Article

National Park Service Cave Paleontology

illustration fossil icons with text nps paleontology

Article by Vince Santucci, Senior Paleontologist / Paleontology Program Coordinator, NPS Geologic Resources Division
for Park Paleontology Newsletter, Fall 2018

Caves are important environments for the preservation of fossils. Caves act as sediment traps enabling the accumulation of fossils over thousands or even millions of years, and the stable temperature and humidity of caves help to preserve fossils. Cave fossils occur in two contexts, including: 1) fossils preserved within the bedrock in the caves formed; and 2) fossil remains of Pleistocene / Holocene animals and plants which either entered or lived in caves during their lives or were transported into the caves after death. Cave fossils are subdivided into four categories: fossil plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, and trace fossils.

Within the National Park Service (NPS), a rich diversity of cave fossils have been documented in at least 56 different parks. A list of the parks which preserve cave fossils is presented below. A new exhibit featuring NPS cave fossils will open to the public on October 27, 2018 at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute headquarters in Carlsbad, New Mexico. The map in the exhibit panel shows the location and distribution of the parks which preserve cave fossils, denoted by a blue circle with a bat silhouette (Figure 1).

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, and the surrounding area contain one of the largest concentrations of caves anywhere in the United States. Some of the caves within Grand Canyon NP preserve scientifically important fossils and rare fossils of Pleistocene animals. Exceptionally well preserved remains of fossil condors and their nests provide evidence of the existence of these large birds inhabiting the canyon during the ice ages (Figure 2). Rampart Cave is a scientifically important cave with the fossil remains of saber-tooth cats, ground sloths and a bat preserved in layers of sloth dung (Figure 3). A similar site has been found farther up the Colorado River, in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but instead of sloth dung, this site contains abundant mammoth dung.

Beautifully preserved and mineralized remains of a Pleistocene      brush ox specimen within Musk Ox Cave
Figure 4:  Beautifully preserved and mineralized remains of a Pleistocene brush ox specimen within Musk Ox Cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Photo courtesy of Ronal Kerbo

South-central New Mexico and west Texas are areas where large numbers of cave and karst features occur. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas, and Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico, are two renowned National Park Service cave parks which contain rich paleontological resources. A rich collection of Pleistocene vertebrate fossils, primarily mammals, are documented from NPS caves in these two parks (Figure 4).

NPS caves in the eastern and midwestern portions of the United States which preserve cave fossils include: Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky; Cumberland Cave along the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, Maryland; Port Kennedy Cave at Valley Forge National Historical Park, Pennsylvania; and a variety of caves within Buffalo National River, Arkansas (Figure 5). Some of these caves are historically significant and record rare middle Pleistocene faunas.

Fossil bear claw marks
Figure 6:  Fossil bear claw marks into the cave wall at Oregon Caves National Monument, Oregon.

NPS Photo

Additional NPS cave fossils are documented in places such as: Jewel Cave National Monument and Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota; remote caves in Yellowstone National Park in the northern Rocky Mountains; at Oregon Caves National Monument (Figure 6) and Lava Beds National Monument in the Cascades Range; and at Haleakala National Park, Hawaii, where an interesting occurrence of fossil birds is preserved in lava caves.

Both caves and fossils are fragile and irreplaceable resources found within national parks. Please make sure to not disturb or collect any fossils that you may find during your visit and contact a Park Ranger if you find a fossil.

List of NPS Areas with Cave Fossils

  1. Amistad National Recreation Area, Texas—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  2. Arches National Park, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  3. Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  4. Bering Land Bridge National Preserve, Alaska—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  5. Big Bend National Park, Texas—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  6. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Montana & Wyoming—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  7. Buffalo National River, Arkansas—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  9. Canyonlands National Park, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  10. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  11. Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  12. Cedar Breaks National Monument, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  13. Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  14. Channel Islands National Park, California—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  15. Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park, Georgia & Tennessee—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  16. Colonial National Historic Park, Virginia—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  17. Colorado National Monument, Colorado—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  18. Coronado National Memorial, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  19. Craters of the Moon National Monument, Idaho—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  20. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia [Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  21. Curecanti National Recreation Area, Colorado—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  22. Death Valley National Park, California, Nevada—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  23. Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado & Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  24. El Malpais National Monument, New Mexico—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  25. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, New Mexico—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  26. Glacier National Park, Montana—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  27. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Arizona & Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  28. Golden Spike National Historic Site, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  29. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  30. Great Basin National Park, Nevada—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  31. Guadalupe Mountains National Park, Texas—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  32. Haleakalā National Park, Hawaii—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  33. Jewel Cave National Monument, South Dakota—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  34. Joshua Tree National Park, California—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  35. Lake Mead National Recreation Area, Arizona & Nevada—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  36. Lava Beds National Monument, California—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  37. Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  38. Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  39. Mojave National Preserve, California—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  40. Natchez Trace Parkway and National Scenic Trail, Alabama, Mississippi & Tennessee—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  41. Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  42. Oregon Caves National Monument, Oregon—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  43. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  44. Ozark National Scenic Riverways, Missouri—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  45. Pipe Springs National Monument, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  46. Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, Washington D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia [Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  47. Russell Cave National Monument, Alabama—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  48. Saguaro National Park, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  49. Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, California—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  50. Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  51. Valley Forge National Historical Site, Pennsylvania [Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  52. Walnut Canyon National Monument, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  53. Wilson's Creek National Battlefield, Missouri—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  54. Wind Cave National Park, South Dakota—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  55. Wupatki National Monument, Arizona—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]
  56. Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming, Idaho & Montana—[Geodiversity Atlas] [Park Home]

Last updated: April 22, 2020