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Flowing Through Time

Niobrara National Scenic River

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SHANE TUCKER: The Niobrara River is just super-rich as far as fossil resources go. Paleontologists have been collecting fossils there since the 1850s— thousands and thousands of fossils.

The rocks in the Niobrara River valley document the last 15 million years of mammal evolution.

It’s exciting, you know, when you find a fossil in the field and you first uncover it. It’s been in the ground, entombed, for millions and millions of years, and all of a sudden you’re the first person ever to see that specimen.

This is a young animal, a small species of camel that was living in this river valley 13 million years ago. You know, it may have been caught by a bone-crushing dog, that killed it.

I equate, you know, each bone to a piece in a big jigsaw puzzle. The more pieces you have, the better idea you have as what the landscape and what the animals interactions were.

The present Niobrara River valley cuts through a series of ancient river deposits. We see animals like giant land tortoises. That tells us that Nebraska was much warmer 14 million years ago. And so we probably had these large subtropical forests. And so we can start to reconstruct what Nebraska looked like by each of these puzzle pieces.

Once we get to about five million years ago, we lose a lot of animals, like giant land tortoises go extinct. So there’s something going on with the climate.

We see a new suite of animals come in 10-27,000 years ago. And the animals that we see recorded in those rock layers tell us that conditions were much colder, much drier.

Scientists from all over the world come to the University of Nebraska to study the fossils.

The goal of the museum here and the paleontologists is to make sure that we preserve these fossils so they’re around forever for future generations of scientists to utilize in their research, answering questions about climate change or just how these different animals evolved over time.

Probably 90% of the finds we have here at the museum have actually been reported by an amateur paleontologist or a landowner.

You might find a bone on the surface and think, “Oh, there's hundreds, there's millions of these.” Well, that one bone you picked up, if you don’t know what it is, may be a one-of-a-kind specimen. You should contact, you know, either the Park Service or the museum.

The more time we spend here, the more puzzle pieces we’re gonna find, and the more clear picture we will have as to what Nebraska looked like 13 million years ago.

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The Niobrara River Valley is home to world-class fossil quarries featuring prehistoric mammals like mammoths, camels, horses, and much more. Join Nebraska State Highway Paleontologist Shane Tucker on this journey back in time.