After exploring Scotts Bluff and learning the history of the Oregon Trail, Chelsea and I continued north to our next stop: Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. Here, we would learn about a very different time in Nebraska’s history. With my semester wrapping up just a couple days prior to our departure, I hadn’t really had time to do much research on these locations. So I assumed Agate Fossil Beds was home to dinosaur fossils. Well, you know what they say about assuming…
Turns out the fossils here are from prehistoric mammals that died during a drought about 19-20 million years ago. During this time – called the Miocene Epoch – the Great Plains looked much like the present-day African savanna, sandy soils teeming with plant life that supported many types of mammals. Agate Fossil Beds is thought to be the site of an ancient watering hole. During droughts, animals would have congregated here in order to remain hydrated. As the watering hole dried up, the animals eventually died. Once the rains returned, sediment deposited by the flowing water covered the bones, allowing them to fossilize. This is the most realistic hypothesis for how the remains of so many animals were found in such a small area.
The first bones at Agate Fossil Beds were uncovered in the late 1800s and the area soon became one of the most important paleontological sites in North America. The many fossils provided insight into the types of animals that once roamed the Great Plains. This includes prehistoric gazelle-like camels called Stenomylus, a small three-toed rhinoceros called Menoceras, a prehistoric horse called Parahippus, a beardog (Daephoenodon), and a pig/cow type scavenger called Dinohyus. Scientists have also uncovered fossilized footprints of these animals, bones with bite marks in them, and beardog dens.
By far, the neatest type of fossil here is the Daemonelix (dee-muh-nee-lix). When scientist Erwin H. Barbour first uncovered one, he guessed it was the fossilized root of a large prehistoric plant. He named it the Daemonelix or Devil’s Corkscrew. If I’d been the one to discover it, I’m not sure what I would have thought it was. Maybe a giant fossilized drill bit?
But in all seriousness, that is what a Daemonelix looks like… enormous and corkscrew shaped. As for what it actually is… it’s the fossilized burrow of a prehistoric land beaver called Palaeocastor. The animals dug these spiral passageways down to a larger living area. The organization of the burrows is similar to the systems of tunnels built by prairie dogs, suggesting that Palaeocastor lived in a community structure similar to that of prairie dog towns. The spiral passageways eventually filled with silt, which hardened within the burrows and preserved their structure along with the remains of Palaeocastor within the coiled tunnels.
A 1 mile (1.6 km) loop trail departs from the entrance of the monument and leads out to multiple partially excavated Daemonelixes (Daemonelixi? Daemonelices? Your guess is as good as mine). They’ve been encased to protect them, which is good, but unfortunately made it difficult to photograph most of them. Guess you’ll just have to visit to see them all for yourself!
Also at the monument is a visitor center which has many fossils on display, a brief (very interesting) film about the history of Agate Fossil Beds, and other exhibits. The Fossil Hill Trail departs from here as well and leads out to University Hill and Carnegie Hill, the sites where a majority of the bones were discovered. We didn’t have time to hike the whole trail, but we walked a short distance out to the Niobrara River. Personally, I’m not sure I’d call the Niobrara a river. It’s small and slow-moving. But it’s pretty.
And that’s Agate Fossil Beds. Stay tuned for one more post about our explorations in western Nebraska. It’s a surprisingly neat area!
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Agate Fossil Beds is located just off Highway 29 in northwestern Nebraska. Don’t blindly trust your GPS; if it brings you in from the east, you’ll spend 25 miles (40 km) on unpaved roads that may be difficult to travel when wet. For best results, enter the monument from the west.
- Fees and passes: none
- Hiking: there are two easy hiking trails in the monument; the 1 mile (1.6 km) Daemonelix Trail and the 2.7 mile (4.3 km) Fossil Hill Trail
- Where to stay: there are no accommodations in the monument; the nearest option is about 30 minutes away in the tiny town of Harrison, Nebraska
- Other: this place is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, so be sure to come prepared with adequate gas, water, food, etc.