By Brian Switek July 20
Prehistoric creatures aren’t exactly renowned for their table manners. Most dinosaurs, for example, were incapable of chewing and had to swallow their food whole. But some ancient eaters were messier than others. And in southwestern Germany, something especially sloppy left severed bird feet strewn about a dense fossil boneyard.
The Messel Pit is one of the greatest fossil sites in the world. Within stacks of 47-million-year-old oil shale is an unmatched record of life in and around an ancient lake. There are early mammals preserved down to their fur, pairs of turtles that somehow died in the middle of mating, dozens of plant species and more than 1,000 bird skeletons. It’s the closest paleontologists can get to actually walking through a humid Eocene forest.
Not all the Messel fossils are so dazzlingly complete, though. At least eight isolated bird feet have been pulled from the same stone. They were a curiosity, but mostly overlooked as experts focused on studying and describing birds that were more intact. But now Natural History Museum paleontologist Gerald Mayr has taken another look at the feet and come up with an explanation for how they became violently separated from the rest of the avians they once belonged to.