Series: Park Paleontology News - Spring 2017

Type specimens and fossil species named from the National Parks

illustration fossil icons with text nps paleontology

Article by Justin Tweet, Paleontologist, American Geosciences Institute
for Park Paleontology Newsletter, Spring 2017
leaf fossil and curation record card
Type specimen of Quercus grossidentata (National Museum of Natural History 4361), an angiosperm from the Eocene of Yellowstone National Park.

Photo by Justin Tweet, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

In 2012, Vince Santucci and the author began the process of collating and organizing a wealth of information on the paleontological resources of the National Park Service, gathered since the 1980s. This project, called the Paleo Synthesis Project (PSP), produced a set of internal documents which we can use to rapidly retrieve information, as well as a logical framework for adding new and previously overlooked information and new fossil parks. We also created four topical inventories:
  • Geological time: the geologic record of each fossil park was broken down by epoch, with epochs coded for the presence, absence, or possibility of fossils;
  • Repositories: each repository known to hold fossils from specific parks was recorded;
  • Taxonomy: the fossil record of each park was broken down into a number of different taxonomic groups;
  • And the subject of this article, type specimens.
In biological nomenclature, every species, subspecies, and so on is required to have a type specimen or specimens to bear the name. Ideally, the type specimen is used for comparative purposes, to distinguish the species from all other species and to serve as an example for assigning other specimens to that species, although in practice many type specimens fall short of these standards for various reasons.

In order to uncover National Park Service fossil type specimens, we conducted exhaustive literature searches using a variety of clues. There were a few existing sources for specific parks, including the invaluable Florissant fossil database which saved us immeasurable time dealing with the approximately 1,700 species associated with Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Generally we started by searching for geological publications mentioning parks or landmarks now within parks. Even if a relevant publication did not specifically deal with naming new species, it often included citations that led us to publications that did. It would have been virtually impossible to make this inventory before the growth of the Internet.

Once we had a potential hit, we checked the locality information against our maps to determine if the fossil was found within or outside a park. In older works, especially before about 1920, researchers were often vague about localities. As a result, we have many species that we can reliably attribute to an area including a park, but cannot determine the exact position. For example, there are many type specimens simply from the White River Badlands (Badlands National Park) or Florissant (Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument). We have kept records of these as well as those that we can attribute to a park, but we keep the two categories separate. Taxonomy was recorded as originally given for consistency, instead of trying to locate and evaluate all possible later opinions. Locality and repository data were supplemented as needed with other sources. Again, this was most necessary when dealing with older publications, which often did not include repository information. In a handful of cases we cannot determine what the type specimen for a species was, usually because the fossil was lost or destroyed without ever having been cataloged.

Through March 2017, we have recorded 4,920 species, subspecies, and varieties based on fossils found within, potentially within, or historically associated with 75 National Park Service units, two affiliated units, and the former Fossil Cycad National Monument. Of this total, 2,280 taxa can be reliably attributed to National Park Service units. The most productive unit is Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, with 429 confirmed and 1,314 potential species, about 35% of the total. All seven regions and 27 of 32 Inventory & Monitoring networks are represented. There is a steady trickle of additions from three sources: previously overlooked publications, newly described species, and species from new park units or additions to existing parks. These results include everything from Mesoproterozoic stromatolites in Glacier National Park to an extinct Holocene rabbitbrush found in a packrat midden from Chaco Cultural National Historical Park, from microfossils in a deep well boring at Cape Hatteras National Seashore to giant Cretaceous vertebrates at Big Bend National Park, and practically everything between. Descriptive work began in the 1820s and continues today.
map of United States with park sites numbered

National Park Service units associated with name-bearing type fossil specimens, adapted from Tweet et al. (2016). 1. JODA; 2. PORE; 3. GOGA; 4. CHIS; 5. SAMO; 6. DEVA; 7. MOJA; 8. NOAT; 9. GAAR; 10. YUCH; 11. DENA; 12. LACL; 13. KATM; 14. ANIA; 15. WRST; 16. GLBA; 17. GLAC; 18. NEPE; 19. HAFO; 20. YELL; 21. JODR; 22. GRTE; 23. FOBU; 24. DINO; 25. GRBA; 26. CARE; 27. CANY; 28. BRCA; 29. GLCA; 30. TUSK; 31. LAKE; 32. GRCA; 33. CACH; 34. PEFO; 35. CHCU; 36. ELMA; 37. FOUS; 38. THRO; 39. Fossil Cycad National Monument (abolished 1957); 40. BADL; 41. FOLA; 42. AGFO; 43. SCBL; 44. CHRO (NPS-affiliated site); 45. FLFO; 46. NIOB; 47. MNRR; 48. LECL; 49. CAVE; 50. GUMO; 51. BIBE; 52. MISS; 53. SACN; 54. SAFE; 55. OZAR; 56. PERI; 57. CHIC; 58. CUVA; 59. MACA; 60. CUGA; 61. GRSM; 62. NATR; 63. VICK; 64. BICY; 65. KAWW; 66. SPAR; 67. UPDE; 68. DEWA; 69. VAFO; 70. PINE (NPS-affiliated site); 71. POHE; 72. ANTI; 73. CHOH; 74. FOFO; 75. RICH; 76. PETE; 77. COLO; 78. CAHA.
NPS map-illustration

Knowing about fossil type specimens and species from NPS units is important for a number of reasons. Type specimens came from localities that usually still exist, and which must be carefully documented for proper management. These localities have scientific, natural resource, and sometimes historical value. In scientific terms, type localities may provide geological data as well as additional fossils of the species named from the site. In terms of natural resources, type localities often have other fossils and may be threatened by natural processes or human activities. In terms of history, some sites record notable expeditions, such as those of John Wesley Powell in the late 19th century, or are themselves significant to paleontology, such as Florissant and its incredible diversity of plants and insects.

Below is a selection of National Park Service type specimens, chosen to represent a variety of taxonomic groups, geologic periods, and geographic locations.
dinosaur skeleton
Type specimen of Apatosaurus louisae (Carnegie Museum of Natural History 3018), a dinosaur from the Jurassic of Dinosaur National Monument.

Photo taken by Tadek Kurpaski, CC 2.0 BY, from

fossil Stromatolite with curation record card and scale bar
Type specimen of Collenia compacta (National Museum of Natural History 60712), a stromatolite from the Mesoproterozoic of Glacier National Park.

Photo by Justin Tweet, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

fossil trilobite with curation record card and scale bar
Type specimen of Dikelocephalus minnesotensis (National Museum of Natural History 17863), a trilobite from the Cambrian of Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.

Photo by Justin Tweet, courtesy of Smithsonian Institution.

There are other benefits to this research as well. The process of researching types often uncovers additional information for paleontological resource management. For example, literature that describes or references types may mention other specimens from a park, and often can be used to find additional publications on a park’s paleontology. If a museum has type specimens from a park locality, it frequently has other specimens from that locality as well. Finally, species named from a park can be used for interpretation and education. Some NPS units were even created in recognition of fossil species collected from sites within them, such as the Hagerman Horse (Plesippus shoshonensis, now Equus simplicidens) from Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument and the petrified wood Araucarioxylon arizonicum from Petrified Forest National Park, both of which are also the state fossils of their respective states. For more information on this research, see Tweet et al. (2016).


Tweet, J. S., V. L. Santucci, and H. G. McDonald. 2016. Name-bearing fossil type specimens and taxa named from National Park Service areas. Pages 277–288 in S. G. Lucas and R. M. Sullivan, editors. Fossil Record 5. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bulletin 74. Available at (accessed March 2017).

Last updated: May 19, 2017