Rhinos in Nebraska? Think that sounds crazy? What about 3 toed horses, saber tooth deer, and camels? They all roamed the Nebraska plains millions of years ago. The fossilized skeletal remains of all of these are found at the Ashfall Fossil Beds in northern Nebraska outside of Royal.
About 12 million years ago, a volcano in southwest Idaho spread a blanket of ash over a vast area. One to two feet of powdered glass covered the grasslands of northeastern Nebraska. This particular area was a watering hole thus the high concentration of animals. Much like the Mammoth Site in South Dakota, this Watering Hole became these animals waterloo. Most of the animals which lived here survived the actual ashfall, but as they continued to graze on the ash-covered grasses, their lungs began to fill up with the abrasive powder. Soon their lungs became severely damaged and they began to die. Due to their smaller lungs the smaller animals died first then the larger ones perish on top of them
The Ashfall Discovery
In 1971, the skull of a baby rhinoceros was exposed due to erosion in a ravine at this site. Exploratory digging soon reveals that the entire skeleton is intact.
The fossil beds are safely under roof. The Hubbard Barn covers 17,500 square-feet and allows for the discovery and protection of many more fossils and enhances the experiences for visitors to the unique park.
Adorning the walls of the “barn” are artists renderings and descriptions of the animals found here. This really helps to conceptualize what I’m seeing in the beds below.
The fossils found have been undisturbed for millions of years except by an occasional scavenging meat-eaters, such as bone-crushing dogs. The skeletons of these animals are preserved in their death positions, complete with evidence of their last meals in their mouths and stomachs and their last steps preserved in the sandstone below.
Admission includes a program with a diagram of the fossil bed and a description of what I am seeing with the corresponding numbers. I can only imagine the thrill it would have been to uncovers some of these animals for the first time. I think I would have come up with something besides a 3-toed horse. A Curious Walker maybe?
Paleontologists continue to find new species even today. Every summer interns and student researchers continue exploring the 18,000 square feet of fossil beds.
I speak briefly with a 2nd-year intern who is meticulously uncovering a series of dog tracks. The process can take days, weeks and months. With my lack of patience, I know this is not the job for me. I’d be there with a roller and a leaf blower trying to expedite the process.
Keep on digging…
Thankfully, there are those who take on the tedious, painstaking task of uncovering some truly magnificent pieces of history. Apparently prehistoric mammals didn’t like crowds as this place is a bit out of the way, but for those interested in such things, it’s a worthy destination.