Nebraska, USA: Wonderful fossils, natural history museums and public art depicting fossils

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Robert F Diffendal, Jr (USA)

Nebraska is known by vertebrate palaeontologists as the place in North America where there is a very complete Cenozoic geologic record of mammalian evolution over the last thirty-five million years or so. All you have to do is visit any of the many major natural history museums in the USA and in many countries around the world, including the UK, to see fossil skulls, articulated skeletons and large slabs of rock containing bones of fossil mammals from Nebraska to verify this assertion.

Nebraska is also the site of Cretaceous rocks containing the oldest known Cretaceous fossil flower and many other parts from fossil plants. It also contains dinosaur footprints and trackways, and skeletons of marine plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and large marine fish, as well as terrestrial and marine invertebrate fossils and marine microfossils.

Upper Carboniferous rocks exposed at the surface in parts of south-eastern Nebraska have yielded fossil terrestrial plant fossils, marine stromatolites and other marine plant fossils, marine invertebrates, fish and even some fossil bones of amphibians and early reptiles.

All in all, Nebraska is a vast storehouse of wonderful fossils that continues today to yield them up to collectors, both professional and amateur. These fossils can be found on both private and public lands, and in state and federal parks and museums.

To match this geological heritage, Nebraska (a large state in area with a small population) has a wonderful natural history museum – the University of Nebraska State Museum (UNSM) – on the main campus of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln in Lincoln, Nebraska. The current museum building – Morrill Hall – was constructed starting in 1925 and completed in 1927. The most well-known hall in the museum is Elephant Hall (Fig. 1).

1 Morrill Hall
Fig. 1. Elephant Hall (courtesy of University of Nebraska State Museum).

Here, fossil proboscideans, mostly from Nebraska, are displayed along the main axis of the building. Other parts of the museum include galleries of dinosaurs, of fossil horses, rhinos and camels, of Mesozoic and Palaeozoic life (Fig. 2), and modern floras and faunas from Nebraska and around the world.

2 Fossil trilobite
Fig. 2. Fossil trilobite (Ameura missouriensis) from the Pennsylvanian (Upper Carboniferous) rocks of southeastern Nebraska (courtesy of Nebraska Conservation and Survey Division).

UNSM has two satellite museums – Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park (known for its in situ fully articulated skeletons of Late Miocene fossil rhinos, horses and other vertebrates preserved in volcanic ash – the only such site in North America; see Fig. 3) and the Trailside Museum at Fort Robinson State Park in the extreme north-west of Nebraska.

3 Fossil rhinos
Fig. 3. Fully articulated fossil rhinos being excavated at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park (image by RF Diffendal, Jr).

Both of these fine museums, as well as a small museum at the Agate Fossil Beds National Monument in western Nebraska (Fig. 4), have outstanding displays of fossil from Nebraska for people to study and to marvel over.

The importance of these fossils to the people of Nebraska is demonstrated further by the mosaics of many fossil plants and animals, mostly from Nebraska and nearby states, depicted on the floor of the rotunda of the State Capitol. They were created by the famous artist, Hildreth Meière, in the late 1920s, when the building was being constructed.

These mosaics have been well described previously by Neale Monks in Deposits in Issue 21 (Dinosaurs at the Nebraska State Capitol) in 2010. Partly as a result of reading Neale’s work, I wrote two books about these in 2015: one a colouring and activities book for children of all ages (Fossils on the Floor In the Nebraska State Capitol: A Coloring and Activities Book); and the other a longer history of the development of the ideas for the mosaic guilloche and the colour drawings created by the UNSM director in 1927, Edwin H Barbour, for use by Meière as models for creation of her designs for the mosaics in that year (Fossils on the Floor: Mosaics in the Rotunda of the Nebraska State Capitol).

Fig. 4. The two hills on the horizon left of center in the image are University Hill (left) and Carnegie Hill (right). One fossil quarry site on Carnegie Hill is at the base of the vertical slope on the right side of the hill in this view. (Image by RF Diffendal, Jr.)

If you have the chance to visit the United States, plan to come to Nebraska if you are interested in seeing wonderful fossil plants and animals in museums and at our state and federal parks. You will certainly enjoy seeing the fossils and meeting the people.

About the author

Dr Robert F Diffendal, Jr is Professor Emeritus at the University of Nebraska and Curator of Invertebrate Paleontology at the University of Nebraska State Museum.

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