By Bruce MacFadden
In June, I traveled for a week to southern Germany, which is a region famous for fossils and a long and rich tradition of paleontology. I was invited to give lectures at the University of Tuebingenon on fossil horses and our Panama project. The university is located in a beautiful college town of the same name west of Stuttgart. The university was founded in 1477, 15 years before Columbus discovered America. In the 19th century, this university was one of the first to have an academic program and to develop a museum for paleontology. In fact, the seminal concept about evolutionary sequences of fossils in sediments, or the study of biostratigraphy, was developed by Professor Oppel here in Tuebingen. Likewise, during this same era, Professor von Quenstedt of the same department published classic studies of the ammonites from the region (see drawings below). The geology department and paleontology museum where I was hosted have spectacular fossils. For example, there are many complete ichthyosaur skeletons on display (see photo) in the paleontology museum at Tuebingen. Some individuals have unborn embryos preserved inside the skeleton.
The surrounding region is also well known for classic Mesozoic outcrops and spectacular fossils from the Age of Dinosaurs. Some of the best examples of these come from the town of Holzmaden, where I also visited during my trip, thanks to an outing with my host Professor Dr. Herve Bocherens and his graduate student Martin Cotte. We visited two private museums that celebrate the 180-million-year-old Holzmaden fossils. We first visited the Fischer Museum, where in addition to exhibits, visitors of all ages are allowed to dig fossils right behind the museum. They can keep what they find and, judging from the enthusiasm of the kids (photo), this school group was having a great time.
Next we went across the street to the Hauff Museum. It has beautiful and educational displays explaining the geological succession of fossils in the region, a sequence of dioramas depicting the sequence of fossilization, and many exquisitely preserved specimens including complete skeletons of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, sharks, crocodiles, ammonites, and crinoids, to mention just a few.
Because of their exceptional preservation, the fossils from Holzmaden are world-famous. A fossil locality with exceptional preservation, including complete skeletons of many different species, is termed a Lagerstätte by paleontologists — which roughly translates to “mother lode.” Holzmaden is definitely elevated to this status and it was an honor to be able to see it and how the science of paleontology is celebrated at these museums and by the people of southern Germany. In closing, I also would like to take this opportunity to thank my host Professor Bocherens for the warm welcome that I received during my stay in Tuebingen.