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).

A new exhibit featuring NPS cave fossils will be on display at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Oct 2018. The exhibit includes a map showing the parks, with photos, which have documented cave fossils.
Figure 1:  New exhibit panel for the NPS Cave Paleontology exhibit to open in October 2018 at the National Cave and Karst Research Institute.

NPS photo

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.

Fossil condor skull from a cave in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.
Figure 2: Fossil condor skull from a cave in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

Photo courtesy of Steve Emslie

Pleistocene ground sloth dung boluses (feces) preserved in Rampart Cave
Figure 3:  Pleistocene ground sloth dung boluses (feces) preserved in Rampart Cave at Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona.

NPS Photo

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 nautiloid exposed in a rock shelter
Figure 5:  Fossil nautiloid exposed in a rock shelter along the river at Buffalo National River, Arkansas.

NPS Photo

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 (AMIS), Texas—[AMIS Geodiversity Atlas] [AMIS Park Home] [AMIS]

  2. Arches National Park (ARCH), Utah—[ARCH Geodiversity Atlas] [ARCH Park Home] [ARCH]

  3. Bandelier National Monument (BAND), New Mexico—[BAND Geodiversity Atlas] [BAND Park Home] [BAND]

  4. Bering Land Bridge National Preserve (BELA), Alaska—[BELA Geodiversity Atlas] [BELA Park Home] [BELA]

  5. Big Bend National Park (BIBE), Texas—[BIBE Geodiversity Atlas] [BIBE Park Home] [BIBE]

  6. Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area (BICA), Montana & Wyoming—[BICA Geodiversity Atlas] [BICA Park Home] [BICA]

  7. Buffalo National River (BUFF), Arkansas—[BUFF Geodiversity Atlas] [BUFF Park Home] [BUFF]

  8. Canyon de Chelly National Monument (CACH), Arizona—[CACH Geodiversity Atlas] [CACH Park Home] [CACH]

  9. Canyonlands National Park (CANY), Utah—[CANY Geodiversity Atlas] [CANY Park Home] [CANY]

  10. Capitol Reef National Park (CARE), Utah—[CARE Geodiversity Atlas] [CARE Park Home] [CARE]

  11. Carlsbad Caverns National Park (CAVE), New Mexico—[CAVE Geodiversity Atlas] [CAVE Park Home] [CAVE]

  12. Cedar Breaks National Monument (CEBR), Utah—[CEBR Geodiversity Atlas] [CEBR Park Home] [CEBR]

  13. Chaco Culture National Historical Park (CHCU), New Mexico—[CHCU Geodiversity Atlas] [CHCU Park Home] [CHCU]

  14. Channel Islands National Park (CHIS), California—[CHIS Geodiversity Atlas] [CHIS Park Home] [CHIS]

  15. Chickamauga & Chattanooga National Military Park (CHCH), Georgia & Tennessee—[CHCH Geodiversity Atlas] [CHCH Park Home] [CHCH]

  16. Colonial National Historic Park (COLO), Virginia—[COLO Geodiversity Atlas] [COLO Park Home] [COLO]

  17. Colorado National Monument (COLM), Colorado—[COLM Geodiversity Atlas] [COLM Park Home] [COLO]

  18. Coronado National Memoria (CORO), Arizona—[CORO Geodiversity Atlas] [CORO Park Home] [CORO]

  19. Craters of the Moon National Monument (CRMO), Idaho—[CRMO Geodiversity Atlas] [CRMO Park Home] [CRMO]

  20. Cumberland Gap National Historical Park (CUGA), Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia [CUGA Geodiversity Atlas] [CUGA Park Home] [CUGA]

  21. Curecanti National Recreation Area (CURE), Colorado—[CURE Geodiversity Atlas] [CURE Park Home] [CURE]

  22. Death Valley National Park (DEVA), California, Nevada—[DEVA Geodiversity Atlas] [DEVA Park Home] [DEVA]

  23. Dinosaur National Monument (DINO), Colorado & Utah—[DINO Geodiversity Atlas] [DINO Park Home] [DINO]

  24. El Malpais National Monument (ELMA), New Mexico—[ELMA Geodiversity Atlas] [ELMA Park Home] [ELMA]

  25. Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument (GICL), New Mexico—[GICL Geodiversity Atlas] [GOCL Park Home] [GICL]

  26. Glacier National Park (GLAC), Montana—[GLAC Geodiversity Atlas] [GLAC Park Home] [GLAC]

  27. Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (GLCA), Arizona & Utah—[GLCA Geodiversity Atlas] [GLCA Park Home] []

  28. Golden Spike National Historic Site (GOSP), Utah—[GOSP Geodiversity Atlas] [GOSP Park Home] [GOSP]

  29. Grand Canyon National Park (GRCA), Arizona—[GRCA Geodiversity Atlas] [GRCA Park Home] [GRCA]

  30. Great Basin National Park (GRBA), Nevada—[GRBA Geodiversity Atlas] [GRBA Park Home] [GRBA]

  31. Guadalupe Mountains National Park (GUMO), Texas—[GUMO Geodiversity Atlas] [GUMO Park Home] [GUMO]

  32. Haleakalā National Park (HALE), Hawaii—[HALE Geodiversity Atlas] [HALE Park Home] [HALE]

  33. Jewel Cave National Monument (JECA), South Dakota—[JECA Geodiversity Atlas] [JECA Park Home] [JECA]

  34. Joshua Tree National Park (JOTR), California—[JOTR Geodiversity Atlas] [JOTR Park Home] [JOTR]

  35. Lake Mead National Recreation Area (LAKE), Arizona & Nevada—[LAKE Geodiversity Atlas] [LAKE Park Home] [LAKE]

  36. Lava Beds National Monument (LABE), California—[LABE Geodiversity Atlas] [LABE Park Home] [LABE]

  37. Mammoth Cave National Park (MACA), Kentucky—[MACA Geodiversity Atlas] [MACA Park Home] [MACA]

  38. Mesa Verde National Park (MEVE), Colorado—[MEVE Geodiversity Atlas] [MEVE Park Home] [MEVE]

  39. Mojave National Preserve (MOJA), California—[MOJA Geodiversity Atlas] [MOJA Park Home] [MOJA]

  40. Natchez Trace Parkway and National Scenic Trail (NATR), Alabama, Mississippi & Tennessee—[NATR Geodiversity Atlas] [NATR Park Home] [NATR]

  41. Natural Bridges National Monument (NABR), Utah—[NABR Geodiversity Atlas] [NABR Park Home] [NABR]

  42. Oregon Caves National Monument (ORCA), Oregon—[ORCA Geodiversity Atlas] [ORCA Park Home] [ORCA]

  43. Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument (ORPI), Arizona—[ORPI Geodiversity Atlas] [ORPI Park Home] [ORPI]

  44. Ozark National Scenic Riverways (OZAR), Missouri—[OZAR Geodiversity Atlas] [OZAR Park Home] [OZAR]

  45. Pipe Springs National Monument (PISP)), Arizona—[PISP Geodiversity Atlas] [PISP Park Home] [PISP]

  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] []

Part of a series of articles titled Park Paleontology News - Vol. 10, No. 2, Fall 2018.

Last updated: May 30, 2023