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Frozen in time: some of the world's most significant deposits of fossils are preserved in U.S. national parks.

MILLIONS OF YEARS ago, animals such as gazelle-camels and rhinoceroses roamed a land covered with plants much different from those of North America today.

Sometimes natural catastrophes, such as severe drought, felled large numbers of these ancient creatures and plants at one time, freezing an unusual collection of species in one place. Over the millennia, time and the elements transformed many of these creatures into fossils. Some of their images remain in such extraordinary detail that separate species of insects are identifiable.

Fossils, it seems, have always fascinated humans. For instance, at John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, the excavation of an American Indian site turned up a fossil leaf collection belonging to the former occupants. Fossils continue to captivate thousands of visitors, and the National Park System offers a world-class selection of sites. At least 50 areas within the park system protect significant fossil remains, and of those more than a dozen were established for their unique deposits.

Hagerman Fossil Beds NM

Among the newest national monuments in the park system, Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in south-central Idaho offers one of the largest and best preserved collections of fossils in the world.

Dedicated in 1988, Hagerman has been described as having the best variety, quantity, and quality of fossils for the Pliocene epoch, providing a glimpse of a nearly intact 3.5-million-year-old ecosystem. More than 100 species of vertebrates have been identified. Discoveries made at Hagerman changed the way paleontologists viewed the history of the Earth, according to a National Park Service (NPS) study.

Large aquatic creatures are well represented in the fossil remains, as are other fauna, including swans, ducks, cormorants, ground sloths, sabertoothed tigers, ground squirrels, mastodons, camels, deer, and a variety of turtles, frogs, snakes, and snails.

Hagerman is most famous for its "horse quarry" where more than 150 individual fossils of horses have been found. The site was first excavated in 1929 by a crew working for the Smithsonian Institution, and the museum has a full-scale Hagerman fossil exhibit of its own. Fossils from this site are found on natural history museums throughout the world.

Because it is a relatively recent addition to the park system, the monument is still in the early development stages, and visitors are urged to call or write before traveling to the park. A visitor center is scheduled to open by late 1993, and limited services will be available by early 1994. Future plans include providing access to the Snake River, which winds through the national monument, as well as a research center that would accommodate visitors.

Besides its world-class collection of fossils, Hagerman is one of the few park system units that contains ruts made by wagons using the Oregon Trail.

For additional information, contact Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, P.O. Box 570, Hagerman, ID 83332.

Florissant Fossil Beds NM

High in the Rocky Mountains may seem an unlikely spot for a fossil deposit, but

a few miles south of Florissant, Colorado, is an area that boasts one of the best collections of insect fossils in the world. Fossils of dragon files, beetles, ants, butterfilies, and other insects are nearly perfectly perserved here.

Florissant Fossil Beds protects an area that some 35 million years ago was a sickle-shaped lake formed by lava flows. Giant redwoods, some more than 250 feet tall, bordered the shore of the lake. Stumps of thes ancient redwoods are among the items perserved at the site. Intermittent volcanic ash settled in and around the ancient lake, trapping a large variety of insects, animals, and plants. As the ash compacted. It eventually transformed into shale.

Florissant's Fossil deposits, first discovered by Dr. A. C. Peale of the U.S. Geogogical Survey in 1874, have few rivals. Some 1,100 species of insects have been identified at Florrissant, including all of the known New World butterflies of the era. Fossils are of some of the insects and plants found at the monument are on display inside the visitor center.

The giant petrified forest is the star attraction for those visiting the monument. The Petrified Forest Loop Trail winds around several exposed stumps. The trail eventually leads to the "Big Stump," which is 12 feet high and 38 feet in circumference. If the tree represented by the the stump were alive today, it would be nearly 300 feet tall. In 1983, attempts were made to cut the Big Stump into section to haul it away to Chicago for the Columbian Exposition. Broken saw blades--evidence of these failed attempts--are still visible in the top of the stump.

About a dozen stumps are exposed at the monument, and park palenothologist Bill Dexter believes another 100 stumps may still be buried.

For more information, write to Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, P.O. Box 185, Florissant, CO 80816.

John Day Fossil Beds NM

Perserved in the desert hills of eastern Oregon is one of the world's most complete fossil records. The three units of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument preserve a 40-million-year record of plant and animal life; fossil beds that extend over five million years are considered rare.

Fossils came to be at John Day in a variety of ways. Leaves fell into old lakebeds and were covered by sediments. Mammals became fossils when they fell into sinkholes, or their remains were buried by either river sediments or volcanic debris.

The monument encompasses 14,000 acres in three separate units, Sheep Rock, Painted Hills, and Clarno. Each offers a distinct record of history. At Sheep Rock the mammals are the most important fossils, among them the oreodont, a pig-size creature that grazed in herds. Painted Hills includes many plant fossils, and Clarno offers several significant fossil sites, among them the Clarno Nut Beds. The Nut Beds preserve more than 300 plant species, including some standing fossil trunks. Fossilized leaf imprints and fossilized seeds indicate a variety of species including palm, fig, cinnamon, cycad, and tree ferns. Two trails allow visitors to see embedded plant remains.

Also at Clarno is the Hancock Mammal Quarry. Visitors can tour the Hancock Field Station, operated by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Several programs are offered for those interested in the geology, paleontology, and ecology of central Oregon.

The current visitor center is in an old ranch house at Sheep Rock and features fossils recovered from the John Day Basin. The visitor center is open daily from March to October but closed weekends and holidays during the winter months. Visitors also can tour a laboratory that demonstrates how fossils are prepared and preserved.

For more information, write to John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, 420 West Main Street, John Day, OR 97845.

Agate Fossil Beds NM

The Agate Springs Ranch located in western Nebraska along the Niobrara River has changed little since it was acquired by Captain James Cook in 1887. The area was established as Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in 1965.

At the beginning of this century, Agate Springs Ranch became a haven for noted paleonotologists. In 1904 O. A. Peterson from the Carnegie Museum began the first scientific excavations on a conical hills overlooking the ranch. A year later, Professor E. H. Barbour from

the University of Nebraska began similar operations on an adjacent hill. The hills became known as Carnegie and University hills.

The paleontologists found dozens of complete skeleton in their repeated excavations. The prevailing theory is that the "bonebed" at Agate is a 19-million-year-old waterhole where thousands of drought-stricken rhinoceroses and horse-like chalicothers perished. The chalicotheres perished. The chalicotheres or Moropus was an odd-looking creature with clawed feet and a neck and body like those of a modern giraffe.

Visitors to Agate Fossil Beds will discover plenty to see and do. A paved interpretive trail leads to quarry sites on both Carnegie and University hills. The fossil layer is partially exposed at both sites, and visitors can see rhinoceros and chalicotheres bones in their natural state. Another trail leads to two examples of the so-called devil's cork-screws, which perplexed paleontologists initially. The mystery was solved when the remains of beaver-like animals were found inside some of the corkscrews, actually fossilized burrows. The ancient beaver, or Palaeocastor, lived a life similar to a modern-day prairie dog, and was land-oriented rather than water-oriented.

A new visitor center was dedicated in November 1992, and exhibits are expected to be in place by June 1995, the monument's 30th anniversary. Plans include placing 100 Lakota artifacts from the extensive Cook collection on display and making fossil casts of some of the best Agate specimens currently on display at the Denver Museum of Natural History and the University of Nevraska museum.

For more information, contact Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, P.O. Box 27, Gering, NE 69341.

Fossil Butte NM

Some 50 million years ago, southwest Wyoming had a wet, semitropical environment. Near the present-day town of Kemmerer, an enormous lake teemed with life. Six-foot gars, bowfins, sting-rays, turtles, and more than 20 other freshwater species swan in the waters of what is now called Fossil Lake, which was 50 miles long and up to 15 miles wide. Crocodiles lay in wait along its shores, and insects, birds, and bats drifted overhead.

As these creatures died, they sank to the bottom of the lake, settling into the ooze. The water in Fossil lake eventually disappeared, leaving behind a large basin and the most noteworthy record of freshwater fossil fish ever found in the United States.

Fossil Butte National Monument protects a portion of this ancient lakebed. Thousands of fossils are still preserved in the 20- to 30-foot-thick fossil-bearing layer at the monument. "These species are so perfectly preserved that it is like a snapshot," said park ranger Marcia Sagnant. Skin, scales, teeth, delicate tail rays, and fins can all be seen in detail.

One of the more interesting phenomena has been the unearthing of what are called "mass mortality" layers. In three such layers, all of the fish appeared to have died at the same time. The commonly held theory is that these massive die-offs resulted from sudden temperature changes. A seven-foot by four-foot "mass mortality" slab is on display in the visitor center, where people can also see fossils being prepared for relocation to museums. The slab contains 356 fish, representing three distinct species,

Several short hiking trails are also available. The historic quarry trail allows vistors to get a good look at fossils in their natural condition, and trailside exhibits recount some of the history of fossil collecting.

For more information, write to Fossil Butte National Monument, P.O. Box 592, Kemmerer, WY 83101.
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Author:Jackson, Clayton E.
Publication:National Parks
Date:Nov 1, 1993
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