Highway paleontology program celebrates 50-year partnership

Oct 11th, 2010 | By | Category: Campus News, Sept. 23

The University of Nebraska State Museum and the Nebraska Department of Roads are celebrating 50 years of life in the past lane.

A special exhibit opens Sept. 29 at Morrill Hall showcasing fossil finds salvaged over the last five decades through Nebraska’s Highway Paleontology Program, a collaborative effort between the two state agencies. “Highway Paleontology: Life in the Past Lane” features rare specimens, including the remains of a six-foot-tall flightless bird, a 40-foot-long plesiosaur, a lion 25 percent larger than the modern African lion, and a giant land tortoise discovered by the program in 2009. The exhibit is on display through Sept. 30, 2011.

Nebraska’s abundant fossil record is critical to the interpretation of climate and life history in North America. Whenever highway construction disrupts the Earth’s surface, there is a possibility that fossils will be uncovered. Since 1960, the Nebraska Department of Roads, the University of Nebraska, and the University of Nebraska State Museum have worked together to prevent the destruction of these scientific treasures. Backed by state and federal legislation, Nebraska’s Highway Paleontology Program was established Oct. 1, 1960, to protect fossils threatened by highway construction. The program was the first of its kind in the United States.

“We are very proud of our cooperative relationship with the University of Nebraska and the university’s State Museum on our highway salvage paleontology program,” said Monty Fredrickson, director of the Nebraska Department of Roads. “For the last 50 years, the Roads Department has carried on its mission while sharing its work sites with the university, its students, and its experts, for scientific exploration and study.”

With support from Roads Department staff, museum paleontologists excavate fossil remains as they are revealed by equipment — conserving the state’s rich prehistoric past without causing construction delays. Typically less than 1 percent of the annual highway projects produce fossils. In the past 50 years, more than 200,000 specimens including the remains of a camel, rhinoceros, long-jawed elephant, giant land tortoise, large carnivore, and sea lizard have been curated into the State Museum’s permanent research collection. Several animals new to science have been discovered, including a new species of mouse, Stratimus strobeli, named in honor of former Roads Department director Jerry Strobel for his long-term support of the program.

More than 80 projects have produced scientifically significant specimens with the most noteworthy locality in the Nebraska Panhandle south of Gering. In 1968, highway realignment through the Wildcat Hills exposed a 20-23 million-year-old river deposit. Museum paleontologists salvaged a few fossils during construction and revisited these road cuts for 30 years until another major improvement project associated with the Heartland Expressway uncovered a treasure trove of fossils through this stretch. In 1999, paleontologists collected approximately 600 bones, a third of which were skulls and jaws, in a six-week period. Scrapers carried 70,000 cubic yards of sand and gravel through excavated portions of the quarry as they worked. Sixty different species were recovered, including turtles, snakes, birds and mammals.

“After we finished, contractors smoothed up the lanes and were completed in less than 30 minutes,” said Shane Tucker, museum paleontologist. “It is hard to fathom the amount of information that would be lost if this program didn’t exist.”

“The university takes great pride in creating partnerships with outside agencies that benefit the citizens of Nebraska. We are honored and privileged to have this long-standing relationship with the Nebraska Department of Roads,” said UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman. “The museum and its Highway Paleontology Program exemplify the university’s research and service missions through its dedicated work and outreach efforts throughout the state.”

– Dana Ludvik, Mary Jo Oie, Shane Tucker

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