Yellowstone Paleo Survey: Introduction


A survey of Yellowstone's fossil resources was initiated in the same spirit of discovery demonstrated by Captain William Raynolds, Henry Washburn, and Ferdinand Hayden. Rumors of marine reptiles, trilobite mass death assemblages, and even dinosaurs in Yellowstone have lured a team of paleontologists in the same way that the legends of "Colter's Hell" and Jim Bridger's "Tall Tales" have attracted many before.

Compared to other natural resources at Yellowstone National Park, fossils have received little attention. Except for the research conducted on the petrified forests, Yellowstone's fossils have remained a relative "paleo-incognita" more than 125 years after the park's establishment. As this survey demonstrates, the lack of paleontological research is not due to a lack of significant fossils. Perhaps historian Aubrey Haines provided the best explanation in his comment, "Past administrations preferred that resources not in the public's eye be left alone" (pers. commun.).

Recognizing the contributions a paleontological survey could make to Yellowstone, we developed a research proposal for projects that would enhance the park staff's ability to manage Yellowstone's fossil resources (Appendix A). This report contains information compiled between 1995 and 1997, including field surveys begun in 1996. The work was accomplished through the voluntary efforts of the principle investigator, who had been previously employed as a national park paleontologist and is familiar with National Park Service paleontological resource management guidelines and methodologies, and the co-investigator, Bill Wall, who has conducted paleontological fieldwork and supervised field crews in numerous national parks.

It has been our privilege to work at Yellowstone. We hope that this document helps to increase the status and awareness of Yellowstone's paleontological resources, and provides a baseline from which future projects can be planned. We believe that the information available in this report can enhance management decision making and perhaps pave the way to further paleontological discoveries in Yellowstone.

The Significance of Yellowstone's Fossil Resources

Yellowstone National Park preserves an extensive geologic record ranging from the Precambrian through the Holocene epoch. Except for Silurian period deposits, rocks of nearly every geologic time period are exposed within the boundaries of the park.

More than 20 fossiliferous stratigraphic units have been identified at Yellowstone, containing fossil plants, invertebrates, vertebrates and trace fossils. The few fossil specimens in the park museum provide a glimpse into a record of life in the Yellowstone area that extends back hundreds of millions of years. Yellowstone fossil collections within the Smithsonian and other museums, including numerous "type" specimens, are recognized as scientifically and historically significant. (A "type" specimen is the reference specimen used to define a particular genus or species.)

Paleozoic and Mesozoic Rocks. Paleozoic and Mesozoic sedimentary rocks are well exposed in the northern range of Yellowstone. The Paleozoic sections measure 3,000-feet thick. Both marine and non-marine Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous units are mapped in the park. The late Cretaceous sections are 4,000-feet thick. Many fossil localities have been identified within these units.

Petrified Forests. The most significant aspect of Yellowstone's petrified forests, which are probably the best studied aspect of its fossil resources, is that petrified wood and impressions of fossil leaves are present in the same location. This unusual association provides tremendous research opportunities for taxonomic and paleoecologic investigations. These fossil forests represent a life assemblage of trees, whereas areas such as Petrified Forest National Park show transported assemblages of fossil trees.

The Importance of Yellowstone's Petrified Forests

• Petrified wood and fossil leaves are present at the same location.

• Many hundreds of fossil tree trunks are still standing upright.

• Successive stratigraphic layers of petrified forests are preserved.

• A great diversity of fossil plants has been preserved, including: fossil leaves, twigs, needles, cones and seeds.

• Large geographic areas of petrified forest are exposed.

• Its paleobotanical specimens provide data on one of the warmest portions of the Tertiary.

Lamar Cave Mammal Fossils. One of the most significant paleontological resources in Yellowstone is the subfossil material including 36 mammal species that were collected from Lamar Cave by Elizabeth Barnosky. This assemblage of fossils provides information related to late Holocene mammalian diversity (1994). The presence of the wolf (Canis lupus) in late Holocene deposits supports the belief that wolves have been part of the Yellowstone ecosystem for hundreds of years.

Historical Background

The first fossil collections from Yellowstone are attributed to the Hayden Survey of 1871. The fossil leaf material obtained during this expedition was described by Leo Lesquereux in 1872. Dr. William Henry Holmes was the first to report the occurrence of a great quantity of fossil wood near Junction Butte and in the cliffs of the Lamar River valley ("Reports of the 1878 Hayden Survey"), the first to interpret the existence of successively buried forests in Yellowstone, and the first to refer to animal fossils in Yellowstone. In 1878 he accompanied Henry Gannett to the summit of the peak now named Mount Holmes, where he found marine fossils and trilobites on a ridge just below the summit that was later named Trilobite Point.

Published accounts of earlier surveys include reports of fossils from areas outside of Yellowstone. Despite Hayden's great interest in paleontology and years of collecting fossils in the west, his early reports provide little direct discussion of fossils in the Yellowstone area. William Ludlow's "Reconnaissance" in 1875 included fossil surveys and descriptions of fossil discoveries outside of Yellowstone, but he did not report any fossil material observed in the park.

On August 1, 1883, the Livingston Enterprise reported, "The head of an extinct species of rhinoceros and vertebrae of a large fossil saurian in an excellent state of preservation were found in the bank of Yellowstone Lake near the camp of W.A. Forwood, surgeon to the president [Garfield]. Of course they are liable to be the bones of buffalo or elk but he considers

Portrait of William H. Holmes.
them a great prize just the same." (Haines pers. commun.).

In 1896, while visiting Yancey's Camp, J. Felix collected some fossil plant material in the area and described a number of species of fossil wood in a short publication (1896).

F.H. Knowlton (1899) made the most complete study of the Yellowstone fossil forests in a comprehensive monograph that identified nearly 150 different species and provided a detailed taxonomic treatment of the fossil plants, especially the leaf impressions.

The Yellowstone archives include correspondence between geologist Clyde Max Bauer, the park's chief naturalist between 1932 and 1946, and famous paleontologists of the day. One letter reported the discovery of dinosaur bones around Geode Lake by park naturalist David De Lancey Condon in 1939. In his popular book, Yellowstone, Its Underground World (Bauer 1962), Bauer indicated that "a few dinosaurs" had been found in or near the park.

Erling Dorf and students from Princeton University conducted paleontological and geological field investigations in Yellowstone between 1955 and 1959 (Dorf 1964). In the mid-1970s, researchers from Loma Linda and Walla Walla Universities began a wide range of paleobotanical studies in the park (Arct 1979; Fisk 1976; Fritz 1977, 1982, 1986).

Most of what can be learned from Yellowstone's fossil record of life is yet to be discovered and remains buried within park sediments. Casual collecting has yielded evidence of late Cambrian extinction events, giant marine reptiles, and a glimpse at life in the Yellowstone area before man's arrival.

Arnold Hague and assistant along the Firehole River. In 1883, Hague was assigned to
Yellowstone in charge of a Geologic Survey.


I came to realize after my first season with the National Park Service in 1985 that some of the best resources in the parks are the people. This belief has been reinforced at Yellowstone National Park. The Yellowstone Paleontological Survey has been greatly enhanced and inspired by many individuals.

My initial contact with Yellowstone regarding a proposal to conduct a paleontological survey of the park was with Stu Coleman, Branch Chief of Natural Resources. Although Stu is surrounded with issues such as wolves, grizzlies, geysers, and exotic species, he has conveyed a positive interest in Yellowstone's fossils. Likewise, Laura Joss, Branch Chief of Cultural Resources, provided great enthusiasm and support for a paleontological survey at Yellowstone. A sincere thanks to Stu and Laura for helping to get the ball rolling and facilitating our efforts along the way.

Thanks to the management and staff of Yellowstone National Park for providing support and suggestions for this survey, including: Marv Jensen, John Varley, Bob
Lindstrom, Ann Johnson, Lee Whittlesey, Ron Thoman, Dan Sholly, Jennifer Whipple, Eleanor Williams, and Craig McClure. I gained insight into the issues related to protection of the petrified wood sites in the park during discussions with Brian O'Dea, Bob Seibert, Rick Bennett, Bonnie Gafney, and Colette Daigle-Berg.

The staff at the Yellowstone Park Museum and Yellowstone Park Research Library, especially Susan Kraft and Vanessa Christopher, have provided many contributions to this project. Despite their busy workloads, both Susan and Vanessa were always supportive to the frequent requests for assistance and information.

A special thanks to Sue Consolo Murphy, Rick Hutchinson, and Arvid Aase for editorial review of this document. The work of Mary Ann Franke and Sarah Broadbent has significantly improved the quality of this document. Additional thanks to Renee Evanoff for creating the Yellowstone Paleontological Survey logo that is used as the cover illustration for this document.

Eric Compas and the Geographic Information System (GIS) staff at Yellowstone donated their time to help map fossil locations. The production of a paleo-locality map using GIS was one of the most important components of the paleontological survey. Eric's assistance is greatly appreciated.

Two retired Yellowstone employees, Wayne Hamilton and Aubrey Haines, still carry Yellowstone close to their hearts. Both men made contributions to the park during their time. The information they shared regarding Yellowstone's fossils provided the foundation on which this survey was built.

Lindsay McClelland, Bob Higgins, and Greg McDonald are NPS staff outside of Yellowstone working to promote paleontological resource management and research. Each has been very supportive of the Yellowstone Paleontological Survey and is actively searching for sources of funding.

I have been fortunate to have known Bill Wall for over a decade. We have worked together on numerous national park fossil projects including research at Badlands, Grand Canyon, Petrified Forest, Alaskan national parks and now Yellowstone. Bill and his field crews of students from Georgia College have trekked many miles into fossil parks. Their efforts have led to many important fossil discoveries.

Current and past park researchers involved in projects related to park fossils are recognized for their contributions. Their work helped us to better understand and interpret the paleobiology of the Yellowstone region. Information was obtained through conversations with researchers Scott Wing (Smithsonian), Kirk Johnson (Denver Museum of Natural History), Ken Cannon (Midwest Archeological Center), Barbara Stahl, Michael Hansen (Otho Geological Survey), David Brezinski (Maryland Geological Survey), Pat Leiggi and Jack Horner (both of The Museum of the Rockies).

I am grateful to Dennis Young for providing me the opportunity to come and work as a ranger at Madison Junction in Yellowstone during 1996. Without direct funding to support the paleontological survey, I was able to use my days off at Yellowstone to accomplish portions of the project. At Madison I discovered two energetic volunteers, Dr. Samuel "Neal" and Mary Cissel. The Cissels contributed their time to photograph fossil
specimens in the park collections. Their assistance and friendship are greatly appreciated.

Finally, to my family, Bianca, Luke, and Jacob Santucci, who have travelled with me across country and out into the field, I express my love and appreciation for supporting my dreams.