Yellowstone Paleo Survey: Interpretation


It is believed that mountain man Jim Bridger's report of Yellowstone's fossil trees in the 1830s was their first sighting by a white man. His account of the Yellowstone's Fossil Forest may have become embellished over the years, but it provides an interesting interpretation of the cultural history associated with the fossil resource. According to one version of his tale, "…peetrified birds a sittin' on peetrified trees a singin' peetrified songs in the peetrified air. The flowers and leaves and grass was peetrified, and they shone in a peculiar moonlight. That was peetrified too." (Chapman and Chapman 1935).

Current Efforts

"Interpretive planning documents say nothing about paleontological resources," according to former Yellowstone Chief Naturalist Ron Thoman. "There is currently almost nothing done in media or personal services interpretation." The easiest places for visitors to view Yellowstone fossils are the petrified tree stump displayed in front of Albright Visitor Center, the standing stump in the Tower area, and the petrified wood in the foundation of Roosevelt Lodge. A small exhibit of fossil leaves from the East Entrance road construction was temporarily displayed on the second floor of the Albright Visitor Center in 1994.

During the 1996 season, I observed two interpretations of paleontological resources: a park staff member mentioned the fossil forests during an evening slide program on "The Geology of Yellowstone"; and a TW guide mentioned the Yellowstone Petrified Forest as horseback riders passed the fenced petrified tree in the Tower area.

Possible Themes

Fossils, paleontology, and the history of life on earth provide exciting opportunities for interpretation. Both children and adults are interested by fossils. If the public was aware that dinosaur remains have been discovered in Yellowstone, there would be considerable visitor inquiries about them.

Dinosaur bone fragments in the Yellowstone Museum Collection.

Public misconceptions, media misinformation, controversial scientific opinions, and issues associated with evolution and geologic time can present obstacles when interpreting paleontology. This has frequently been the case in other parks with fossil resources, such as Agate Fossil Beds National Monument, Badlands National Park, Dinosaur National Monument, Fossil Butte National Monument, Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument, John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, and Petrified Forest National Park. Strategies related to paleontological interpretation have been discussed during previous National Park Service Paleontological Resource Conferences. Specific training associated with interpreting fossils has been conducted at many of the NPS units that preserve fossil resources.

A variety of interpretive themes could be developed for Yellowstone's paleontological resources. Pick a moment in time when Yellowstone's story is best told. The Yellowstone story is dynamic and not yet finished. The fossil record of life provides evidence of the ancient wildlife and ancient forests of Yellowstone. The fossilized remains of plants and animals hold some of the secrets of Yellowstone's past that are yet to be discovered. Here are some examples of possible themes:

Recommendations for Interpretation

• Provide paleontological training to the park's interpretive staff.

• Develop and incorporate paleontological resources into park interpretive planning documents.

• Develop interpretive themes associated with Yellowstone's paleontological resources.

• Consider developing an interpretive exhibit incorporating Yellowstone's paleontological resources.

• Biological History of Yellowstone. The public's interest in the current wildlife and vegetation of Yellowstone may indicate their potential interest in the ancient wildlife and forests of the area. More than 200 species of fossil plants are known from the Eocene epoch (approximately 50 million years ago). This resource, including fossil wood, leaves, seeds, cones, and pollen, provides an opportunity to compare the ancient forests with the extant forest. What would the public's response be to learning that before the grizzlies, wolves and bison, the Yellowstone area was home to giant reptiles, including dinosaurs and the marine reptile called the plesiosaur?

• Geological History of Yellowstone. Fossils provide information that help geologists to understand past geologic events, processes, and environmental conditions. Fossils can yield information related to the depositional environment of a rock unit (lake, stream, ocean beach, desert, etc.). The presence of fossils in a particular layer and the changes in fossils over the successive layers can provide valuable information about ancient Yellowstone.

• Paleoecology of Yellowstone. The short-term changes evident in Yellowstone, such as those resulting from geothermal activity and forest fires,can markedly effect the visitor's view of the park and provide for continued sources of public inquiry. The fossil record, dating back many millions of years, can assist the interpreter's efforts to present Yellowstone as a dynamic and naturally evolving area. A greater understanding of Yellowstone's past and how the recent setting has evolved may increase the public's appreciation for the park.

• Wolves in Yellowstone. Although some people object to the release of wolves, many park visitors support the wolf reintroduction. The fossil evidence from Lamar Cave provides some of the strongest proof that wolves are a natural component of the Yellowstone's ecosystem.

Some fossil material from Yellowstone, especially the fossilized leaves, are exceptionally well preserved. Some of these specimens would be ideal for use in an exhibit. However, it is important to recognize that increasing public awareness of and interest in fossils should be accompanied by information about resource protection. Specific fossil locations should not be given in interpretive contacts or other information, including slides or photos that would reveal the location of sensitive fossil sites. Wayside exhibits should not be placed where they could direct the public to fossil exposures.

Paleontological Resource Management