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Nebraska's fossil state park provides clues to the past

Hot sun warms the cattle grazing low-lying hills. A brisk breeze rattles leaves of trees marking the curves of distant draws. This summer day is not much different than the one eons ago when the world ended here for hundreds of animals very different from now those in northeast Nebraska's pastures.

Perhaps 10-million years ago, this grassland was much like an African savannah. Herds of roving rhinos, camels and small striped horses perished at what is now Nebraska's Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park.

The layers of skeletons trapped in this ancient prairie Pompeii tell a sad story, yet at the same time they provide encyclopedic information about the era when curious-looking creatures that were never seen by human beings roamed here.

The beginning of the end for the birds and beasts living near this shallow watering place came when a volcano erupted about 1,000 miles to the west. A great spew of fire and ash shut out the sun for hundreds of square miles.

Then the wind shoved the strangling cloud eastward. Like a Nebraska blizzard, deadly ash rained from the sky _ poisoning the water, covering lush grass, clogging nostrils of grazing animals, until, in a matter of days, hundreds of them had choked to death.

Thus was created this amazing fossil deposit, which modern scholars read like chapters in an immense book of North American prehistory.

This particular volume was opened in 1971, when heavy spring rains gashed a deep gully in the edge of a cornfield near Royal. Later that year a local boy, Mike Voorhies, who later became a paleontologist, discovered the skull of a complete baby rhino protruding from the side of that wash. It lay near the bottom of a newly exposed vein of glittering gray ash and was the first of more than 100 rhino skeletons to be excavated by University of Nebraska State Museum crews.

Like detectives at the scene of a crime, paleontologists continue to piece together clues to exactly what happened by studying the arrangement of the skeletal bodies. At the bottom of the ash bed were bones of pond turtles, birds, musk deer and small carnivores. These probably died soon after ash began to fall.

Just above them in the dust lay skeletons of the primitive camels (looking much like modern llamas) and dog-sized horses that succumbed next. The early victims were chewed on by scavengers or were crushed and trampled by larger animals that survived longer.

Finally, there are the big rhinos. Along with occasional giant tortoises, they were the last to die.

Complete barrel-bodied rhino skeletons lie with legs tucked under their bellies or stretched on their sides as if napping. Calves' skulls rest in nursing positions against their mothers.

The animals at Ashfall were covered over quickly and preserved in three dimensions. Often even the contents of their last meal can be determined from debris inside the rib cage.

Scavengers had no time to scatter the bones of the dead. So Ashfall's bone piles form real animal shapes, unlike most fossil finds.

Visitors to this State Historical Park follow a path along the ridge from the small museum and information center to the Rhino Barn, a large wooden building designed to be spectator friendly.

Inside, many fossils have been left in the ground. While paleontologists work at picking and toothbrushing the thousands of bones from the ages-old soil, people watch from the sidelines. Questions posed are answered by bone hunters on duty at the moment.

Since the volcano was so far away, and this much ash landed here, why aren't there other places with similar deposits? During the Ice Ages when glaciers crept down from the Arctic, they pulverized everything in their path. In fact, if ice had come just five miles closer to this place, all these skeletons would have been reduced to powder, and their story erased forever.

University of Nebraska paleontologists hope that one of these days an Ashfall worker will brush away dust from what is left of one of the long-sought large predators _ a sabertooth cat or bear-dog. Bite marks on bones collected here, and even fossilized droppings full of chewed bone, tell experts that big meat-eaters were close at hand that summer day the volcano erupted so far away.

It's only a matter of time before we find one, they say.

If You Go

Preservation of Ashfall is made possible through the cooperation of the Nebraska Game and Parks Foundation, the Burlington Northern Foundation and the University of Nebraska State Museum.

Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park, P.O. Box 66, Royal, NE 68773; (402) 893-2000. Located six miles north of U.S. 20 between the towns of Royal and Orchard in northern Antelope County.

Admission fee: $1.50, for those 6 years and older. Vehicles entering the state park must have a Nebraska Park Entry Permit, one day $2.50 or annual fee $14, available at the park entrance.

There are picnic shelters on the premises. RV parking is available at the visitors center, but no camping areas have been developed.

Open Memorial Day through Labor Day daily. Call State Museum at (402) 472-6302 from 8 a.m.-noon Monday-Friday.

Mary L. Sherk is a freelance writer living in Broomfield, Colo.