Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park
12-Million-Year-Old Snapshot: Ashfall Fossil Beds
About 12 million years ago, a superheated mass of magma spewed into the air in what is now Idaho. It spread ash all over the northern quadrant of North America. Animals that inhaled the ash suffocated. Near a pond in what is now Eastern Nebraska, the animals came to slake their unquenchable thirst. Beasts and birds died where they drank, their bodies falling into the wet ash, which hardened over time. The spot where they died has not been, as in so many other parts of the country, bulldozed by glaciers; instead, the shape of the animals remained unseen until they were discovered by Mike Voorhies, a University of Nebraska paleontologist. When we visited, Voorhies himself was there, picking away at dusty mounds of dried ash, uncovering prehistoric camels, three-toed horses, rhinos…and species of bird found nowhere else on Earth. The ashfall provides a kind of snapshot of the animal and plant life that used to inhabit this region. Now all excavation takes place in an enclosed area with walkways for visitors to stroll around the periphery of the dig, which is still yielding new information about what this part of the world was like a long time ago. There is an undeniable eeriness about being in a place where so many perished in a catastrophe of unimaginable dimensions. A visit here puts you in your place by reminding you that we humans still live on the same Earth, which regularly obliterates untold numbers of living things in the blink of an eye.
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