We discovered the palaeontological laboratory of Leonardo da Vinci

ANSA, the leading wire service in Italy presented my research about a new paleontological site (Pierfrancesco) very rich in ichnofossils. In the surroundings, Leonardo da Vinci discovered the true nature of fossils!

Pierfrancesco, Italy.

Leonardo da Vinci discovered the true nature of fossils by using the Piacenza Apennines (Italy) as a laboratory. This revolutionary conclusion was reached in a new study conducted by an international team of scientists led by me (University of Genoa) and including Girolamo Lo Russo (Museum of Natural History of Piacenza), Carlos Neto de Carvalho (Naturtejo UNESCO Global Geopark / D. Luiz Institute, Portugal), and Fabrizio Felletti (University of Milan). The study was published in the March issue of the RIPS journal (https://doi.org/10.54103/2039-4942/16972).

We discovered the place where palaeontology was born. This place is in the Piacenza Apennines, 100 km SW of Milan. This result was achieved by comparing the Leonardo da Vinci codes with the fossil record of the Apennines. Specifically, we systematically studied Leonardo’s notebooks, discovering a forgotten part of the Leicester Codex. In this passage Leonardo describes curious shapes in the stone, interpreting them correctly as ichnofossils, that is, as fossilized traces of the movement of ancient animals.

The ichnofossil Cladichnus from Pierfrancesco.

It was an eureka moment when I discovered that Leonardo understood the true nature of ichnofossils. These are the most difficult fossils to understand. Until the first half of the 1900s scientists misinterpreted them as algae. In the Leicester Code, Leonardo also intuited the organic nature of the so-called ‘petrified shells’, that is, the fossil remains of ancient molluscs that Leonardo’s contemporaries interpreted as inorganic curiosities. Five centuries before any scientist, Leonardo united the two halves of palaeontology – body fossils and ichnofossils. However, one question has remained unanswered so far: Where is Leonardo da Vinci’s paleontological laboratory located?

The ichnofossil Chondrites intricatus from Pierfrancesco.

Me and co-authors answered precisely to this question. Take a map of the Piacenza Apennines and draw a circumference of 40 km centred on the Castell’Arquato town. Here was Leonardo’s paleontological laboratory. The accuracy of this conclusion is dictated by the geographical and geological constraints imposed by Leonardo himself. At the end of the 1400s, Leonardo was in Milan to work on an equestrian monument, when peasants brought him fossil molluscs with borings (ichnofossils). With Leonardo’s words, these fossils were found on “the mountains between Parma and Piacenza”. Leonardo also says that there are ichnofossils produced by marine worms, or, using Leonardo’s words, “we can still find worm traces, which moved among layers when they were not yet dry”.

In the new study, we describe a new paleontological site (Pierfrancesco) very rich in ichnofossils of worm-like organisms. The site is located a short distance from the historical town of Castell’Arquato, where bored molluscs are found. The five constraints of Leonardo are satisfied: he indicated an area between Parma and Piacenza, mountainous, rich in fossil molluscs, and with two different types of ichnofossils, that are, bored shells and ichnofossils of worm-like organisms between the layers. To achieve this result, no high-tech means were required, but a lot of perseverance and a bit of luck. In fact, Leonardo’s codex on icnofossils was there for everyone to see… in 1994 the Leicester Codex was bought by Bill Gates, who included it as a wallpaper for Windows 95!

The study has not only historical, but also paleontological importance. The discovery of the new paleontological site of Pierfrancesco sheds new light on the biodiversity of the deep marine ecosystems that, between 50 and 70 million years ago, characterized the Piacenza Apennines. In particular, the study describes how marine ecosystems reacted to immense ecological perturbations, triggered by turbid currents capable of carrying cubic kilometres of sediment into the depths of the abyss. Variations in oxygenation and / or nutrient content played a key role, underlining the precious balance that governs marine ecosystems.

In a sense, it was Leonardo da Vinci who brought me and my colleagues to Pierfrancesco. I like to think that our paleontological study continues Leonardo’s intellectual legacy. The next step will be to disclose to the general public the extraordinary ichnological diversity of the Piacenza Apennines, a place where history and science meet.

The study benefited from significant funding from the University of Genoa and the CARIGE Foundation which approved research projects focused on the study of fossils that gave rise to this work. Additional funding was provided by the Piacenza Natural History Museum and the Piacenza Society of Natural Sciences.

The ichnofossil Cladichnus from Pierfrancesco.