August 27, 2014

8/6/14 - Agate Fossil Beds NM

Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is in the panhandle of Nebraska.  (Like me, you weren't aware that Nebraska had a panhandle?  It's that part of western Nebraska that sticks up over Colorado.  I think they gave away that chunk so Colorado could be one of the rectangular states.)

While riding in the late 1800s, James Cook and his fiance found old bones on her father's ranch.  Fast forward a few years.  James and Kate married. They bought the ranch from her father.  James became friends with several early-day paleontologists.  Apparently he remembered the bones they'd found and invited them to come look for fossils.  They found a lot of them!
We're not talking dinosaur fossils, but those of mammals like ancestors of the horse and rhinoceros, a gazelle-like camel, a "terrible pig", a bear dog and a land-beaver. Who would have expected to find fossils of any kind in this lonely stretch of prairie and buttes?

By now we've visited a lot of Park Service visitor centers.  Some are elaborate, some don't seem to have had much effort put into them, and don't have much more than a room and a ranger.  We were surprised at the size, and then even more at the displays.
Although you have to imagine muscles and skin on these critters, I did a really good job of adding expression to these old bones.  This would be the beardog Daphoenodon and the "terrible pig" Daeodon.
There were so many fossils found here that they just used random piles of them in the foreground of their display.  Apparently fossils are swapped all over the world by museums--so you might even see fossil exhibits with bones from Nebraska somewhere in Europe.  And they still had lots left over!
Some are in glass cases, like this Stenomylus--they say it's related to a camel, but I haven't a clue how they can tell!  The other one is a Daemonelix burrow, of which more later.
Mr. Cook invited a paleontologist from the Carnegie Museum to excavate in 1905.  The following year some came from the University of Nebraska.  They established rival quarries on hills facing each other.  The one on the left is University Hill; the one on the right is Carnegie Hill.
James Cook was also a long-time friend of Red Cloud, chief of the Lakota Sioux, and invited him and his people to visit the ranch from the reservation in South Dakota.  They exchanged gifts, and many of them are in the Cook Collection at the Visitor Center. Some were made specially for Mr. Cook, like the buckskin suit for one of Cook's sons, and some were of historical value, like the whetstone that belonged to Crazy Horse. These pipe bags belonged to Red Cloud and his son.
But my favorites were the winter counts, pictograph calendars on hides which allowed the keepers to recall events in their history.  Some are really simple, others are very detailed.
Battle of the Hundred Slain Winter Count by American Horse

Battle of Greasy Grass (Little Big Horn)
Contemporary Winter County by Dawn Little Sky

We went outside and had lunch by the tipis, watching the drama of the gathering clouds.
 I did promise you more on the Daemonelix, so pay attention. The scientists were in conflict about the "Devil's corkscrew" fossils they found.  One geologist thought they were fossilized remnants of enormous taproots of some plant that used to grow here.  Then a paleontologist found a rodent fossil inside one, and theorized they were spiral burrows dug by prehistoric beavers.  I wanted to see them so we headed for the Daemonelix Trail. There were lots of wildflowers...

Dotted Gayfeather
Ten-Petal Mentzelia
This rather innocuous cliff has Daemonelix fossils.  They're kind of hard to see when the sun's glaring, but there are supposed to be at least six of them here.  I found one!

But there's another place where the Devil's corkscrew is right at the base of the hill.  They protected it by enclosing it in a case, and refer to it as the "Phone Booth".  You can see how big it is with George standing next to it.
Viscid Aster
Interesting country.  You can see more pictures here: Agate Fossil Beds Natl Monument 

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