Last updated: April 6, 2020
The Lusk Herald
August 4, 1999
By Dana Williams
Ask a local high school student what products and resources this county exports, and he’ll likely mention agriculture—cattle—sheep—hay--- maybe even some lingering barrels of oil. He probably has no idea Niobrara County had been exporting fossils for more than 100 years—and that they are now scattered all over the world.
Occurring in the sedimentary rocks which dominate this area, fossils have been taken out of here—often quietly, without much fanfare—since 1888. Like the millions of barrels of crude oil pumped out of the area, these fossils are significant—and non-renewable—resources.
The first recorded discovery of dinosaurs in the Lance Creek area occurred in 1888, and the collecting of bones and fossils began in 1889.
Although horned dinosaurs were first discovered in Montana in the 1850’s and in southwestern Wyoming in 1872, the discoveries at Lance Creek in the late 1880’s were the most complete and spectacular. For three years, John B. Hatcher and crews from Yale University excavated dinosaur skulls and skeletons, discovered the first major concentrations of Cretaceous mammal teeth, and sent great quantities of fossils to museums in the east.
In the century since those first discoveries at Lance Creek, major museums from all over the country have collected display specimens here—among then the Geological Museum at the University of Wyoming; Yale Peabody Museum; the American Museum of Natural History in New York City; Princeton University; University of Kansas; the Field Museum in Chicago; the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh; the University of California Museum of paleontology in Berkley; and the South Dakota School of Mines in Rapid City.
Specimens from Lance Creek are also on display at the United States National Museum, the Smithsonian, and even in Europe (at the Natural History Museum of Paris and the Geological Museum at Delft, Netherlands.)
But museum displays are not the only noteworthy fossils from Lance Creek. Many small fossils of mammals, fish, birds, turtles, crocodiles, salamanders, lizards, and plants from this area have been collected for research and study by paleontologists trying to understand the changes which occurred about 65 million years ago, at the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.
Many paleontologists who have studied the Lance Creek fossils believe the Lance Formation in the Lance Creek area has produced skulls and skeletons of horned dinosaurs, duckbilled dinosaurs, and primitive mammals. Although horned dinosaurs and mammals were found earlier in other areas, those from Lance Creek were the best preserved specimens known at the time of their discovery.
Additional localities and specimens continue to be discovered. As recently as 1998, Leonard Zerbst found a pachycephalosaurus on his property 40 miles north of Lusk.
Noteworthy fossils have also been found along the Hat Creek Breaks, where sediments from the Age of Mammals contain skeletons of primitive cats, dogs, camels, horses, rodents and rabbits. Most of these animals are extinct species, but would still look almost familiar.
The Lance Creek Fossil area, nominated by the National Park Service as a National Natural landmark in 1966, was enlarged and designated in 1973 to recognize these resources. Only about 12 percent of the NNL is public land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, although the BLM administers some 70 percent of the minerals in this area.
An inventory of paleontological resources in the Lance Creek NNL was compiled for the BLM in 1979. Unfortunately, this report repeated earlier misconceptions, and is now largely out of date. Current research in the Lance Creek area is focused on changes in the kinds of animals and plants that lived during and after the end of the Age of Dinosaurs.
Scientific debate over the events and conditions that led to dinosaur extinction continues, and rocks in the Lance Creek area may represent the transition from the Age of Dinosaurs to the Age of Mammals.
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