Ashfall Fossil Beds

One of the most spectacular fossil deposits I’ve ever seen is Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historic Park, near Royal, Nebraska. We stopped there for a few hours today as we crossed Nebraska en route to Wyoming.

During the Miocene, a gigantic volcanic eruption in Idaho deposited several feet of ash in Nebraska. Animals living in the area were killed over a period of several weeks as a result of inhaling the ash, and their skeletons were beautifully preserved in the ash. When the site was discovered, it was decided to leave the fossils in place and build a museum over them, making a fantastic display.

The Ashfall deposit is dominated by the rhinoceros Teleoceros. This species is represented by both sexes and all ages, from fetal to adult. An adult and a baby are shown above (the baby is just above the adult’s shoulder). Here is another Teleoceros skeleton:

The adult Teleoceros were among the last animals to succumb to the ash, so their skeletons are generally the best preserved. The smaller animals died earlier, and their bodies were trampled by the large Teleoceros and dismembered by scavengers.

In addition to the rhinos, there are numerous other animals including three species of camels and five species of horses. One of the horses, Pseudhipparion, is shown below:

The entire bonebed is an impressive sight, and even though it’s a little off the beaten track, it’s well worth the visit.

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4 Responses to Ashfall Fossil Beds

  1. Doug says:

    wow, that must have been spectacular. Something similar happened here in California 11 million years ago, although it was nowhere near as grand as Ashfall. Here it is :

  2. Grenda says:

    Fantastic remains!! I wish I could have gone with you all but I am in Denver now on my way to Shell. See you soon! Dr. Godfrey has already suggested a write up for the Fossil Club newsletter.

  3. Alton Dooley says:

    Volcanic eruptions that produce ash beds are usually good news for future paleontologists (if bad news for the critters alive at the time.) An interesting (and morbid) aspect of the Ashfall deposits is that most of the animals preserved there didn’t die immediately from being cooked or buried (the eruption was something like 1000 miles away). They died from lungs damage that developed from breathing in ash over a period of weeks.

  4. Doug says:

    Yeah, I have often heard that these animals died from some kind of bone cancer. I think they called it Marese disease. Anyway, what happened was the animals breathed in the ash and this screwed up their inner workings, causing the body to add all this new bone growth to their skeletons. Yeah, it must have been slow and agonizing. Michael Vorhees, in a 1980 National Geographic article, said that a month may have passed before the last rhino fell. If only they died a quick death like the ones I linked to.

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