Gone Fishin’ At Fossil Butte

50 million year old meal, interrupted

50 million year old meal, interrupted. Knightia eocaena, the state fossil of Wyoming, being eaten by Phareodus encaustus.

My Uncle Frank always gave us kids the best Christmas gifts, like kites and gyroscopes and one year, a fossilized fish. That unidentified ichthyous slab still sits on a shelf at my parents’ house in Pennsylvania and I’ll bet any money that it’s from the Green River Formation in Wyoming. Southwestern Wyoming is the source of zillions of fossils from the Eocene epoch, back when mammals were first evolving hooves and placentas and the planet was much warmer and wetter and all the landmasses from pole to pole were covered by trees.

Not just fish: plants too, like this massive palm frond.

A massive palm frond found at Fossil Butte

Around 50 million years ago, the region around Kemmerer, Wyoming was covered by a lake known today as Fossil Lake. The quiet water, fine-grained sediments and water chemistry were ideal for preserving dead organisms as they sank to the bottom of the basin and the many layers of shale that were formed over several million years of deposition contain one of the most complete and most detailed fossilized records found anywhere on Earth. We’re not just talking fish, but also alligators, bats, snakes, turtles, early horses, insects; a whole ecosystem of plants and animals. The record is so complete that paleontologists can piece together the lake’s food web: fish are found in the act of eating other fish and bite marks on fossilized leaves match up with the mouth parts of fossilized insects.

Snakes are my favorite skeletons.

Snakes are my favorite skeletons.

A stingray!

A stingray! The lake was likely freshwater, but may have had pockets of  saltier water.

The Green River Formation is massive and less than 1.5 percent is protected within the bounds of Fossil Butte National Monument. Commercial digging outside the monument yields hundreds of thousands of fossilized fish and other specimens each year. Fish from Green River are the most common fossilized vertebrates offered for sale and the small herring-like fish Knightia eocaena is the most abundant vertebrate fossil in the world.

The vast sagebrush country around Fossil Butte

The vast sagebrush country around Fossil Butte. The ghost town of Fossil, Wyoming is barely visible down below.

I visited Fossil Butte for the first time in April 2009, on a road trip from New Mexico to Montana, but it was freezing cold and raining and I didn’t take a hike. This time, it was a blue bird day so the dogs and I hiked a three mile loop up to the historic quarry at the base of Fish Cliff.

Collecting fossils is prohibited on federal land. Big Brother is watching...

Collecting fossils is prohibited on federal land. Big Brother is watching…

David Haddenham's cabin, his home base in the summers for over 20 years while he worked the nearby quarry.

David Haddenham’s cabin, built in 1918, and his home base in the summers for over 20 years while he worked the nearby quarry, in the cliffs above.

Cozy, eh? Note the cardboard insulation.

Cozy, eh? Note the cardboard insulation.

Haddenham's quarry is still worked by paleontology students.

Haddenham’s quarry is still worked by paleontology students.

Layers of shale and sandstone with a little volcanic tuff thrown here and there. Tuff is used to radiocarbon date the layers.

Layers of shale and sandstone with a little volcanic tuff thrown here and there. Most of the fossils come from two layers nicknamed the “Split-fish” and “18-inch” layers.

Beautiful varves! Varves are seasonal layers

Beautiful varves! Varves are layers produced by seasonal  changes in water chemistry. Darker colors contain more organic matter and are usually laid down in the summer months, while lighter layers are associated with winter, when fewer plants are growing.

The bright orange layer here is volcanic tuff, deposited by a volcanic eruption sometime during the lake's existence.

The bright orange layer here is volcanic tuff, deposited by a volcanic eruption sometime during the lake’s existence. The tuff contains biotite and feldspar which can be used to radiocarbon date the rocks. These tuff layers are found throughout the Green River Formation and serve as marker beds to date the fossils found above and below the tuff.

A fish! Well two fish. Not a great specimen, but still fun to find. I left it where I found it.

A fish! Well two fish. Not a great specimen, but still fun to find. I’m holding it upside down, with the head pointing up and to the left. I left it where I found it.

Another fish (presumably) in situ.

Another fish (presumably) in situ. We’re looking at it end-on.

Quarry D.O.G.

Quarry D.O.G.

Layers & Lines

Layers & Lines

Love fossils? Check out my previous post Wonderful Life about my geo-pilgrimage to the Burgess Shale in British Columbia. I also wrote a feature about that trek for EARTH’s Travels in Geology column. Wait a minute, wasn’t I heading West before my SLC detour? Yep, but now Wyoming is calling me… stay tuned! :)

About theblondecoyote

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer with degrees in biology and geology and a master’s in science writing. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, she has also written for the anthologies Best Women's Travel Writing 2010 and Best Travel Writing 2011. Mary is currently traveling the backroads from New Mexico to Alaska, writing and living out of a tiny Teardrop camper. When she’s not at the computer she can usually be found outside -- hiking, climbing mountains and taking photographs. Visit her website at www.marycapertonmorton.com.
This entry was posted in Bowie & D.O.G., Hiking!, Photography, Road tripping!, Science Writing, Teardrop Trailer, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Gone Fishin’ At Fossil Butte

  1. lexy3587 says:

    What a cool place – I’ll have to add that to my list of places I want to go! I am especially pleased that you could bring the dogs there. There are a lot of great hikes in Ontario that are very not-dog-friendly, unfortunately, especially things like the one you went on.

  2. Very interesting. I thought the snake fossil was just great! No wonder snake skeletons are you favorite.

  3. Andy says:

    Think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen a snake skeleton.

  4. Nature Is My Nurture says:

    How gorgeous! I especially loved the snake skeleton. Your tattoo is wonderful :)

  5. Skylo says:

    I liked the old yellow car. Nice pics.

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