 48-million-year-old tripartite fossil food chain is unique for Messel; worldwide, only one single comparable piece exists. The study was recently published in Senckenberg's scientific journal Palaeobiodiversity and Palaeoenvironments.

It is no secret that the Messel Pit is home to a plethora of fantastic fossils -- but some of the findings are so sensational that they even awe veteran Messel researchers. "In the year 2009, we were able to recover a plate from the pit that shows an almost fully preserved snake," says Dr. Krister Smith of the Department for Messel Research at the Senckenberg Research Institute in Frankfurt, and he continues, "And as if this was not enough, we discovered a fossilized lizard inside the snake, which in turn contained a fossilized beetle in its innards!"

Fossil food chains are extremely rarely preserved; due to the excellent level of preservation at the fossil site, leaves and grapes from the stomach of a prehistoric horse, pollen grains in a bird's intestinal tract and remains of insects in fossilized fish excrements had previously been discovered at Messel. "However, until now, we had never found a tripartite food chain -- this is a first for Messel!" exclaims Smith elatedly. To this day, only one other example of such fossil preservation has been found worldwide -- in a 280-million-year-old shark.

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