John Day Strata

Image of four geologic sections of the John Day strata.

The middle and upper portions of the extensive John Day strata can be conveniently divided into four major fossil-bearing units deposited between 30 and 18 million years ago. From oldest to youngest, they include the Bridge Creek Flora, Turtle Cove, Kimberly, and the Haystack Valley.


More fossils are found in the John Day strata than in any other layers in this area. This period continues the general trend of cooling and drying in North America. Early in the John Day time, when the Bridge Creek and Turtle Cove units were formed, the climate was temperate and humid.

By the time the later Kimberly and Haystack Valley units were deposited, it was cooler and drier.

Watch for indications of changes in climate and landscape as you proceed on your journey through the units of the John Day strata.

Image of an artist's rendition of the John Day strata landscapes.
Fossils found in the John Day strata reveal a variety of paleo-ecosystems.
Image of the Bridge Creek assemblage shales.

The Bridge Creek assemblage

Many layers of fine-grained shales preserve evidence of a large number of lakes in this area. Periodically, these bodies of water filled with sediments from ancient volcanoes to the west. Over time, successive layers buried millions of leaves, and occasionally fish, insects, frogs, and salamanders. The different colors of the rocks containing the Bridge Creek Flora, such as the brightly colored Painted Hills, represent alternating layers of lake-bed sediments and wildly varied paleosols – fossilized soils – which accumulated over millions of years.

Image of a mural of the Bridge Creek assemblage.
In the Bridge Creek, we see the beginning of one of earth’s cooling trends. At the same time, this area gradually became drier and more seasonal. Central Oregon was now covered with forests, lakes, and swamps and resembled the balmy parts of the southeastern United States – or China! Many of the trees in the ancient forest are related to modern alders, elms, maples, and oaks. They lived alongside the “dawn redwood” (Metasequoia), a conifer species that is still living in eastern Asia. In the Bridge Creek Flora, we find the remains of leaves, fish, amphibians, birds, and insects preserved like pressed flowers in a book. Because it was a lakebed environment, few mammals, other than the occasional bat, are preserved.
Image of the rocks of the turtle cove assemblage.

The Turtle Cove assemblage

Over millions of years, volcanoes more than a hundred miles to the west spewed out material that became the Turtle Cove rock layers. Welded ash flow tuffs – hard rock formed from flows of superheated gases, ash, and pulverized rock – were left behind. Thick sequences of blue-green claystone formed from redistributed ash. Within each of these colorful layers is an impressive variety of unusual fossils, many unique to the Pacific Northwest. They were entombed in ash-rich sediments that were deposited on a wide variety of environments.

Image of a mural of the Turtle Cove.
During the Turtle Cove, the climate continued to cool and dry. Hardwood forests were sometimes flooded with ash and pumice from nearby volcanoes. Grasses were beginning to appear, but they were not yet a major part of the landscape. Three-toed horses, mouse-deer, beavers, and oreodonts – a strange family of sheep-sized creatures – browsed on the still numerous leafy plants. They were stalked by carnivores such as bear-dogs, nimravids – fierce, cat-like animals – and the giant pig-like entelodonts.
Image of the Kimberly rock assemblage.

The Kimberly assemblage

Above the striking green beds of the Turtle Cove are the buff-to-pink volcanic sediments of the Kimberly. Like the Turtle Cove, much of the strata of the Kimberly represent ancient floodplains with fossil soils and stream channels. These light pink or gray-to-buff layers are very similar in mineral composition to the Turtle Cove beds they typically cover, but do not contain the blue and green minerals, clays, and zeolites that give the Turtle Cove its distinctive color. In many places, the Kimberly consists of thick sections of redistributed volcanic ash with abundant fossils.

Image of a mural of the Kimberly assemblage.
Geologic evidence suggests that large amounts of soft, ashy soils laid down during the Kimberly allowed a vast number of different types of burrowing animals to be fossilized. This underground activity probably occurred in open forests similar to those growing in the eastern United States today, with trees like elm, birch, oak, maple, fir, spruce, and pine. As the number and variety of burrowing rodents increased, new kinds of predators appeared. The first true dogs appear at this time, joining bear-dogs and other meat-eaters.
Image of the rocks from the Haystack assemblage.

The Haystack Assemblage

The Haystack Valley rock layers are a complicated series of sands, gravels, ash-beds, and paleosols. During the Haystack Valley time, low-lying areas were uplifted. As the elevation of the area increased, numerous valleys were carved by streams that cut deeply into underlying Kimberly paleosols. These processes formed sequences of sandstones and conglomerates – pebbles and cobbles cemented together by other minerals – as additional airborne ash from volcanoes settled.

Image of a mural of the Haystack assemblage.

The Haystack Valley assemblages are found in the youngest rocks deposited prior to the flood of basalts. Hardwood forests still dominated the land, but grasses gained headway as the climate continued to cool and dry.

The Haystack Valley time period featured cottonwood trees, alders, shrubs, and shallow rivers. These trees and leafy plants supported rhinos and chalicotheres – horse-like creatures with claws. These massive browsing animals were joined by smaller grazers such as camels and horses who were more suited to the developing open grassy ranges.

Last updated: January 3, 2018

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