Museum Exhibits

More than 2000 Green River Formation fossils are displayed in the museum. Plan time to wander through the exhibits and ask park rangers questions. Photography is welcome. In addition to the fossils displays, visitor center activities include:

  • Video Programs
  • Fossil Rubbing Table
  • Fossil Preparation Lab
  • Ranger Programs
A railing with labels above the words 50 million for "whales" and "Fossil Lake dries up" and labels for "Fossil Lake and Lake Gosiute" and "Fossil Butte National Monument" to the right. Part of Fossil Butte and another ridge are visible behind.
Visitor Center Timeline

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Journey Through Time Exhibit

This exhibit displays the timeline of planet Earth. The display starts on the road leading up to the Visitor Center, with the formation of Earth, approximately 4.54 billion years ago. The timeline is set to scale, with every 9 inches equaling 1 million years in time. Along the road, major geologic and biologic events are displayed. At the Visitor Center, the timeline continues to wrap around the porch. It ends at present day, almost simultaneously with the appearance of recorded human history. Fossil Butte National Monument offers a place to study a small slice of time and change. We invite you to look for that small slice in time, labeled as Fossil Lake on the timeline.
Over 50 fossil fishes on display. There is a model fish on top of a rock at the bottom of the case.
Fossil fishes exhibit

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Fish Wall

27 species of fishes have been identified from Fossil Lake. This exhibit displays 16 fish species. While some of the fossils displayed in the Visitor Center are casts (exact replicas of the original fossil), all the fossils in this exhibit are originals. There are 49 fossils housed in this display, including a few mass mortality plates. The species represented in this display are:
  • Amphiplaga brachyptera (trout perch)
  • Asineops sp. (pirate perch)
  • Asineops squamifrons (pirate perch)
  • Cockerellites liops (temperate bass)
  • Diplomystus dentatus (freshwater herring)
  • Hiodon falcatus (mooneye)
  • Hypsiprisca cf hypsacantha (perch-like)
  • Hypsiprisca sp. (perch-like)
  • Knightia alta (freshwater herring)
  • Knightia eocaena (freshwater herring)
  • Mioplosus labracoides (perch-like fish)
  • Notogoneus osculus (beaked sandfish)
  • Phareodus encaustus (bony-tongue fish)
  • Phareodus testis (bony-tongue fish)
  • Priscacara serrata (temperate bass)
  • Priscacara sp. a (temperate bass)
Learn more about fish fossils.
Exhibit with 9 fossil turtles from very large to very small. Several turtles have very long tails.
Fossil turtles exhibit.

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Turtle Wall

8 species of turtles have been identified from Fossil Lake. This exhibit displays 9 fossil specimens, representing 6 species. All identified turtle species lived in aquatic or semi-aquatic habitats. The species represented in this display are:
  • Axestemys sp. (softshell, aquatic turtle)
  • Baptemys wyomingensis (river turtle)
  • Chisternon undatum (aquatic turtle)
  • Echmatemys sp. (pond turtle)
  • Oliveremys uintaenis (softshell, aquatic turtle)
  • Plastomenus thomasii (softshell, aquatic turtle)
Learn more about reptile fossils.
15 fossil fishes in an exhibit with 6 stingrays, 3 gars, 3 paddlefish, and 3 bowfins.
The primitive fishes exhibit is located right in front of the front door to the visitor center.

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Primitive Fish Case

8 species of primitive fishes can be found in this exhibit. All fish fossils in the museum are original fossils. The species represented in this display are:
  • Amia pattersoni (bowfin)
  • Asterotrygon maloneyi (stingray)
  • Atractosteus simplex (gar)
  • Crossopholis magnicaudatus (paddlefish)
  • Cyclurus gurleyi (bowfin)
  • Heliobatis radians (stingray)
  • Lepisosteus bemisi (gar)
  • Masillosteus janei (gar)
Learn more about fish fossils.
An exhibit case with approximately 80 insect fossils on display. They are small and most are hard to identify. There are some beetles up top and some winged insects at the bottom. There is a text panel in the middle with the title A Scarcity of Insects.
Fossil insect exhibit. All insect fossils on display in the visitor center are originals.

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Insect End Case

The insects in this case are organized by order:
  • Coleoptera (beetles)
  • Hymenoptera (wasps, bees, and ants)
  • Diptera (flies and mosquitoes)
  • Hemiptera (cicadas, leafhoppers, and water striders)
  • Blattodea (cockroaches)
  • Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths)

Learn more about insect fossils.
5 fossil plants in an exhibit case. 3 leaf structures, one with seeds on a stem, and one with a stem and curly branches coming off.
Fossils that associate different parts of plants, like leaves with seeds, are easier to scientifically describe.

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Plant Structures Case

This case features 5 plant structures including leaves associated with seeds or roots and a palm inflorescene (flowering structure).

Learn more about plant fossils.
Exhibit case filled with over 50 fossil poops. A title at the top spells coprolites in fossil poop. A sign in the middle says No Two Poops are Identical. The text underneath is unreadable.
There were no pairs found for these unique coprolites.

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Coprolite End Case

Nearly 10,000 coprolites (fossilized poops) were collected and over 4,000 prepared to find matching sets for the restroom exhibits. These coprolites were so unique that no matches could be found.

Learn more about coprolites.
A look inside a virtual aquarium with an animated gar fish swimming past. Above a screen provides information about the fossil fish. Below is a control panel of fossil replicas and a touch screen that shows additional fossils.
A computer animated Atractosteus simplex swims through the virtual aquarium.

Chase Studio

Fossil Lake in a Box, a Virtual Aquarium

The vitual aquarium provides an opportunity to look into ancient Fossil lake and see how the animals may have looked and behaved 52 million years ago. Fish can be selected by touching their fossil on the control panel or using a touchscreen to choose a different fish. A transparent OLED TV monitor displays the seleted fish as it swims across the aquarium. Inside the exhibit, there is a diorama of a nearshore lake bottom with models of plants, snails, and a stingray. Along the edges of the diorama are TV monitors which provide depth to the lake scene. A screen above the window to the aquarium provides information about that fish including how many fossils are found each year. The park hopes to add more organisms to the aquarium in the future.
Exhibit case with 15 panels each covered with coprolite fossils. Some panels only have 1-10 coprolites, some have over a hundred.
Coprolites, fossilized poo, seemed to be the best fossils to put on display in the restrooms.

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Women's Restroom Coprolite Exhibit

Almost 10,000 coprolites (fossilized poops) were collected to find the 733 matching sets for the two restroom exhibits.

Learn more about coprolites.
A display case with 15 panels each with coprolites on them. Some panels have 1-10 coprolites, others have over 100.
Coprolites are the #2 most common fossil from Fossil Lake.

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Men's Restroom Coprolite Exhibit

Almost 10,000 coprolites (fossilized poops) were collected to find the 733 matching sets for the two restroom exhibits.

Learn more about coprolites.
Exhibit titled rule of the grave with a definition of taphonomy as the study of processes affecting an organism after death. The exhibit shows 8 fishes in various stages of completeness. Some fishes are completely exploded.
Taphonomy is a Greek word meaning rule or law of the grave.

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Rule of the Grave

This case contains fossil fishes in various stages of disarticulation (where bones are not in the same position as they were in life). After death, gases formed as the fishes decomposed causing them to bloat. Often, the gases escaped, leaving the articulated (intact) specimens seen in other exhibits. Other times the pressure of the gases caused the fishes to explode. This scattered the bones, creating specimens like the ones in this exhibit. Included in this case are Knightia eocaena, Diplomystus dentatus, Mioplosus labracoides, and Phareodus encaustus.

Learn more about fish fossils.
An alligator-looking fossil facing down in a tall, thin case. Fossilized poop is at the bottom of the case.
Crocodilian, cast of FMNH PR1674, a specimen on display in the Field Museum in Chicago.

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Crocodilian Case

This Borealosuchus wilsoni is a 13-foot-long cast of a fossil housed in the Chicago Field Museum. This specimen was discovered in 1984 and took almost a year to prepare for display.

Learn more about reptile fossils.

exhibit with 13 mammals and reptile fossils including a lizard, caiman, horse, snakes, and bats
Mammal and reptile fossils exhibit.

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Mammal & Reptile Display

10 species of mammals and 15 species of reptiles (including 7 turtles) have been identified from Fossil Lake. This exhibit displays 11 fossils, representing 9 species. The reptiles displayed are:
  • Bahndwivici ammoskius (lizard)
  • Boavus idelmani (small snake)
  • Saniwa ensidens (lizard)
  • Tsoabichi greenriverensis (caiman)
Learn more about reptile fossils.

The mammals displayed are:
  • Hyopsodus wortmani (rodent-like mammal)
  • Icaronycteris gunnelli (bat)
  • Icaronycteris index (bat)
  • Onychonycteris finneyi (bat)
  • Paleosinopa didelphoides (otter-like mammal)
  • Protorohippus venticolus (horse)
Learn more about mammal fossils.
An exhibit of around 100 fossil plants. A palm frond is in the foreground on the left with the exhibit case spreading to the right at an angle.
Plant Wall

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Plant Wall

Plants are major indicators of climate. Paleobotanists (paleontologists who study fossil plants) use plant characteristics to understand ancient climates. Over 400 leaves, seeds, and flowers are known from Fossil Lake. All the fossils in this exhibit are original, while some other fossils in the visitor center are casts. This exhibit displays over 100 fossil leaves.

Learn more about plant fossils.
Exhibit with a mural of birds in the center and surrounded by bird or feather fossils
The bird exhibit showcases some of the many birds of Fossil Lake.

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Bird Wall

4 of the 34 species of birds identified from Fossil Lake are displayed in this case. In addition, a number of isolated feathers, feet, wings, and other body parts are displayed. The 4 species represented are:
  • Eoxygodactylus americanus (early songbird)
  • Gallinuloides wyomingenis (land fowl)
  • Primobucco mcgrewi (roller)
  • Pseudocrypturus cercanaxius (shoreline bird)
Learn more about bird fossils.
Two fossil leaves with holes. The word hole is visible on the paper behind the leaves.
Fossil leaves with evidence of insects.

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Interaction Display

This case displays the interactions, symbiotic (mutually beneficial) and parasitic (one organism benefits and other suffers), of plant life with other organisms. The 4 examples of plant and animal interaction displayed are:
  • Skeletonization (insect feeding located along the veins of leaves, often associated with larvae)
  • Marginal (insect feeding near the edges of leaves, may be associated with leaf-cutting insects such as bees)
  • Oviposition (fossilized insect eggs on leaves)
  • Holes in leaves
Tan spiraled snail shell fossil on a darker brown stone. Labeled below as Goniobasis sp.
Goniobasis sp., a fossil snail.

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Invertebrate Display

This case displays the large variety of invertebrates (animals having no backbone or spine) found from Fossil Lake. The fossils displayed include:
  • Bechleja rostrata (freshwater shrimp)
  • Biomphalaria sp. (snail)
  • Goniobasis (snail)
  • Plesielliptio sp. (clam)
  • Procambarus primaevus (crayfish)
  • Viviparus sp. (snail)
4 juvenile fossil fish on various sized and colored rocks. It is labeled Knightia eocaena.
Juvenile fossil fish.

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Fry & Fingerlings Display

Fossil Lake's unique environment allowed for cartilaginous skeletons of young fish and other species to be preserved. This allows scientists to study the life cycle of species 52 million years old. The species displayed in this case are:
  • Amia pattersoni (bowfin)
  • Amphiplaga brachyptera (trout perch)
  • Asterotrygon maloneyi (stingray)
  • Diplomystus dentatus (freshwater herring)
  • Hiodon falcatus (mooneye)
  • Knightia eocaena (freshwater herring)
  • Mioplosus labracoides (perch-like fish)
  • Notogoneus osculus (beaked sandfish)
  • Phareodus encaustus (bony-tongue fish)
Learn more about fish fossils.
Fossil fish poo forming a c-shape. It is labeled coprolite (fossilized fish feces).
Coprolites, fossil fish feces.

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Trace Fossils Display

Ichnofossils (trace fossils) are evidence of animal activity, such as footprints or feces, that were not part of a physical organism. The trace fossils displayed in this case are:
  • Burrows
  • Footprints
  • Coprolites (fossilized feces)
  • Nematode trails
  • Oncolites (sedimentary structures formed by cyanobacterial growth, similar to stromatolites)
  • Swimming traces
Fossil turtle whose shell has several holes. Labeled underneath as Hummelichelys guttata replica
Fossil turtle with bite marks on the shell.

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Predator & Prey Display

Three examples of predator-prey interactions are displayed in this case.
  • Ingestion - Some fish are found with smaller fish ingested and preserved in their stomach region. Other fish are found with smaller fish preserved in their mouths.
  • Bite marks - One turtle is displayed with holes in its shell matching the teeth of a gar fish. Another turtle is displayed with large, widely-spaced holes, suggesting it fell prey to a crocodilian.
  • Regenerated fish tails - Regrown fish tails could be the result of a prey-fish escaping a predator-fish, but losing part of its tail in the process. Another possibility is that a fish had a disease that caused part of its tail to fall off.
4 dark brown oval-shaped fish on a speckled tan rock. One fish is alone near the top, the three fish at the bottom overlap each other slightly.
Cockerellites liops mortality.

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Catastrophe Display

Mass mortality plates represent a catastrophic event in Fossil Lake. These fossils can represent one of several events.
  • Change in water temperature - A change of 1-3 degrees fahrenheit could kill fish that require a specific water temperature to survive.
  • Change in lake water pH - Several volcanoes existed to the north of Fossil Lake. A volcanic eruption, resulting in volcanic ash entering the lake, could cause a sudden change in the lake water's pH. This could mean catastrophe to lake life.
  • Under-filled state of Fossil Lake - If the lake entered an under-filled state due to an increased period of evaporation, small pools of water could form. Fish trapped in pools would die due to starvation and suffocation.
  • Blue-green algal bloom - As bacteria dies, it consumes nearby oxygen from the water. This lack of oxygen rich water often causes fish to suffocate.
  • Overturn of lake water - If saltier water near the bottom of Fossil Lake rose to the surface, freshwater fish would die in the mix of saltwater and freshwater.
16 fossil insects on various sized rocks. There is a damselfly, beetles, flies, and several others.
Fossil arthropods on display in the visitor center.

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Arthropods Display

Arthropods are invertebrate animals (having no backbone or spine) with a hard external skeleton known as an exoskeleton. They also have segmented bodies with jointed appendages. This case displays insects, rare arthropods to find from Fossil Lake. Insect fossils from Fossil Lake exist only as very thin carbon stains on the rock. These soft-bodied organisms are difficult to preserve and are not visible beneath the limestone as they are preserved only as carbon stains. The insects displayed in this case are:
  • Arachinida (spider)
  • Buprestidae (jewel beetle)
  • Diplopoda (millipede)
  • Gerridae (water strider)
  • Hemiptera (true bug)
  • Hymenoptera (wasp)
  • Lepidoptera (moth)
  • Odonata (damselfly)
  • Plecia pealei (march fly)
  • Tipulidae (crane-fly)
Learn more about arthropod fossils.
11 fossil flowers on various sized rocks in an exhibit.
Fossil flowers on display in the museum.

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Flowers Display

The Green River Formation produces a variety of angiosperm (flowering plant) fossils. Monocots (Liliopsida) are the most common flowers found from Fossil Lake. They usually have have parts in multiples of 3 parallel-veined leaves. Dicots (Magnoliopsida) are not as common to find fossilized.
10 fossil seeds, some winged, on varying sizes of rock. One labeled Lagokarpos lacustris holotype. Another Deviacer wolfei. Another Sapindaceae. Another Juglandaceae.
Fossil seeds on display in the museum.

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Seeds Display

Winged seeds are more common to find fossilized from the sediments of Fossil Lake than non-winged seeds. Non-winged seeds appear as black ovals or small flecks, making them more difficult to recognize in the collecting process.
Winged seeds displayed include:
  • Ailanthus lesquereuxi (Tree of Heaven)
  • Deviacer wolfei
  • Juglandaceae
  • Lagokarpos lacustris
  • Sapindaceae
Non-winged seeds displayed include:
  • Menispermaceae
  • unidentified seed resembling a walnut
Diorama of a lush forest with 2 fossils at the front, a mural to the left, and examples of leaves and bugs on the right.
Forest diorama with the plants and animals labeled in the display on the right.

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Forest Diorama

This dense jungle-like landscape represents the forests and marshlands surrounding Fossil Lake. Over 400 species of fossil plants have been discovered in the sediments of Fossil Lake. Fossil grasses are rare, but woody flowering plants, similar to those found today in Asia, are abundant. A great diversity of bird species have also been found. These fossils and more help scientists understand what the greater ecosystem of Fossil Lake looked like. The temperate forest and humid climate are depicted in this diorama with multiple species. In the background mural, a giant Borealosuchus wilsoni (crocodilian) eyes a group of tapirs in shallow water.

Species displayed include:
  • 22 arthropods including: beetles, spiders, flies, moths, crickets, wasps
  • 24 plants including: trees, seeds, ferns, ivy, nettle
  • 3 bird species
    1. Eozygodactylus americanus (perching bird)
    2. Gallinuloides wyomingenis (land fowl)
    3. Pseudocrypturus cercanaxius (tinamu-like bird)
  • 1 mammal species: Onychonycteris finneyi (clawed bat)
  • 4 reptile species
    1. Afairiguana avius (anole lizard)
    2. Bahndwivici ammoskius (crocodile lizard)
    3. Boavus idelmani (small snake)
    4. Echmatemys wyomingenus (pond turtle)
Fossils displayed are 2 Echmayemys wyomingensis (pond turtle)
Diorama a shoreline showing above and underwater including a stingray, an otter, and a bird hovering. A guide to the plants and animals is to the left.
Diorama of Fossil Lake's nearshore habitat.

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Shoreline Diorama

This diorama depicts Fossil Lake's shallow shoreline, swarming with life. Fish swim among turtles and crayfish. Crayfish feed on dead shrimp. On the water's surface, water skimmers glide between giant lotus leaves. Damselflies fill the air, while the otter-like sinopa species emerges from a burrow. A giant, hippo-like corophydon wades along the shore through horsetails. In the background, crocodilians eye the scene hungrily.

Species displayed include:
  • 10 arthropods including: snails, crayfish, damselflies, water striders, shrimp
  • 10 plants including: horsetails, ferns, flowers, seeds, trees
  • 1 bird species: Accipitridae (early raptor)
  • 1 reptile species: Chisternon undatum (turtle)
  • 3 mammal species
    1. Coryphodon sp. (hippo-like herbivore)
    2. Icaronycteris index (bat)
    3. Palaeosinopa didelphoides (otter-like carnivore)
Fossils displayed are:
  • Aerugoamnis paulus (frog)
  • Zacallites cockerelli (damselfly)
  • Paleoamphiuma tetradactylum (salamander)
  • Plesielliptio sp. (clam)
  • Viviparus sp. (snail)
  • Diplomystus dentatus (herring)
  • Procambarus primaevus (crayfish)
An irregular square slab of rock with hundreds of small herring-like fish on it.
This large mass mortality is located above the bookstore.

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Mass Mortality Display

This mass mortality contains 356 fishes. There are 198 Knightia eocaena, 157 Diplomystus dentatus, and 1 Mioplosus labracoides.

There are several environmental factors that could cause a mass mortality including an algal bloom or a change in temperature.
8 slabs of rock on display some with visible fish on them some with backbones of fish visible beneath a layer of stone. Each rock has multiple fish on it.
The mass mortality exhibit is located just inside the back door of the visitor center.

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Mass Mortality Exhibit

Fish mortalities are common in Fossil Lake sediments. Studies of modern fish kills have identified over 20 causes. A quarter of cases involve low oxygen levels.

Mortalities show that Mioplosus labracoides and Phareodus encaustus, both solitary hunters as adults, schooled as juveniles. One plate in this exhibit contains the largest known M. labracoides still schooling (10.5 cm / 4 in. from nose to last vertebrae). It is unknown at what size they became solitary hunters.
An exhibit with rocks on display. One text panel is titles Rocks Talk and another is titled An Alkaline Lake. There is a stratigraphic column labeled with circles and diagrams of a lake also labeled with circles.
The Rocks Talk exhibit is just inside the back door.

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Rocks Talk Display

The rocks of the Green River Formation tell the story of Fossil Lake. Above and below the Green River Formation, rocks of the Wasatch Formation tell the story of rivers and floods in the forest surrounding Fossil Lake. The rock types, rock structures, and fossils found within help scientists understand the ecosystem of Fossil Lake and its surrounding environment.

The 10 Rock Types of the Green River Formation
  1. Chert - Hyper-saline period of Fossil Lake as evaporation dominates.
  2. Kerogen-poor Laminated Micrite - Laminated limestone beds indicate freshening of Fossil Lake water. Fossil fish Asineops squamifrons is abundant.
  3. Dolomicrite (evaporative) - Evaporation exceeds fresh-water entering the lake. Magnesium carbonate precipitates from lake water and forms mud layers on lake bottom. This mud layer eventually hardens into dolomicrite.
  4. Dolomicrite - Water dissolves exposed limestone, causing calcium and bicarbonate to flow into Fossil Lake through rivers. This higher concentration of ions nearshore results in increased precipitation and a smaller quantity of kerogen. This creates soft, light-colored limestone.
  5. K-spar Tuff - Volcanic ash falls from the air and makes a layer across the entire bed of Fossil Lake. These K-spar Tuff beds have been radiometrically dated at 51.98 million years old.
  6. Kerogen-rich Laminated Micrite - Microbial mats separated by thin layers of carbonate mud, in contrast to thicker mud layers in nearshore rock. These thin layers of mud indicate this kerogen-rich laminated micrite is from the deep-waters of Fossil Lake.
  7. Siltstone - Silt particles carried into Fossil Lake by streams. Siltstone indicates a shallow, nearshore environment close to a delta.
  8. Sandstone - Fast moving river water moves large particles like sand or gravel. As rivers and streams enter Fossil Lake, sand settles at the river mouth. Sandstone is also present along the Fossil Lake shoreline, where wave energy washed away finer particles and left sand-sized grains.
  9. Massive Limestone - Nearshore, shallow water is oxygenated by wave action and inflowing streams.
  10. Claystone - Sediment around Fossil Lake is deposited by streams. Particles are carried away from streams by flood water and deposited on the forest floor. This eventually creates purple, red, and tan rock layers consisting of clay and silt.
The Green River Formation is made up of sediment from Fossil Lake. The sediment has been divided into 3 units, known as members. The middle unit, the Fossil Butte Member (FBM), represents the deepest and freshest state of Fossil Lake. This is the layer famous for producing an abundance of well preserved fossils.

The 4 Layers Within the Fossil Butte Member (FBM)
  1. Gastropod Beds - In this layer, are an abundance of 3-D snails preserved.
  2. Mini-fish Bed - Several bedding planes with an abundance of small fish, primarily Knightia eocaena, are indicators of catastrophic events capable of causing a mass die off of schooling fish. Chemical traces in the rock suggest red algae blooms may be a culprit.
  3. 18-inch Layer - Thin limestone laminae and high kerogen content in this layer cause fossil bones to create visible bumps under the sediment. Because of this, fossils are found and removed fully covered. They are prepared under a microscope and are exceptionally well preserved.
  4. Sandwich Beds or "Split-Fish" Layer - 2 pairs of ash layers create "sandwiches" with limestone in the middle. The low kerogen content of this layer causes rock to split along fish fossils.
An exhibit featuring four plastic cases. The first has 6 fish swimming in it, the second has layers of rock, the third shows the layers of rock compacted, and the fourth shows rock tools on top of the layers of rock which are slightly chipped away.
A simplified illustration of the fossilization process.

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Fossilization Process Display

This display demonstrates the fossilization process:
  1. The Knightia eocaena shown in the exhibit fall to the bottom of the lake after death.
  2. The bodies of the K. eocaena are covered by sediment, which builds up over hundreds of years.
  3. The compressed layers of sediment become limestone. During this time the fish are preserved as fossils. The bones are compressed, mineralized with calcite, and carbonized to a darker color.
  4. Over millions of years, the land is uplifted as wind, rain, and down-cutting streams erode the rock. Eventually the sediments of Fossil Lake are exposed in the ridges. The K. eocaena are close enough to the surface to be excavated.
A mannequin with a peg leg uses a hammer and chisel on rock.
A mannequin of Robert Lee Craig in the quarry diorama.

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Fossil Quarry Display

The earliest fossil discoveries from ancient Fossil Lake were collected and sold to scientists, museums, and collectors around the world. This tradition continues today on private and state-owned land. This exhibit displays a quarry diorama and a timeline of fossil collecting and scientific discovery from Fossil Lake.

Last updated: July 17, 2024

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