Aha experiences with "Urpferd 2.0
It is hardly possible to explore "Urpferd 2.0" at a gallop. The special exhibition at the Geological-Paleontological Museum of the LIB in Hamburg is too diverse and stimulating for that. The journey to the ancestors of our present-day riding horses invites visitors to join in the virtual reconstruction of a running prehistoric horse. Dr. Ulrich Kotthoff, exhibition director of the museum, in conversation:
What should horse lovers definitely know? How has the horse changed over millions of years?
First of all, there is no straight line of evolution to today's horse. In the course of about 50 million years of horse evolution, there were many side lines that are now extinct. The "primitive horses" like the Propalaeotherium rather resembled small tapirs. However, we can see a trend toward a reduction in the number of toes and toward larger and taller-legged forms in horses - this trend is related to the climate-induced spread of grasslands.
What do you think the exhibition does for paleontology?
It really illustrates very clearly the methods that can be used to obtain a very well-founded idea of an animal's shape and movement patterns from its fossilized remains.
Furthermore, it shows where researchers have to rely on - hopefully well-founded - guesses, for example in the case of coat color. We have already used "Urpferd 2.0" in paleontological teaching and were able to give our students a special "aha" experience.
I am very grateful to my colleagues at the Hessisches Landesmuseum Darmstadt for passing the exhibition on to us and also for supporting us in setting it up.
Do animations - as in the exhibition - have more of an entertainment value or do they also provide scientific insights?
That always depends on what the animations are based on. In the case of the special exhibition, Mr. Amir Andikfar and Mr. Jonas Lauströer as well as Prof. Dr. Dr. h.c. Martin S. Fischer succeeded in creating a convincing reconstruction of the Propalaeotherium based on a very well preserved fossil and taking into account further fossil finds and present-day animals. Such projects definitely have a high scientific value. I find it very good that besides reconstruction steps and the animations, you can also, for example, see sections of the excavation work and try out options for the animal's fur color yourself.
What makes the Messel Pit so important as a research site?
There are several great fossil sites for the Eocene, roughly the period between 56 and 38 million years before our time, but the Messel Pit is very special because of the large number and variety of species of fossils found there.
It gives us a very accurate idea of a complex ecosystem - from plants to insects to a wide variety of vertebrates - that is nearly 50 million years old. And since the climatological conditions back then could in some respects be comparable to our future, for example, as far as greenhouse gases are concerned, it is of course particularly exciting to study this ecosystem. However, one should not infer from this that man-made climate change will ensure that today's horse species will shrink again - that would be thinking a bit too simplistically. Unfortunately, humans intervene in ecosystems in very different ways.