Friday, July 07, 2006

Ashfall Fossil Beds

A great attraction to visit while staying at Niobrara State Park is just 30 minutes south, down a country road, in the middle of nowhere—Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park. Here you will see complete skeletons of animals that were buried under a blizzard of volcanic ash about 12 million years ago. Thus, the name “Ashfall.”

The Ashfall Fossil Beds:

In 1971, paleontologist Mike Voohies was excavating on Melvin Colson’s cornfield. He found the skull of a baby rhino protruding from the side of a gully, at the bottom of newly exposed gray ash. They ended up with 100 rhino skeletons in that spot. It’s at this point that I said, “Oh, rhinos, that’s interesting, I guess. [pause] Wait a second. Rhinos in Nebraska?” Yes, and camels and zebras and horned rodents and so much more. The brochure says, “It is clear that before the catastrophic ashfall occurred, the area was inhabited by a rich variety of life reminiscent of modern East African savannah.” Amazing.

The scientists think that ash from a huge volcanic eruption in the Rocky Mountains (probably southwestern Idaho), blew eastward and quickly devastated the landscape. Animals drowned or struggled through drifts of ash as if in a blizzard. They died where they lay, and that’s why they also refer to this park as a “Prairie Pompeii.”

Instead of removing all the bones and putting them into a museum, they have preserved them where they lay. You walk into an open-sided barn and walk above the fossils, and a helpful student hands you a Skeleton Map so you can know what you are looking at. It’s really very shocking at first. So many skeletons all in one place. Babies next to their mothers, and in a special case on one wall, there is the skeleton of an unborn baby rhino. Here are some pictures that will explain it better than I can:

#2 3-toed Horse:

Adult Female Rhino:

Young Adult Male Rhino:

This is a really fascinating place for kids and adults. There are digs still going on, and a paleontologist is working at the center who will answer questions and will walk out and give a tour of current digs. Here’s a picture of one of the current digs (zebra) and a picture of the sifting table and the main building:

Not a bad day for $5 for adults, plus $3.50 for a park sticker, which we didn’t need because we already had one. Get your state park stickers!

Also, the weather was gorgeous that day. They were having an unusually cool day. And I mean cool—it was at least 3 in the afternoon before the temperature got close to 80. We actually turned the heat on in the Miata! That night, the temperature got down into the 50s! I asked the lady taking the money at the front of the park if this was normal, because if it was, I’m moving there! She said it wasn’t and that they should have been in the 90s. So, it was a wonderful day for an outing. We actually had great weather the whole time and always rode with the top down in the Miata. So, I now have the tannest shoulders in Nebraska.

Well, that's about it for the trip. I did say I'd do a review of the book I read, and I'll post it this weekend sometime.

Thanks for coming along for the trip!


Jay said...

Rhinos in Nebraska. That's just weird. Pretty amazing place though.

Betty said...

That's fascinating! I'd like to see it someday.

Susan said...

I've been reading about your whole trip. This is just facinating! I'm pretty sure we've driven through the edges of NE, but haven't made it to the interior...we'll have to put that on our list of places to see. Thank you so much for tell us all about it.

Now one teeny little didn't really put on the heat at 80 degrees did you?? To me, that's HOT!! I'm happy in here in the 70's :)

saz said...

Kell - This has been a great trip for all of us. Thanks for taking the time to share the pics and history. I'm showing my ignorance here...but I never imagined Nebraska to be like this.

Kell said...

Susan--Oops, didn't mean to make it sound like it was 80 when I turned on the heat! That morning when we headed out, it was in the 60s and was windy, so we had the heat on in the car while we drove around. Of course, it's almost always windy here, but it was a cold wind--really odd for July!

Thanks Saz. I didn't think Nebraska was like this either--I just imagined cornfields every where. And they are, but there's just a lot of other stuff to see, too.