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Online exhibits : Special exhibits : Fossils in our parklands
Yellowstone National Park Wyoming, Idaho, Montana
Throughout the 28,000 square miles of Yellowstone National Park, the majority of which is located in northwest Wyoming, visitors can see and experience diverse animals, vegetation, geology and natural history. While the park is best known for its more than 10,000 thermal features and active geysers, Yellowstone's stratigraphic record spans the Precambrian Era to the Holocene Epoch the oldest rocks being 2.7 billion years old and many of these rocks are fossiliferous.
The first fossils to be found were fossil plants reported by paleobotanist Charles Leo Lesquereaux in 1872, the very year that Yellowstone became the world's first national park. Since that time, fossils have been found in rocks of Cambrian, Ordovician, Devonian, Mississippian, Permian, Jurassic, Cretaceous, Eocene, Pleistocene, and Holocene age within the park:1
Cambrian: trilobites, brachiopods, hyolithids, archaeocyathids, stromatolites, invertebrate traces, fossil fragments
The petrified forests
Paleobotanist Charles Brian Read (1907-1979) collected and described specimens of coniferous trees from some of the park's petrified forests after completing his graduate work at at UC Berkeley (1927-1930). UCMP's Ralph Chaney apparently encouraged Read to pursue paleobotany. During the summer of 1930, Read conducted a study of the Tertiary plants of Yellowstone National Park2 with funding from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, which Chaney was affiliated with at that time. The specimens Read collected which represent Sequoia magnifica (Read described it as being very similar to today's Sequoia sempervirens), Pinus baumani, Pinus fallax, and Cupressinoxylon lamarense (i.e., a coniferous tree having an internal structure similar to that of present-day cypress) were reposited at UCMP and are in the database. After his summer at Yellowstone, Read accepted a position with the USGS (August 1930) and remained with them for the rest of his career.
Hadly excavated a single pit of fossils, distributed through 16 stratigraphic levels, in Lamar Cave between 1987 and 1993. She did her Masters thesis at Northern Arizona University on the cave's mammals and continued the work for her Ph.D. dissertation at UC Berkeley.
Hadly found that the Lamar Cave fossils demonstrated an ecosystem transition. The lowest and oldest layers contained bones from the prairie vole (Microtus ochrogaster), a mammal no longer found in Yellowstone. While vole fossils decreased, those of ground squirrels (Spermophilus sp.) increased. The prairie vole tends to live in tall-grass habitats and ground squirrels prefer more open grasslands, like those that exist in Yellowstone today. This change suggests and is supported by pollen studies in a nearby pond that the habitat transitioned from tall-grass to more open grasslands during a prolonged period of aridity. Radiocarbon dates indicate that the transition took place over a period of 500 to 600 years. These types of transitions have also been documented in the modern record on the High Plains and the central Great Plains. In addition to this ecosystem-focused research, fossils from Lamar Cave have been utilized to evaluate climate effects on mammal populations such as pocket gophers, patterns of species diversity, and genetic diversity in montane voles and northern pocket gophers over time.
Yellowstone fossils have had a significant impact on diversity, ecology, and climate-change research and remain valuable resources for paleontologists.
In the collections
A search of the UCMP database returns 8509 results for Lamar Cave. Eighteen hundred of those are amphibian (salamander) specimens; the remaining 6709 are all mammal specimens.3 About 30 genera are represented, with the most common mammals being voles (more than 27% of the total), ground squirrels (~18%), wood rats (~14%), deer mice (more than 12%), and pocket gophers (~9.5%). The fish, reptile, and bird specimens collected by Hadly may have been retained by the National Park Service for its own collections. While the fossils from Lamar Cave are curated and databased in the UCMP collection, they are currently housed at Stanford University, where they continue to be studied.
Note: Collection of fossil material is illegal unless done under a permit from the National Park Service. If you think you have found a fossil on National Park lands, please contact a park representative.
Barnosky, E.H. 1994. Ecosystem dynamics through the past 2000 years as revealed by fossil mammals from Lamar Cave in Yellowstone National Park, USA. Historical Biology 8(1-4):71-90. doi:10.1080/10292389409380472
Barnosky, A.D., C.J. Bell, S.D. Emslie, H.T. Goodwin, J.I. Mead, C.A. Repenning, E. Scott, and A.B. Shabel. 2004. Exceptional record of mid-Pleistocene vertebrates helps differentiate climatic from anthropogenic ecosystem perturbations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 101(25):9297-9302. doi:10.1073/pnas.0402592101
Hadly, E. 1997. Evolutionary and ecological response of pocket gophers (Thomomys talpoides) to late-Holocene climatic change. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society 60(2):277-296. doi:10.1006/bijl.1996.0094
Hadly, E.A., U. Ramakrishnan, Y.L. Chan, M. van Tuinen, K. O'Keefe, P.A. Spaeth, and C.J. Conroy. 2004. Genetic response to climatic change: Insights from ancient DNA and phylochronology. PLoS Biology 2(10):e290. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.0020290
Lesquereux, L. 1872. An enumeration with descriptions of some Tertiary fossil plants from specimens procured in the explorations of Dr. F.V. Hayden in 1870. U.S. Geological and Geographical Survey of the Territories (Hayden) Annual Report 5, Suppl.:283-318.
1 Based on a paleontological inventory taken by the National Park Service (2012 data). Fossil inventories for all the NPS fossil parks can be found on The Paleontology Portal's Fossils in the National Parks" module.
NPS photo of Yellowstone's Lower Falls by A. Mebane.
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