A brief trip up to an altitude of 1,097 m at the border between Italy and Switzerland unearths divine views. Monte San Giorgio in the Lugano Prealps in Canton Ticino, nestled between the two southern arms of the equally splendid Lake Lugano, is a popular hiking and day trip destination, a genuine natural gem with a sweeping territory stretching as far as the Province of Varese. Hidden beneath the strongly forested surface, however, are numerous caves with unexpected primeval treasures. They bare marine fossils that are in part over 200 million years old. The Swiss part was declared UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2003, the Italian area followed in 2010 now comprising the entire fossil compound and excavation site with its stunning, surrounding region.
The sea basin in the rock
How did these fossilised primeval creatures actually manage to get inside those caves? Scientists believe that the rock of Monte San Giorgio used to form a large, approx. 100-metre-deep sea basin amidst a lagoon around 245 to 230 million years ago before the actual mountain came into being. Being a subtropical region back then with likely low-oxygen water at the bottom, numerous vertebrates could thrive securely without having to fear its natural enemies, the scavengers. Thus, the retrieved fossils frequently contain fully-conserved skeletons making them key for research. Fish, reptiles and invertebrates, such as insects, were discovered in the five worldwide unique archaeological layers. Among these finds are hundreds of mixosaurus skeletons, a type of ichthyosaurs (also known as “fish flippers”) from the Middle Triassic. To date, over 20,000 fossils were extracted from the archaeological layers of Monte San Giorgio.
The most important fossils
We’ve already briefly mentioned one of the most astounding finds. Here’s a neat little overview for you to give you an idea of the excavated highlights throughout the years:
- Reptiles: Around 25 different species were found inside Monte San Giorgio. The already mentioned mixosaurus aside, this group also includes the eosauropterygii. They had pointy teeth and paddle-like extremities. The protorosaurus, however, had an extraordinarily long, giraffe-like neck.
- Insects: Tintorina, the “midge” of Monte San Giorgio, is likely the oldest insect species of the region that had already been highly differentiated in its development. It is part of the ephemera group. Current studies are mostly dedicated to fascinating bug and dragonfly finds.
- Fish: Aside from reptile finds that were in a transitional state to becoming fish-like beings, around 50 different fish species were discovered as well. Cartilaginous fish, such as sharks, were preserved poorly during fossilisation. Usually, only the teeth and fin rays survived. The discovered crossopterygians, however, remind experts of the living fossil latimeria that lives in the Indian Ocean.
- Conodonts: These creatures remain mysterious. They likely were fish-like vertebrates, around five to ten centimetres long, and probably resembled what is now known as the lamprey. In addition, Monte San Giorgio unearthed fascinating cluster finds and numerous traces and imprints of shells, snails and cephalopods.
Fossil museum in Meride
Sounds great, but you’re probably wondering what use this fossil overview is to you. Well, you can check out a wide array of finds from Monte San Giorgio in various museums spread throughout the region. A brief trip to Switzerland most definitely pays off as the fossil museum in Meride, just under four kilometres from the Italian border, provides you with fascinating insights. Opened on 13 October 2012, it features fossilised plants and animals from the UNESCO World Heritage Site on spread across four floors. Among the highlights is the reconstruction of a ticinosuchus. This 2.5-m-long land dinosaur lived at the edge of sea basin. We recommend joining a guided tour of the museum to discover each and every treasure with fascinating facts to go along with it. Special children’s tours are offered for younger visitors.
Other sights and activities throughout the region
The fossil museum in Meride most certainly is a must-visit institution, but not the only highlight on and around Monte San Giorgio by a long shot. Countless hiking and walking routes aside, you shouldn’t miss out on these places:
- Fossil museum of Besano: The Italian part of the Monte San Giorgio region has a palaeontological museum of its own. It features an almost six-metre-long skeleton of a mixosaurus with four embryos in its abdomen as well as a massive saltriovenator.
- Val Mara: The observation deck in the heart of the border region grants insights into the fossil deposits of the Triassic sea. Picture boards, casts, binoculars and fossil models plus reconstructions of the Middle Triassic surroundings await you high above the gorge of the Gaggiolo stream.
- Geo-palaeontological path: A long path for hikers and arduous walkers runs between Italy and Switzerland. It leads through the heart of the region and gives a closer introduction to various geological and palaeontological aspects. The UNESCO World Heritage excavation sites are part of the itinerary, too.
- Natural history museum of Clivio: Also known as the visitor centre of the Monte San Giorgio region, this museum takes a look at various aspects of regional nature and wildlife. You won’t be surprised to hear that the fossils of the famous mountain – 4,000 finds, to be precise – make up a major part of the permanent exhibition. You get to see a whopping six lariosaurus skeletons. The natural history museum covers various mineralogical, zoological and botanical aspects as well and features a large park with a stratigraphic path dedicated to regional rocks.
- Linea Cadorna: The Cardona line of defence was built at the border to neutral Switzerland during the First World War. Named after General Luigi Cadorna, it successfully discouraged attacks on Lombardy – Linea Cadorna remained unused. You can now explore the renovated fortifications with its caves as part of six signposted round paths and learn more about their history and the region’s diverse nature.
Monte San Giorgio is a region of unfathomable value – not just for scientists and researchers, but also for nature aficionados and hobby discoverers. You’ll come across fossilised contemporary witnesses everywhere, enjoy enthralling insights into the evolution of insects, reptiles and fish, and will most definitely fall under the spell of gorgeous sceneries with enticing views. Time for your journey to the Swiss-Italian borderland!