A Journey to the Mesozoic at the Senckenberg Nature Museum, Frankfurt

An expedition through the museum's dinosaur displays

Giant moa Giant moaSenckenberg Nature Museum Frankfurt

The destination of this expedition is the Mesozoic, 252 to 66 million years ago. We will gain insights into the living organisms during this period of our earth’s history and get to know a few representatives of the groups of animals alive at that time: Dinosaurs, pterosaurs and marine reptiles. In the end, one question remains: Have all of the dinosaurs really gone extinct?

The Senckenberg Nature Museum Frankfurt ranks among the most important European natural science museums. With its rare and spectacular exhibits, it conveys the current diversity of life as well as the evolution of organisms and thus our earth’s transformation over millions of years. Since the dinosaurs lived more than 66 million years ago, all that remains of them today are fossils. Over millions of years, mineral deposits turned their bones into stone. Fossilized dinosaur bones are not common, and complete skeletons are found very rarely.

Dr. Johann Christian Senckenberg was a physician from Frankfurt. In 1763, he donated his fortune for the construction of a citizens’ hospital that allowed even the poor access to medical care. In his honor, the museum and the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung bear his name.

The Nature Museum in Frankfurt is owned and managed by the Senckenberg Gesellschaft für Naturforschung, which also displays nature’s treasures in two additional museums. But there is much more: it is one of the most important geological and biological research institutions, with worldwide research projects.

Dinosaurs are terrestrial reptiles and populated the earth during the Mesozoic era, approximately 252 - 66 million years ago. But not all of the prehistoric giants occurred at the same time. The Mesozoic is subdivided into three periods, during which different species lived and became extinct: The Triassic (252 - 201 million years ago), the Jurassic (201 - 145 million years ago) and the Cretaceous (145 to 66 million years ago). Besides the terrestrial dinosaurs, pterosaurs and marine reptiles also occurred during the Mesozoic.

LongneckSenckenberg Nature Museum Frankfurt

Diplodocus longus occurred in the late Jurassic period, 155 to 145 million years ago. It could reach a length of up to 28 meters, but weighed less than 12 tons. As a herbivore, it likely fed on a diet of horsetails, ferns and coniferous trees.

Tyrannt lizard Tyrannt lizardSenckenberg Nature Museum Frankfurt

Tyrannosaurus rex is among the largest predators of all times. It lived approximately 70 to 66 million years ago during the late Cretaceous. Its jaws contained teeth of various sizes. As in all dinosaurs, its teeth continued to regrow throughout the animal’s lifetime.

Three-horned-face Three-horned-faceSenckenberg Nature Museum Frankfurt

Triceratops horridus occurred during the late Cretaceous period, about 70 to 66 million years ago. It used its curved horny beak to clip off twigs, which it crushed in its mouth with rows of razor- sharp teeth. It is assumed that these animals lived in herds.

While dinosaurs populated the mainland, pterosaurs such as Quetzalcoatlus northropi ruled the airspace. These flying reptiles lived during the late Cretaceous, about 70 million years ago. With a wingspan of approximately 11 meters, Quetzalcoatlus probably glided low over the ocean to hunt fish.

While during the Mesozoic dinosaurs populated the mainland and pterosaurs the air, life under water was ruled by the marine reptiles. Like all reptiles, they also breathed through lungs and had to occasionally come to the surface to breath. In the ocean, there is a higher probability of fossil formation than on land. The dead animals are more quickly covered with sand or mud, and with a lack of oxygen at the ocean floor, even parts of the skin could become fossilized.

Ichthyosaur IchthyosaurSenckenberg Nature Museum Frankfurt

The extrication of fossilized marine reptile skeletons, such as this ichthyosaur skeleton, requires an enormous amount of patience. Ichthyosaurs occurred over a very long period of time, from approximately 250 to 93 million years ago, i.e., almost throughout the entire Mesozoic.

This 182-million-year-old ichthyosaur shows an excellent state of preservation. Due to the lack of oxygen and currents at the ocean bottom, the skeleton did not fall apart and we can even recognize the shape of the body: a so-called skin shadow reveals the petrified skin.

The marine reptiles of the Mesozoic constitute the descendants of various reptiles that formerly dwelt on land. Changes in their body shape from generation to generation eventually allowed them to assume an entirely aquatic lifestyle in the ocean. Relatives of these marine reptiles survive until today. For example, the skulls of the mosasaurs are very similar to those of the modern-day monitors.

PlacodontSenckenberg Nature Museum Frankfurt

This placodont is a true sensation: it represents world’s only complete skeleton of a Placodus gigas. The name Placodus (“flat tooth”) is due to its set of teeth that are shaped like paving stones. It lived during the Middle Triassic, approximately 235 million years ago.

This mosasaur, Tylosaurus proriger, lived about 85 million years ago during the late Cretaceous. With its large, pointy teeth it ate ammonites and fishes. Mosasaurs could reach a length of up to 10 meters and moved in a snakelike fashion through the water.

Scientists postulate that today’s living birds are the direct descendants of small, two-legged and carnivorous dinosaurs. This means that, strictly speaking, not all dinosaurs became extinct 66 million years ago but survived in the form of today’s avifauna. Thus, we can regard birds as feathered dinosaurs, and it is safe to assume that all of us have actually seen a real, living dinosaur at one time or another.

Giant moa Giant moaSenckenberg Nature Museum Frankfurt

Moa were flightless birds of New Zealand, which were presumably hunted to extinction by humans at the beginning of the 14th century. The Giant Moa (Dinornis giganteus) reached a height of up to 3.5 meters, with an estimated weight of up to 270 kilograms.

With a height of 2.75 meters and a weight of up to 150 kilograms, the African Ostrich (Struthio camelus) is the largest living bird and therefore also the largest living dinosaur. The flightless bird is able to run at speeds of up to 70 km/h.

Credits: All media
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