August 28, 2014

8/13/14 - Fossil Butte NM

Fossil Butte National Monument isn’t really on the way to anywhere, but we’d bypassed Kemmerer, Wyoming, the year we went to Yellowstone, so I routed it in this year. (Kemmerer is really fun to say—just keep adding “er” to the end, and you’ll see what I mean.  It's claim to fame is the original JC Penney’s store.  They call it the “Mother Store”, and it’s still in business!  You can tour the Penney home just down the block.

We drove out to the monument and on to the Visitor Center.  What looks like the front door isn't, so we just kept walking to what seemed like the back.  You can look over the valley and see the butte where all the fossils were found.
We watched the video, then had our very own private tour of the Visitor Center with an intern guide explaining the displays and exhibits.  (Private tour sounds pretty impressive, huh?  We were the only ones in the museum at the time.)  She has a geology degree and is working in the quarry for the summer, so she put a lot of inside knowledge into it.  The exhibit she’s explaining shows a small selection of the different kinds of fish fossils they've found nearby.  

The fossils were found in the sediment of Fossil Lake.  (Don’t bring your boat—it’s been dried up for a REALLY long time!)  Fossil Butte was more or less in the middle of the lake.  A lot of the fossils were found on the aptly named “Fossil Butte”, that big chunk of mesa in the picture.  Millions of fossils have been unearthed (yes, pun intended!) in the region.  A lot of them come from areas outside the park, so it's legal to sell them.  Some of the local rock shops have quarry tours where you can go dig for your own fossils—satisfaction guaranteed!  I tried to talk George into going on one, but he couldn't see the entertainment value.  I don’t think he likes rocks as much as I do...
Fossil Butte is one of the richest fossil deposits in the world, and some of the best preserved.  I’ve seen fossils where you have to have a good imagination just to recognize them.  The fossils here are amazing for their detail.  As you’d expect in an old lake, there are fish—20+ kinds of fish.  You can even see the scales and skeletons on some.  There have plants and bugs and birds and reptiles and mammals. No dinosaurs.

In this turtle exhibit, you can see that some of the fossils are still intact, like the ones in the lower section of the display case.  The big one on the top got squashed or something, so they had to find what pieces they could and put them nearby.  I think they call it “exploded”.  
This 13’ long crocodile looks like something crushed his scales.
There's lots of details on the plant fossils, including a palm frond that doesn't grow in southwestern Wyoming anymore.  Wonder why that is?
The damselfly is pretty cool.  But can you imagine the size of the mosquitoes it ate???  (Go, Damselfly!)
Two really interesting exhibits show some of the uniqueness of this place.  The first one is an example of what they call a “mass kill”.  These fish all died same time, same place, and they’re embedded in this big chunk of rock just like they fell to the lake bottom.  Kinda weird.
The second exhibit is a perfect example of eyes being too big for the stomach—in this case, it’s mouth being too big for the throat.  This fish was eating another fish when it died.  He choked and couldn’t swallow it, so it’s stuck in his mouth forever so people can see how stupid he was.  There’s a whole display of what they describe as “attempted predation”. 

In the lab, they work to remove the rock from the fossils.  They use little chisels and delicately chip the sandstone away.  Then they brush it gently.  Sometimes they do make mistakes.  The second picture is the same fish in two rocks--it stuck to both sides of the rock when it was split.

Exhibits geared for kids are sometimes the most informative, as well as being the most entertaining.  (We all know it doesn't take much to entertain me.)  Seriously, it is a Scratch ‘n’ Sniff rock!  Just FYI, it smells like oil—the petroleum kind, not the olive kind.  When it comes to geology, fossils and coal and oil hang around together.
After lunch, I wanted to go on the Historic Quarry Trail but when George found out that (a) they’ve removed all the fossil from the outdoor exhibits and (b) it’s a “2.5 mile strenuous hike” to the top of Fossil Butte, I got outvoted.   It was pretty hot.  And the top of the butte is 7,500’ high.  I didn't challenge the vote.

So we went on the scenic drive instead and drove even higher!
More pictures:  Fossil Butte Natl Monument 

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