Research lines and projects

The more than 20,000 macrofossils discovered in 150 years of research - especially the fish, marine reptiles, bivalves, ammonoids, crustaceans and calcareous algae, but also terrestrial reptiles, insects and plants transported from the mainland or islands into the sea - allow us to more precisely reconstruct both the marine and terrestrial environments that were present between 239 and 243 million years ago along the coastline of the western Tethys.

Although the focus of past studies has mostly been on the reptiles, fish and larger invertebrates (i.e. the macrofossils), the current use of electron microscopes allows us to study in detail microfossils such as radiolarians, foraminifera or even bacterial communities, which give us important information about the condition of the marine environment at the time. These micro-palaeontological techniques also allow the study of pollen and spores, which provide important clues on the development of vegetation on land and climate.

Through sophisticated methods of radiometric dating, it is also possible to determine with extreme precision the age of volcanic ashes and the time that elapsed between events. This allows, for example, the estimation of the time it took for the evolution of a given group or species, an aspect particularly relevant for Monte San Giorgio, which has a nearly five million years sequence of fossil-bearing rocks.

The paleontological research in progress at Monte San Giorgio is therefore based on a strong interdisciplinary approach, involving a combination of several very different fields of study, such as sedimentology, geochemistry and palynology. The focus of studies is no longer on only individual fossils, but instead the entire association of fossil specimens, thus allowing the refining of chrono- and biostratigraphy and new palaeoclimatic and palaeoecological reconstructions of the Middle Triassic.

In addition, over the last twenty years, new vertebrate fossils have been discovered in the Triassic of south China (the provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan and Anhui), which are closely related to the animals found at Monte San Giorgio. The fossils collected date back to intervals of time older still, but also younger , than those at Monte San Giorgio, suggesting that the origin of many species of reptiles and fish known in Europe might have been at the eastern edge of the Tethys Ocean, approximately 6,000 km to the east.

Paläontologisches Institut und Museum der Universität Zürich

From 1994 to 2005, time-limited fossil excavations were carried out at different locations within the Meride Limestone. These excavations were conducted under the direction of Heinz Furrer and in cooperation with the Museo cantonale di storia naturale di Lugano. The material excavated from the Kalkschieferzone of Val Mara near Meride in 1994 has been prepared and scientifically described (Bürgin 1995: fish; Furrer 1995: stratigraphy, facies and palaeoecology). It is now housed in the Museo cantonale di storia naturale di Lugano.

Material from excavations in 1995 and 1996 in the Cava inferiore beds, and between 1997 and 2005 in the Cava superiore beds of Acqua del Ghiffo near Crocifisso is far more extensive. While the majority of specimens have been prepared, the material has not yet been fully studied. However, some results of detailed stratigraphic, sedimentological, facies, taphonomic and palaeoecological studies have been published by Furrer (1999), Bürgin (1999) described the new fish discoveries and Hänni (2004) the remains of a juvenile Ceresiosaurus calcagnii. The remaining fossils are still being processed, including examples of Neusticosaurus, Ceresiosaurus, other fish, crustaceans, bivalves, gastropods, calcareous algae, insects and land plants. The most visually attractive objects to date are displayed in the Museo cantonale di storia naturale di Lugano or in the Museo dei fossili in Meride.

Since 1998, some fossil groups from the old collections of the University of Zurich have been re-studied in terms of their morphology and histology. For example, the fish: Acrodus georgii (Mutter 1998), Colobodontidae (Mutter 2004), Birgeria stensioei (Romano & Brinkmann 2009), Eosemionotus ceresiensis (Bürgin 2004), Saurichthys (Wilson et al. 2013, Maxwell et al. 2013, 2015, Scheyer et al. 2014, Argyriou et al. 2016) and Ticinolepis (López-Arbarello et al. 2016); the reptiles: Mixosauridae (Brinkmann 1998, 2004), Mixosaurus (bone histology, Kolb et al. 2011, Houssaye et al. 2014), Ceresiosaurus (Hänni 1998, 2004), Nothosauridae and Pachypleurosauridae (bone histology, Hugi et al. 2011, 2012), Askeptosaurus (Müller 2005), Cyamodus (Scheyer 2010) and Rauisuchia (Scheyer & Desojo 2011). Additionally, taphonomic studies on Pachypleurosauridae (Beardmore et al. 2012, Beardmore & Furrer 2016), ichthyosaurs (Beardmore & Furrer 2015) and Tanystropheus (Beardmore & Furrer 2017), an animation of the function of a conodont apparatus (Goudemand et al. 2011) as well as a study regarding the bivalve genus Daonella (Schatz 2005) have been undertaken. Other related projects have investigated sedimentology and palaeoecology (Röhl et al. 2001), and stable isotopes (Sharp et al. 2000).


Scientific activity and projects, finished or in progress:

Museo cantonale di storia naturale di Lugano

Since 2006, the Museo cantonale di storia naturale di Lugano has undertaken new excavations in the Meride Limestone, more precisely in the Cassina beds, Kalkschieferzone and Sceltrich beds. The latter is a newly discovered fossiliferous level at the base of the upper Meride limestone not studied previously, which is particularly rich in fish, invertebrates and plant remains.

The new excavations have been carried out through the collaboration of several academic institutions, and museums in Switzerland and abroad, as part of a specific research platform that has resulted in a formal cooperation among these institutions. Currently, the Museo cantonale di storia naturale di Lugano holds a dual role of research study, while simultaneously coordinating integrated scientific research (geochronological, biostratigraphic, sedimentological) on the entire Middle Triassic section.

In addition to the study of new fossils that have emerged from the excavations (vertebrates, invertebrates, plants), research has focused more specifically on the absolute geochronology of the Meride Limestone, stable isotope geochemistry, pelagic (radiolarians) and benthic (foraminifera) micropalaeontology, palynology, and palynofacies (pollen, spores and other organic remains).

The museum also offers students from the University of Insubria (at Varese and Como) the possibility of conducting training courses, bachelor's, and master's work on vertebrate palaeontology as part of a signed convention agreed between the two institutions.


Scientific activity and projects in progress: 

Excavation of the Museo cantonale di storia naturale di Lugano at Sceltrich, 2013


Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra dell’Università di Milano

(in construction)

Museo di Storia Naturale di Milano

(in construction)