Outside of O’Neill is the Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park (it is also a National Natural Landmark), which is an amazing place to visit. There is a very large building, Hubbard Rhino Barn, that you can visit and see paleontologist digging out the fossil bones of rhinos and horses that lived in the area about 60 million years ago.
During that time, this area was a savannah, with lots of watering holes. Due to volcanic eruptions hundreds of miles to the west (think Yellowstone Park or Idaho area), ash was blown over the land and covered everything. The animals suffocated from damage to their lungs from the ash fall. Smaller animals with smaller lungs died first, therefore the fossils of the smaller animals (beaver, rats, etc.) are found beneath the rhinos and other larger animals and not intermingled with them.
Inside the visitors’ center was a paleontologist working to remove dirt from a bone that had been removed from the site. They dig around the fossils to be removed, then cover them with a plaster cast, which protects them while being moved.
Inside the Rhino Barn, two other paleontologists were working to remove soil from a fossil inside the large display area, which still has a lot of fossil yet to be uncovered. One was a university student working for the summer. To do the job, she was using what appeared to be tools like a dentist uses to clean your teeth. Slowly she would remove the soil to uncover the fossils.
Most of the fossils that are discovered in the dig building are left “in situ,” or in the position they were found. The fossils inside the Rhino Barn, are so numerous as this was the site of a watering hole. All the animals came here to get a drink. Just the day before our visit she had uncovered a footprint from an ancestor of today’s dogs.
There is a sidewalk between the visitors’ center and the Rhino Barn that is like a “walk through time” from today, through the geological layers to 12 million years ago as you enter the Rhino Barn. The length of the sidewalk between geological the timeline markers are representative of the distance back in time you have gone. We passed across the red 3 inch line (which represents the entire recorded history of humans on earth) at the beginning of the walk with one small stride. It is humbling to see how small our existence has been.
Along the sidewalk are markers that show the time period for that level of soil, what animals were living in this area at that time. Occasionally, actual unprotected in situ digs show fossils uncovered for that time period.
There are several buildings that provide “hands on” activities for children These activities explain things very simply.
There is also a large outdoor activity that has fossil bones secured to the base of the exhibit and covered with the sand found in the area. Anyone can use a brush to discover and expose these animal fossils. Lewis took a turn at it and was successful in finding a femur bone from a horse type animal. He says that we need to go back to Ashfall because he forgot to pick up his “Junior Paleontologist” patch.