Drifting volcanic ash 12 million years ago covered these animals and created a time capsule near Royal.
Ashfall Fossil Beds Near Royal, Nebraska, is Perfectly Named
Some 12 million years after the eruption of a volcano in present-day Idaho, animals gathered at a pond on the site to try to survive the volcanic ash falling around them.
Scientists believe up to a foot of ash was deposited in just a few days. Combine this ash with wind, and the result would be a gray blizzard.
And just like in a blizzard, where the snow sometimes drifts, the same thing happened with the ash at this very spot.
After the animals died, that ash covered and preserved them in near-perfect condition.
"There's no other place on earth where you can see so many exposed skeletons that have three-dimensional views of animals' skulls and rib cages," Park Superintendent Rick Otto said.
Rick Otto, Park Superintendent at Ashfalls Fossil Beds State Historical Park looks over one of the fossils in the Rhino Barn.
“Inhalation of large amounts of volcanic ash almost certainly caused the deaths of the Ashfall victims,” Otto said.
The drifting ash created a time capsule and sealed hundreds of rhinos, three-toed horses, camels and other critters around the edges of the watering hole.
Now you can see the capsule slowly being opened at the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park.
The park is not really located near anything, which adds to the charm of the place.
I drove north of Royal through typical Nebraskan countryside and came to an area of rugged rangeland. Here the highway cuts through a section of the scenic Verdigre Creek valley.
The park has a welcome and educational center. From there a long sidewalk connects to the Rhino Barn.
Sandy Mosel, a museum associate at Ashfalls Fossil Beds State Historical Park explains an artist interpetation of the watering hole 12 million years ago.
“We cover the dig site to help protect the fossils,” Otto explained. “Otherwise if there is any moisture on the fossils, in the winter the fossils would shatter from the expanding ice.”
Inside the Rhino Barn a large group of students from Madison, Neb., pelted Otto with questions.
Side conversations revealed some disappointment they were not dinosaur bones. This is a prevailing misconception that all old bones found in the ground come from the age of dinosaurs.
I believe it’s one of the reasons why we study history, to appreciate time. It was a very different world 12 million years ago when these fossils were created. Just as it was a different world 65 million years ago when the dinosaurs roamed the earth. Or looking into the future, the world will be a different place in a million years.
“Studying these fossils gives us an appreciation of time and how the earth has changed and how life continues to evolve,” explained Shane Tucker, a paleontologist for the Nebraska Department of Roads and University of Nebraska State Museum.
“They are pieces of the puzzle that offer powerful insights into our past and, as often in science, we only have pieces not the whole puzzle. But each fossil we find brings another piece to this puzzle, and with this comes a more clear picture of our past,” Tucker said. “A knowledge we can use to make a better future.”
Rick Otto, Park Superintendent at Ashfalls Fossil Beds State Historical Park, talks to a group of students in the Rhino Barn.
I stood on the platform looking down at the excavated fossils. The Rhino Barn had become very quiet. The student group had left. The only other person in the barn was Sandy Mosel, a museum associate at Ashfall.
“I like being here when no one else is around,” Mosel stated. “It’s humbling to be in the presence of a moment that has been frozen in time for 12 millions years.”
Outside the barn a gust of wind blew. It felt like the spirits of the past were trying to tell us more secrets to the missing pieces of the puzzle. There are more stories still waiting to be uncovered here at the Ashfall Fossil Beds.
“The whole world comes here to see this special place, and it’s right here in Nebraska,” Mosel said.
This is a place worthy of being on anyone’s bucket list who is curious about the past.
An education center is a key part of the Ashfalls Fossil Beds State Historical Park.