Stories tagged History and Nature of Science


Charles Darwin: The young naturalist as he appeared during the Voyage of the Beagle.
Charles Darwin: The young naturalist as he appeared during the Voyage of the Beagle.Courtesy Public domain
A cache of long-forgotten fossils mounted on glass slides – including some collected by Charles Darwin - has been discovered in a dusty cabinet at the British Geological Survey.

Paleontologist Dr. Howard Falcon-Lang found the 314 slides while searching through the vaults of the Survey headquarters near Keyworth, UK. Each slide contains a polished thin section of a fossil plant, prepared for viewing under a microscope. But the best thing about the discovery is that some of the slides are of specimens collected by the young Charles Darwin during his legendary voyage on the Beagle. Darwin’s theory of evolution and subsequent book On the Origin of Species resulted from much of what he discovered during the five-year voyage. Among the specimens collected by Darwin is a piece of petrified wood from an island off the coast of Chile in 1834.

Falcon-Lang figures the collection has been languishing unregistered in the cabinet for 165 years. Joseph Hooker, a botanist and close friend of Darwin, worked briefly for the Geological Survey in the early 19th century, and given the job of cataloging the collection. But before Hooker could properly register the fossils, he left on an expedition to the Himalayas and the collection was soon forgotten. In the passing years the cabinet got moved several times until it reached its current storage place deep in the recesses of the Geological Survey where it was found in April of last year.

According to Falcon-Lang the lost fossils, some of which can be viewed on line, will add greatly to current science, and he expects some great scientific papers to result from the collection.

BBC story
Telegraph story


Science under attack
Science under attackCourtesy Mark Ryan
You’d think since the decision handed down in the Kitzmiller et al v. Dover court case in 2005 creationists would have given up trying to force their decidedly non-scientific views into public school science curricula. But apparently that’s hasn’t been the case. Those touting pseudo-scientific explanations such as intelligent design (creationism all dressed up in a monkey suit – as someone cleverly put it) are still at it, trying to get their religious-based ideas included in science classroom discussions.

A talk given by Steven Newton at this year’s Geological Society of America meeting in Minneapolis dealt with ways to counter the methods creationists use to push back against the information presented in earth science classes within the K-12 public school settings. The talk was one of several in a session titled, Geoscience Education X: Overcoming Threats to Earth and Space Science at K-12 Levels.

According to Newton, who’s with the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), the creationists’ methods amount to nothing less than sabotage.

Some of the feedback he said he heard from the nation’s public schools helps illustrate the kind of resistance earth science teachers continue to get from students, parents, and even school administrators. When a controversial subject such as evolution or climate change is being presented, teachers report being told to “tone it down” or “skip that chapter”* or to “teach both sides” (why just two sides? why not 200?). Newton said teachers also heard pleas of “don’t offend parents” from school administrators.

Of course, the earth sciences aren’t the only disciplines under attack. Just this past week, a story came out of Kentucky about how the school superintendent in Hart County complained in a letter to the state’s education commissioner and board of education members that he was concerned to learn that the state testing guidelines for biology considered evolution as a fact while at the same time “totally omitting the creation story by a God who is bigger than all of us.” It’s a harrowing example of the anti-science attitudes that are still prevalent in our country, and how creationists continue to threaten science education.

These don’t-rock-the-boat mitigations of scientific knowledge are harmful to science in general and aren’t doing the students any favors. Spoon-feeding watered down information or adding non-scientific knowledge into the mix confuses students and deprives them of a proper science education. Strong suggestions such as “teach the controversy” (when there is none) serves no purpose other than as a way to force religious or irrationally-based information into the public schools.

The anti-science crowd uses various means of attack to undermine geoscience knowledge in the schools and elsewhere. It questions the fossil record, pointing to something like the 19th century Piltdown Hoax as an example of how fossils and their interpretation can be faked. They make a huge leap of logic and argue that since one fossil was faked then all fossils must be questioned. The validity of radiometric dating is thrown into doubt with misinformation such and out-of-context or re-edited quotes from legitimate scientists, and even salted quotes.

Some worn-out creationist ploys have been lurking about for years, stories of dinosaurs spotted living in the Congo, fossil human footprints discovered alongside dinosaur tracks, a stegosaur figure found in the carvings of an ancient temple in Cambodia, a plesiosaur carcass hauled up from the depths by a Japanese trawler. These and other stories have either been thoroughly debunked or have failed to ever present any concrete evidence, yet continue to creep into otherwise serious evolution discussion,

The Internet is clogged with creationist viewpoints, some sites disguised with scientific-sounding domain names. This requires students to be alert and very careful about their research sources.

In hopes of legitimizing their point of view, creationist organizations of late have sponsored lectures and propaganda films in venues rented from legitimate scientific institutions such as they did at Southern Methodist University (SMU) and the California Science Center. When objections are raised and such events cancelled, the creationists proclaim it amounts to nothing less than censorship of ideas. But creationist ideas have always been poor in scholarship, lacking peer review or any kind of objective testing. Many are totally untestable.

Newton also warned against what he considers mistaken solutions to the problem of creationist pushback. Debating pseudo-scientists or giving their ideas equal time in the classroom only gives them unwarranted credibility. And why “teach the controversy” when there is none in the first place?

But, Newton insists that this doesn’t mean earth science teachers should avoid dealing with the pushback. Creationist tactics evolve over time, coming up with new ways to attack legitimate science. And just as new vaccines are developed to fight evolving flu viruses, science teachers need to stay a step ahead of the creationists and counter their anti-science attacks with a vaccine of cold, hard, scientific facts. Perhaps this affliction can be wiped out in our lifetimes.

What is Earth Science
Abstract for Steven Newton's GSA talk
The Creationist Movement: A Sociological View

*Attacks against science aren’t reserved only for the schools. Just this past week biologist and science-blogger PZ Myers alerted his readers to the fact that the Discovery Channel had purchased rights to broadcast the BBC documentary series by David Attenborough titled “Frozen Earth” but that it wouldn’t be including the last episode regarding climate change because the subject was too controversial. (Evidently, after a flood of well-deserved complaints the Discovery Channel has now reversed its decision and will air all seven episodes).


On my day off, I helped some friends harvest olives in Varano, Ancona, Italy. The entire harvest is done by hand. First, we spread fine nets on the ground under the trees, and then branches were cut down and we picked olives off the branches on the ground, or we climbed ladders and combed the trees with small plastic rakes.
Raking olives
Raking olivesCourtesy Tilly Laskey

Olives yield about 15% of their weight. We harvested 80KG or about 176 pounds of olives. This means the farmer will get about 26.4 pounds or 35 12-ounce bottles of oil from the harvest. All olives--green, brown, and black--are harvested. Italian olives
Italian olivesCourtesy Tilly Laskey


That’s the question I started asking last week after revisiting Giacomo Beltrami’s narrative, "A Pilgrimage in Europe and America V2: Leading to the Discovery of the Sources of the Mississippi and Bloody River", where he mentions “white bears” in Northern Minnesota. Surely he’s not referencing polar bears. Perhaps albino black bears?

Here’s what Beltrami had to say about these mysterious “white bears”:
“The white bear is the only wild beast of these regions that is dangerous."
"I have in my possession a magnificent skin of a yellow bear…”
"I then carefully put my gun in order, to be able to defend myself against the attack of white bears, which abound near the Red River."

I contacted two bear experts. David Mather, National Register Archaeologist at the Minnesota Historical Society, thinks Beltrami is referring to grizzly bears, since historically grizzlies were called “white or yellow bears” because of the light colored tips of the fur, and, “the fear factor makes me think that he’s referring to grizzlies.”

Andrew Derocher, professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Alberta and a polar bear specialist said, “Minnesota seems a long way south and inland for polar bears. There is some evidence for polar bears to have been as far south as Maine but this would likely have been rare and coastal.”

Light colored grizzly beary
Light colored grizzly bearyCourtesy

The shades and colors of grizzly bear (Ursus arctos horribilis ) fur are as varied as human hair, ranging from dark brown to white. In fact, white grizzlies (not albinos) are not uncommon in portions of Alberta and Montana, and in south-central British Columbia.

A simultaneous literature review led me to this interesting tidbit from the Lewis and Clark Journals:

“Goodrich and Willard visited the indian [sic] Village this morning and returned in the evening Willard brought with him the dressed Skin of a bear which he had purchased for me. this Skin was of a uniform pale redish[sic] brown colour, the indians[sic] inform us that it was not the Hoh-host or white bear, that it was the Yâck-kâh this distinction of the Indians induced us to make further enquiry relative to their oppinions [sic] of the defferent [sic] Species of bear in this country. We produced the Several Skins of the bear which our hunters had killed at this place and one very nearly white which Capt Lewis had purchased. the White, the deep and pale red grizzle, the dark brown grizzle, and all those that had the extremities of the hair of a White or frosty Colour without reguard [sic] to the Colour of the ground of the poil, [sic] they designated Hoh-host and assured us that they were the Same with the White bear, that they associated together, were very vicisious, [sic] never climb the trees, and had much longer nails than the others."

Indigenous words referenced in Lewis and Clark’s journals include “Matocha” (Mato means grey bear) and “hoh-host”. At this point, I needed a Dakota linguistic specialist, so I contacted Leonard Wabasha, Director of Cultural Resources for the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux (Dakota) Tribe to get his opinion. Leonard thinks Lewis and Clark might have misinterpreted the Dakota speakers, who,
“may have been trying to say that the bears had a smoky color/tint or "Hota" which is also part of the word for sage (peji-hota) although considered to represent the color grey/gray it is visually nearly white.”

So, it appears for the Beltrami text, “white bears” are grizzlies. During his three months in Minnesota in 1823, Beltrami’s main method for staying warm was the “white bear robe” he procured from an Ojibwe person. To date, there aren’t any indications the bear robe survived in the Beltrami Museum collections here in Italy, but I’ll keep searching.

More on White Bears
White Bear Lake, MN
Leonard Wabasha, David Mather and I all decided this linguistic information gives a whole new interpretation to White Bear Lake, MN, a town that is associated with the legend of star-crossed Ojibwe and Dakota lovers being attacked by a “white bear”. The town’s logo is—you guessed it— a polar bear.

White black bears
There is a rare white color phase of the American black bear. John Tanner reports seeing one on the Canadian/Minnesota border in the early 19th century. The Kermode bear, or “Spirit Bear” is a white bear and a sub-species to the American Black Bear. and


Sometime on or around October 31st, the world's population will hit seven billion people.

Population map: A map from the Worldmapper World Population Atlas: (c) Sasi Research Group, University of Sheffield
Population map: A map from the Worldmapper World Population Atlas: (c) Sasi Research Group, University of SheffieldCourtesy / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

(There are a lot of challenges to supporting seven billion people. Want to know more about that? Check out the University of Minnesota's Institute on the Environment, where folks are working to find solutions to some of those problems.)

That's all fascinating and all, but...what about me? Luckily, the BBC has come to the rescue with a lovely little interactive that's, well, all about me. Or you. Whatever.

For example, according to the BBC calculator,

  • At the time of my birth, I was the 3,840,942,641st person to live on Earth.
  • And the 78,068,048,685th person to live since history began.
  • This morning, the United States has a population of 311,284,287 people,
  • In the US, there are 484 births, 288 deaths, and a gain of 113 immigrants every hour, for a total average yearly population growth of 0.9%. (The country with the fastest growing population is Qatar, experiencing an increase of 514 people every day. The country with the fastest shrinking population is Moldova, experiencing a decrease of 106 people every day.)
  • As a woman in the United States, I can look forward to an average life expectancy of 80.5 years. Men in the US, however, enjoy an average life expectancy of only 75.4 years, dragging the US total average down to 78 years. Thanks, men. (The Japanese have the longest average life expectancy in the world, at 82.7 years, while folks in the Central African Republic have an average life expectancy of only 45.9 years.)

Not too shabby!

To give you a sense of just how fast our population is growing, here's a crazy little fact: by mid-century, the world's urban population will equal the size of the world's global population in 2004. Wow. Cities are efficient, and concentrate us so that we can use land for other purposes, but they're also ecological hotspots. Curious about how your household measures up? Try the household flux calculator, or check out the Q&A with Scientist on the Spot Daniel Nidzgorski.

Not enough for you? Check out "Seven billion in seven stories" and "Will people numbers keep rising?"

Oh, and let us know: #whatsyournumber ?


Danse Macabre: Artwork Inspired by the Black Plague.
Danse Macabre: Artwork Inspired by the Black Plague.Courtesy Wikimedia Creative Commons
Halloween is coming up soon and what better way to scare the tar out of everybody than with another Black Plague story.

Researchers from Germany and Canada have now determined that the pathogen existing today that infects the human population with bubonic plague is the same one that caused the horrific pandemic known as the Black Plague (aka Black Death) during the Middle Ages,

In the 14th century (1347-1351) the the plague devastated much of Europe. It was brought on by the bacterium Yersinia pestis and thought to have originated in China. Rats, infested with fleas carrying the bacteria, spread the fatal pathogen via the trade routes and across Europe, wiping out one-third of the human population. This is a conservative estimate; some claim as much as 60 percent of the population was eradicated!

Whatever the case, imagine even a third of all your acquaintances, friends, and relatives suddenly dying from what one 14th century chronicler described as “so virulent a disease that anyone who only spoke to them was seized by a mortal illness and in no manner could evade death.”

And it was an extremely horrible death, to say the least, as Michael Platiensis makes clear in his writings from 1357:

“Those infected felt themselves penetrated by a pain throughout their whole bodies and, so to say, undermined. Then there developed on the thighs or upper arms a boil about the size of a lentil which the people called "burn boil". This infected the whole body, and penetrated it so that the patient violently vomited blood. This vomiting of blood continued without intermission for three days, there being no means of healing it, and then the patient expired.“

[Above quoted in Johannes Nohl, The Black Death, trans. C.H. Clarke (London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1926), pp. 18-20]

The Black Plague was the second of three great waves of plague that raged across Europe during historical times. The first, known historically as the Plague of Justinian, took place in the 6th century and affected the Byzantine Empire and much of Europe. The last major wave, known as the Great Plague of London, killed about 100,000 of the city’s population in 1664-65. In the two centuries that followed, waves after wave of the plague continued to devastate the European population although on a lesser scale. These outbreaks although sometimes as virulent, were often more isolated regionally or within a city and kept Europe’s population from rebounding for a good century and a half.

The plague presents itself in three ways: bubonic, septicemic, and pneumonic. All three infections are caused by Y. pestis. With bubonic plague, the lymph nodes become painfully swollen into what are termed buboes – hence the name bubonic. Scepticemic plague, the rarest of the three forms, infects the blood. Both bubonic and scepticemic, if left untreated, result in death between 3-7 days after infection. Pneumonic is the most contagious since it infects the lungs and is easily spread through the air in a spray of water droplets. It’s also the most lethal and usually kills its victims in one to three days. Each form can present itself on its own or can progress into all three. It’s thought the Black Plague was mainly a combination of the bubonic and pneumonic forms. (The practice still used today of saying, “Bless you” after someone sneezes is a holdover from the 14th century plague) The only defense against the pandemic was avoidance of fleas and the fatally sick. Not easy to pull off when rats and the afflicted were widespread. Infected families were generally quarantined, their houses marked with a red cross, and left to fend for themselves.

The plague had a tremendous effect on European life in the Middle Ages. The Hundred Years’ War actually paused briefly in 1348 for lack of soldiers. The plague had wiped out too many of them. Economically, wages rose sharply because the workforce was also greatly reduced. Shop owners suffered because no one dared step outside the confines of their own homes, so supplies rose and prices dropped. The removal of the rotting corpses required relatives either doing it themselves and further risking infection, or paying premium prices for some other poor schlub to do it. The dead were buried as quickly as possible, often in mass graves.

In the recent research which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Dr. Johannes Krause and his colleagues extracted DNA from the tooth enamel of five corpses from one of these 14th century mass burial sites in London (under the Royal Mint!). Using the latest technology to sequence the DNA fragments, the researchers from the University of Tubingen in Germany, and McMaster University in Canada, decoded a circular genome called pPCP1 plasmid that comprises about 10,000 positions in the Y. pestis DNA. When they compared it with the genome of the pathogen’s current strain, the genetic information appeared to have changed very little over the past six centuries. (It should be noted that the researchers suspect the pathogen that occurred in the 6th century may have been a now-extinct strain of Y. pestis or one completely unrelated to bubonic plague.)

So, that means the very same nasty contagion – the one that terrorized and devastated so much of Europe for so many centuries in the Middle Ages - is still with us today. Luckily, the bubonic plague can be held at bay with antibodies if treated in time. But what happens if Yersinia pestis mutates into a strain against which current antibodies are useless? If that doesn’t make the hair on the back of your neck stand on end, I don’t know what will.

Happy Halloween!

Scientific Computing story
The Black Plague by Dr. Skip Knox, Boise State
Plague symptons and signs – in case you get it
Nifty Black Death quiz – thanks Liza!


Painted Bison Hide, Dakota, in the collection of Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo Italy
Painted Bison Hide, Dakota, in the collection of Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo ItalyCourtesy Museo di Scienze Naturali Encirco Caffi, Bergamo Italy
If contemporary star quilts and painted bison hides are rooted in the same tradition, that means women were (and still are!) important producers of ceremonially painted arts in Dakota communities in 1823.

Ethnographic accounts prior to the 1970s often left women out of the picture regarding the production of art. Specifically, western anthropologists suggested ceremonial and “high” art was the work of men, when in fact women were the primary tanners and painters of hides.

Patricia Albers and Beatrice Medicine edited an important volume, "The Hidden Half, Studies of Plains Indian Women" in 1983. One article discusses the development of star quilts from hide painting traditions. This isn’t a new story—centuries-old forms and designs are adapted according to new materials, tools, and ideas—however, this dialogue is helping me consider the two painted bison hides and the importance of women in the Beltrami story.
Star Quilt, Dakota; Collection of the Science Museum of Minnesota A91:13:1
Star Quilt, Dakota; Collection of the Science Museum of Minnesota A91:13:1Courtesy Science Museum of Minnesota

Designs on the Beltrami painted hides consist of radiating concentric circles, sometimes called headdress, sun, or star designs. Contemporary star quilts usually employ an 8-pointed star motif. According to ethnologies and Dakota oral histories, the 8-pointed star represents Venus, or the Morning Star and carries various meanings including immortality and death. Red painted bison hides historically wrapped the dead, and Dakota people still use star quilts during funerals. Today, people gift star quilts to denote passages in life like marriage and the birth of a child, and to honor a person.

Are the two traditions related? Why did Beltrami receive two painted hides? What do you think?


Back in 1823, Italian explorer Giacomo Beltrami did.

Giacomo Beltrami
Giacomo BeltramiCourtesy Wikemidia Commons

Before famous explorers like George Catlin (1830), Seth Eastman (1830), and Nathan Sturges Jarvis (1833) visited Minnesota and assembled cultural and artistic collections relating to Minnesota’s indigenous people, Giacomo Costantino Beltrami navigated the Mississippi River—mostly solo and protected primarily by a red silk umbrella. Beltrami’s reasoning—correctly it turns out—was the red umbrella would be so exotic he would not be mistaken as a tribal member to the warring Dakota and Ojibwe nations.

Beltrami tagged along on the official US reconnaissance mission to map the "Northwest" (currently the state of Minnesota). Beltrami and Maj. Stephen J. Long disagreed during the journey, and in Pembina they parted ways. Beltrami took off with three Ojibwe guides in a birchbark canoe to search for the source of the Mississippi River--his goal all along.

Within five days they'd been ambushed by neighboring Dakota Indians, one of the Ojibwes was wounded, and they were running out of supplies. The Ojibwe guides tried to convince Beltrami to walk to Red Lake with them, but he refused to leave his canoe and his collections.

So there Beltrami sat alone, a foreigner in the wilderness with a canoe, a rifle, and a red umbrella. Unable to master paddling solo, he dragged the canoe after him with a tow line and propped the umbrella in the bow--basically to make onlookers curious before they shot at him.

Why is this story relevant to science? Beltrami wasn't just an explorer, he was a collector. He amassed over 100 American Indian objects through diplomacy, exchanges, barter, and purchases. He consciously and thoroughly documented where he purchased the pieces and whom he purchased them from, leaving us with a rare resource that has the potential to expand our understanding of the cultural exchanges and personal interactions that occurred between Beltrami and Minnesota’s Indigenous people in 1823.

This 188 year-old ethnographic collection is the basis for my research for the next year. Stay tuned to Science Buzz for more research findings.

Oh, and that red umbrella? It's in the collection too! Beltrami's red umbrella, Museo di Scienze Naturali Bergamo, Italy
Beltrami's red umbrella, Museo di Scienze Naturali Bergamo, ItalyCourtesy Tilly Laskey


You are Cordially Invited

Publication Party, Public Reading, and Book Signing Event

FOOL ME TWICE: Fighting the Assault on Science in America

Introduction by Don Shelby
Emcee Jim Lenfestey

"A gripping analysis of America's anti-science crisis."
Starred Kirkus Review
“In this incredible book, Otto explores the devaluation of science in America.”
Starred Publishers Weekly Review

You know you want to read it. Click here for more info
You know you want to read it. Click here for more infoCourtesy Shawn Lawerence Otto

Tuesday October 18, 2011 at 7PM
Target Performance Hall, Open Book
1011 Washington Avenue South, Minneapolis
(click here for directions and free parking)
This event is free and open to the public

sponsored by
the Loft Literary Center
the Science Museum of Minnesota

no reservation required, but click here to RSVP to help us plan

Beer, wine and light refreshments served
Books for sale at the event
Free book by drawing. To qualify: A) post about the event on Facebook B) tweet at the event with hashtag #FoolMeTwice and mention @ShawnOtto


According to their website, National Fossil Day is a "celebration organized to promote public awareness and stewardship of fossils, as well as to foster a greater appreciation of their scientific and educational value." This year the celebration is set for October 12, and like last year, I'll probably be doing several posts regarding fossils and the event itself over the next couple of weeks. So with that in mind, here's my first contribution.

Skull of Amia uintaensis (bowfin): Large and well-preserved fossil fish from Fossil Lake deposits shows fine detail, including scales and skin. The full fossil is 49 inches in length. Science Museum of Minnesota collection.
Skull of Amia uintaensis (bowfin): Large and well-preserved fossil fish from Fossil Lake deposits shows fine detail, including scales and skin. The full fossil is 49 inches in length. Science Museum of Minnesota collection.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Tucked in a corner of the Dinosaur and Fossils Gallery here at the Science Museum of Minnesota is a display of fossil fish from the famous Green River Formation. The display offers visitors a look at some of the most well known fossils in the world. Visit a rock shop, natural history store, souvenir shop, or museum just about anywhere and you’ll find fish fossils from the Green River Formation for sale. Literally millions of fossils have been extracted from the formation, so it’s no surprise at all to find some in our paleontology gallery. The display represents only a fraction of the Green River fossils in the Science Museum of Minnesota collection.

Fossil Butte: The butte stands in Fossil Butte National Monument and represents the ancient deposition remains of the center of Fossil Lake in western Wyoming. Limestone and mudstone layers near the top of the butte are rich in fossil fish and other fauna and flora from the Eocene Epoch.
Fossil Butte: The butte stands in Fossil Butte National Monument and represents the ancient deposition remains of the center of Fossil Lake in western Wyoming. Limestone and mudstone layers near the top of the butte are rich in fossil fish and other fauna and flora from the Eocene Epoch.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The sources of this splendid array of extraordinary fossils are the deposits left by three freshwater lakes that existed around 50 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch. These ephemeral bodies of water existed across 17 million years of time, and not all at the same time. Lake Gosiute was the largest in area with a diameter of about 200 miles. Lake Uinta had the most surface area and was the shallowest and existed the longest. Fossil Lake was the smallest and the shortest-lived – but the deepest. The lakes existed in a subtropical environment flush with all sorts of animal life from insects to mammals. More than 20 species of fish populated the waters while crocodiles, turtles and other reptiles basked along lake shores lined with lush forests of palm and fig trees. Birds and bats flew through the sky. Ferns sprouted in the shadowed woodlands of oaks and maples that grew up the slopes of the surrounding mountains. Fir and spruce trees existed in the higher elevations. Fossil remains from this past life are found in all of the basins where the three lakes once existed, but Fossil Lake, as its name implies, produces the most abundant Green River Formation fossils, especially fossil fish.

Fossil Butte: The rich fossil deposits were first discovered by workers for the Union Pacific Railroad.
Fossil Butte: The rich fossil deposits were first discovered by workers for the Union Pacific Railroad.Courtesy Mark Ryan
Railroad workers helping expand the Union Pacific railroad in the mid-1800s first discovered the fossil deposits near the town of Green River, Wyoming. The discovery soon drew the attention of scientists. A geologist named Dr. John Evans collected some of the first fossils from the region in 1856, and Philadelphia paleontologist, Joseph Leidy, soon after described for the first time, Knightia eocaena, the most common fossil fish found in the formation. Edward Drinker Cope, another paleontologist, also collected from the deposits and wrote several important papers starting in 1870.

Heliobastis radiens: A stingray found in the Green River Formation deposits. Science Museum of Minnesota collection.
Heliobastis radiens: A stingray found in the Green River Formation deposits. Science Museum of Minnesota collection.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The fossils on display at the Science Museum include Amia, Knightia, Diplomystus, and the exquisite stingray Heliobatis all preserved in buff-colored slabs consisting of soft lamination of mudstone, limestone, and volcanic ash. There’s also a slab of garfish, and an unlabelled predator named Priscacara next to the large palm frond on the wall near the entrance. Lance Grande (a graduate of the University of Minnesota and paleontologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago) is considered the leading expert in the fossil remains found in the Green River Formation. His book Paleontology of the Green River Formation (which I referenced heavily for this post) is considered a classic, and contains photos of many specimens found in the Science Museum’s collection.

The two main fish-bearing units in the strata are the 18-inch Layer and the Split-Fish Layer. The formation is considered a laggerstatte (which means storage place) where nearly an entire ecological system is finely preserved in the fossil record. Several lagerstätten exist around the world but the Cambrian-aged Burgess Shale in British Columbia, and the Late Jurassic-aged Solnhofen quarry in Germany are probably the two best known.

Green River Formation: Strata of the famed fossil-rich formation visible in Fossil Butte National Monument. The butte represents deposits from what was once the center of Fossil Lake that existed 50 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch in what is now western Wyoming.
Green River Formation: Strata of the famed fossil-rich formation visible in Fossil Butte National Monument. The butte represents deposits from what was once the center of Fossil Lake that existed 50 million years ago during the Eocene Epoch in what is now western Wyoming.Courtesy Mark Ryan
The deposited remains of what used to be the center of Fossil Lake today form a high butte in western Wyoming that towers a thousand feet above the Visitor Center at Fossil Butte National Monument. The monument was established in 1972 and is located 9 miles west of Kemmerer, Wyoming in the extreme southwestern corner of the state. Despite its somewhat isolated location, it’s well worth going out of your way to see.

Abandoned workers' shelter: Historic Quarry at Fossil Butte National Monument.
Abandoned workers' shelter: Historic Quarry at Fossil Butte National Monument.Courtesy Mark Ryan
My brother Pat and I visited the area on one of our recent geo-trips out west. We first stopped at the Fossil Butte visitor center where, not surprisingly, some extremely rare and high quality Green River fossils were on display, including insects, lizards, turtles, crocodiles, birds, bats, and other mammals. Finely preserved fossils of leaves, cattails, flowers and fruit are also on display. We watched a short film explaining the area and the fossils found there, then Pat and I headed out to a nearby abandoned fossil quarry within the park for a bit of exploration on our own. We parked in the designated lot just off the highway, grabbed our packs and some water, and began our ascent to the Historic Quarry. The climb along the 2.5 mile hiking trail was no picnic – it took about an hour to get to the top, but information signs dot the trail to guide and inform you as you go along. Historic Quarry: Pat Ryan stands level with the fossil-rich 18-Inch Layer located in the abandoned quarry at the top of Fossil Butte.
Historic Quarry: Pat Ryan stands level with the fossil-rich 18-Inch Layer located in the abandoned quarry at the top of Fossil Butte.Courtesy Mark Ryan
And the view of the wide Wyoming landscape is breath-taking. The main trail eventually runs parallel to the butte and along that stretch is an a-frame shack used by workers who excavated the quarry back when it was still operating. Every once in a while we’d come upon a slab of rock that had fallen from the fossil layer above. You could tell this by its buff color, plus one we examined contained the partial remains of the head of a Diplosmystus. The regular hiking trail took us about 600 feet above the highway, but to get to the 18-inch Layer we had to take a spur trail another couple hundred feet up above that.

The 18-Inch Layer exposed at Fossil Butte's Historic Quarry: Fossils from this layer of the Green River Formation are exhibited in museums all over the world.
The 18-Inch Layer exposed at Fossil Butte's Historic Quarry: Fossils from this layer of the Green River Formation are exhibited in museums all over the world.Courtesy Pat Ryan
The 18-inch Layer contains some of the best preserved fossils in the world, and is composed of limestone, oil shale, and volcanic ash. The lacustrine (lake) deposits are laid out in alternating pairs (varves) of light and dark layers each representing an annual cycle of sedimentation. Overall there’s about 4000 years of deposition represented in the layer. Three feet beneath the 18-inch Layer (but not exposed at the Historic Quarry) is a second major fossil unit named the Split Fish Layer (or sandwich layers). This unit is about 6-1/2 feet thick and is so called because when the rock is separated, the fossils themselves split between the top and bottom layers diminishing the quality. When the layers of the 18-inch Layer are separated the fossils are found on only one sheet and protected under a layer of matrix that has to be expertly removed. The Split Fish Layer fossils usually need little if any preparation. According to Fossil Butte museum curator, Arvid Aase, there actually exists several so-called split fish layers, three of them above the 18-inch Layer, along with what are called a mini-fish layer and gastropod bed.

The fossilization process that occurred in the Green River Formation is unique in that the lakes contained a nearly perfect and ideal environment for preserving the delicate remains of its biosphere. A constant rain of calcium carbonate suspended in the waters insured that any dead creature or plant lying on the bottom would be covered and protected from bacteria or the elements. The deeper waters were probably anoxic – meaning lacking oxygen – which aided in further protecting the remains. The fossils are wonderfully preserved, showing fine skeletal details, scales, skin, and even feathers in some cases, all preserved as delicate carbon traces of the once living entity.

Knightia eocaena: The most common genus of fish found in the Green River Formation. Remains are sometimes found in mass mortality layers such as shown here. Science Museum of Minnesota collection.
Knightia eocaena: The most common genus of fish found in the Green River Formation. Remains are sometimes found in mass mortality layers such as shown here. Science Museum of Minnesota collection.Courtesy Mark Ryan
It’s thought that algal blooms sometimes occurred in the lakes during the warmer seasons resulting in mass mortalities of thousands of fish. Large slabs containing more fossil fish than you can count are still being mined from the area.

When I’m working my Tuesday afternoon shift in the Dinosaur and Fossils gallery at the museum I often carry with me a Green River Formation fossil of a leaf to share with visitors. I’ll scratch the matrix with a key or fingernail to allow visitors to experience the oily odor that that emanates from within the rock. Actually the odor is from kerogen a bituminous organic compound in the rock that serves as a source for oil shale, considered a substitute for crude oil. The Green River Formation contains the largest oil shale deposits in the world greatly exceeding the oil reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Be aware that since the Historic Quarry trail is part of Fossil Butte National Monument, collecting of any kind of fossils is prohibited within its borders but fortunately several commercial operations in the area allow you to enter a quarry for a fee and dig up your very own fossils to take home. I’ve never done this so I can’t vouch for any of these commercial dig sites but I am including some links below for some of the more well-known ones in the area.

But even if you can’t make it out to Fossil Butte National Monument this year, you can still come the Science Museum of Minnesota and see our collection, or visit a natural history museum in your own area. Chances are they’ll have some fabulous Green River Formation fossils on display to share with you.

GRF info at the Virtual Fossil Museum
Collection and preparation of fossil fish
Historical Geology of the GRF
Ulrich Quarry Fossil Gallery
Warfield Fossil Quarry