I have always been fascinated by our planet and learning about its history and constant state of change. This fascination led us to Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park in Nebraska. This State Park contains the fossils of Rhinos, Camels, and Zebras, animals you would expect to find in Africa.
The history of what would become Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park began in 1979 (established 1991) when a paleontologist named Mike Voorhies made an amazing discovery, the remains of a Rhinoceros buried in the low rolling hills of Nebraska. As amazing as the initial discovery was, it would lead to further excavations and the recovery of more than 200 fossilized skeletons buried in a thick layer of ash.
You may notice the Rhinos do not have horns. That is due to the fact that the horn of a Rhino is made from tiny hairs that are matted together, not from bone. So over time the hairs decay, and fade away with time.
Nebraska is known to contain a layer of ash roughly one to two feet thick from a volcano that erupted roughly 12 million years ago. The volcano was located in what is now Idaho spreading ash and debris primarily east, right across the land now known as Nebraska. What added to the surprise of the Rhino discovery was the ash at this location was ten feet thick!
Ensuing excavations revealed that hundreds of animals died in what must have been a watering hole in a dry savannah-like environment. Due to the amount of ash released from the volcano, it is believed the waterhole filled with the ash and preserved the remains of these animals.
As Voorhies explained,
It became clear that a major disaster, claiming hundreds of victims, had occurred at the site.
As the ash began to fall on the animals in the area, small glass particles from the ash were inhaled which destroyed the lungs of these creatures. It is believed so many animals died in the watering hole as they were seeking some relief from their pain in the cool of the mud.
Regardless, analysis shows the animals have bone growths just as modern animals do when they die of lung failure due to oxygen deprivation.
Digging down from the top we always found rhinoceroses first, then, at deeper levels, smaller hoofed animals such as horses and camels, and finally, birds and turtles. The latter were always at the very bottom of the ash bed, in a layer containing numerous footprints of rhinos and other hoofed animals. It seemed evident that the small creatures died first, then the middle-sized ones, and finally, the rhinos. The animals definitely did not die all at once; they were not (with the possible exception of the birds and turtles) buried alive. – Mike Voorhies, Palentologist
It was explained to us, not all of the animals were killed by the ash, only the animals in the general region perished. They are certain of this as these same animals are found in the soil layers above the ash. So we know, life went on after this event.
The excavations still continue at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park in a building called, the “Rhino Barn”.
Every summer Paleontologists continue excavating the old watering hole uncovering more creatures from the past. The purpose is not to uncover and remove the fossils, but to leave them intact and in place for research and visitors to admire.
The Rhino Barn is climate controlled and protects the fossils from harsh Nebraska winters. The building also provides visitors with multiple up-close views of the work that is still being performed. It is an amazing and rare opportunity to see the complete and intact fossils of Rhinos and other creatures up so close.
One of the most intriguing aspects of Ashfall Fossil Beds for me was to see animals that you would expect to find in Africa. Now the species of Rhino found at Ashfall is not the same species of Rhino’s found in Africa today.
The species at Ashfall Park are called “Teleoceras major“. However, fossils of this species of Rhino have been found all across North America, Africa (Egypt) and France.
The obvious question comes to mind, how is it possible that Rhino’s from the other side of the world lived in Nebraska at one time?
How did they travel across the ocean?
While Ashfall State Park does not get into the particulars of this matter, they do explain the species of crane found in Ashfall Park is known as the Crowned Crane which is the same species found in Africa to this day.
Further, they explain that Crowned Cranes do not migrate which adds to the mystery…
For us, these facts provided even more credibility to the concept of a Pangea, the theory that at one time, the continents of the earth were connected together in one large land mass.
How else would the animals find their way from what is now the other side of the world to North America?
While Rhino’s and other African style animals have been found all across our country, Ashfall Fossil Beds seems to be a special place due to the numerous fossils that are intact, just as the animals fell, (see: Agate Fossils Beds National Monument).
Ashfall Fossil Beds State Park also features the fossils of sea creatures found in Nebraska who at one time lived in the ocean that covered most of the United States roughly 80 million years ago.
This is interesting for the Christian, the Bible documents at the end of The First Earth Age, the earth was completely covered in water, something science agrees with as well.
In an age where we constantly hear about manmade climate change, Ashfall State Park is a great place to learn about the earth and its history. After your visit, you will have a better understanding of our planet, you will learn how much it has changed, and far before man ever stepped foot on it.