New Hubbard Barn expands discovery at Ashfall dig site

Jun 12th, 2009 | By | Category: Campus News, Issue, June 11, 2009

It all started in Idaho, some 12 million years ago.

A volcanic blast in the southwest portion of what would become the Potato State spewed forth a blanket of ash that covered a large area – including the flat, savannah-like grasslands of Nebraska, southern South Dakota and northern Kansas.

Many of the animals around a waterhole in northeast Nebraska survived the initial ash fall. However, as they ingested the ash while grazing, their lungs began to fill with the powdered glass.

Animals with smaller lung capacities – birds and turtles – went first. As the ash covered those carcasses, smaller-hoofed animals, horses and llama-sized camels, died. Then, with six more inches of ash layering over the dead, barrel-bodied rhinos standing in ash-saturated water succumbed.

Click on the photo to watch a video about the Ashfall Fossil Beds. Produced by University Communications.

Through the whole process, scavengers feasted on the dead and dying.

Paleontologists estimate the gruesome death of a life-giving watering hole took just three to five weeks.

“It would have been a miserable, horrible scene,” said Mike Voorhies, emeritus professor of geosciences.

But time converted the horror into a one-of-a-kind scientific jewel.

As part of a study into the geology and paleontology of the Verdigre valley, Voorhies made the first discovery on Melvin Cohlson’s Antelope County farm in 1971. With his wife working alongside, Voorhies was routinely searching a hillside stripped of soil by recent torrential rains. He brushed away a bit of ash and uncovered a little skull.

Lani Manion
DIGGING IN – Lani Manion, an Ashfall Fossil Beds summer intern from Minnesota State-Mankato, removes the top layer of ash at the dig site in the new Hubbard Rhino Barn.

“I started on the oversized teeth and worked my way farther back, looking for evidence that the skeleton might be there,” Voorhies said. “It was just like the old song, ‘The head bone connected to the neck bone, the neck bone connected to the back bone….'”

That first intact rhino led to the discovery of additional full skeletons in the hill and surrounding area.

The find has led to numerous digs on the site – including one funded and covered by National Geographic – with more than 200 fossil skeletons from 12 species of Clarendonian Age land mammal unearthed.

Today, Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park – a National Natural Landmark as designated by the U.S. Department of the Interior – remains a place of scientific discovery.

Expanding the Dig

A $1.2 million donation by the Theodore F. and Claire M. Hubbard Family Foundation of Omaha is increasing the scope of discovery at Ashfall.

The funds have been used to replace a small “rhino barn” that was built to protect the exposed fossils – which researchers decided to leave in the ground to showcase the unique nature of the dig site.

“The whole point of Ashfall Park is to give the public a firsthand view of a real paleontology site, which is actively being excavated,” said Voorhies. “The skeletons in the ash are so fragile that we can’t uncover them out in the weather. One rainstorm would be enough to completely destroy these unique, one-of-a-kind fossils.”

Built in 1991, the original rhino barn was 2,000 square feet and allowed for 11 years of dig seasons. Voorhies, other paleontologists, students and volunteers dug right to the edges of the old barn.

Mike Voorhies
FACE TO FACE – Mike Voorhies (left), emeritus professor of geosciences and discoverer of the Ashfall Fossil Beds, talks with Harold Renken of York (back) and his grand daughters (from left) Marissa and Laura Wilk of Marion, Ind., in the new Hubbard Rhino Barn.

The new Hubbard Rhino Barn has expanded that dig site eight times, covering 17,500 square feet. It is temperature controlled to help preserve the fossils during the cold winter months and will allow for many decades of excavation, research and education.

A dedication ceremony and grand opening for the Hubbard Rhino Barn is noon, June 19. The barn is currently open to the public as the dig season opened earlier this month.

The construction of the site itself has led to Ashfall’s latest unique discovery – the first fossilized snake uncovered in the ash. Since it would have been covered by the building footing, the snake was removed for further study.

Rick Otto, superintendent for Ashfall Fossil Beds, said additional work on the snake would take place this year.

The find was not a surprise to Voorhies.

new Hubbard Rhino Barn
NEW BARN – The new Hubbard Rhino Barn at Ashfall Fossil Beds. The new barn is eight times larger than the previous barn. It is climate controlled and allows for expanded digging at the site.

“It’s my belief that there are still plenty of surprises in the ground here,” said Voorhies.

Education Grows

The Hubbard Rhino Barn is also helping expand education on the site.

The new barn encompasses a hill that showcases the sedimentary layers researchers removed to reach the fossils.

The hill was previously outside the actual dig site. Now that the hill is inside, Voorhies said visitors can see how the waterhole fossils were buried over time.

Voorhies also plans to dig into a portion of that hill, showcasing a more recent fossil record.

Ashfall – which Voorhies said is not the most interesting thing he found during his study of the Verdigre valley – is now Voorhies’ retirement gig. The self-described “oldest living Ashfall volunteer” plans to continue leading the dig, talking with visitors and helping expand the understanding of what happened in what became a miserable waterhole 12 million years ago.

“This new building is going to allow 40 years of excavation here at Ashfall,” Voorhies said. “This is the one place in the world where you can stand and see whole, three-dimensional skeletons of large animals preserved in volcanic ash. It’s really something unusual to have turned up at the edge of a cornfield.

rhino skeleton
ON SITE – A full skeleton of a rhino rests unearthed in the Hubbard Rhino Barn at Ashfall Fossil Beds. Visitors can watch digs at the Royal site from June through August.

“And, I like the idea that it is going to remain right here. It’s not going to be hauled off to some seaport in the east. It will be here, in Antelope County, Nebraska, forever.”

— Story and photos by Troy Fedderson, University Communications

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  1. If you have never been to Ashfall, you are in for the treat of a lifetime. This is one amazing place that will stay vibrantly in your memory for a life time. I was there several years ago before there were as many finds as they have today. I will be going back.

  2. I took some previous Nebraskans to Ashfall for their first visit last week. They were thrilled. I was pleased that I was able to share one of my favorite places with them. My mother’s uncle and aunt had Dikeman’s Park, not far from the site of the new rhino barn. She loved to go to Ashfall because she could see the area in which she used to play; I love to go to Ashfall because it allows us to see back to and past Dikeman’s Park. Kudos!

  3. Wow good news. Was there in 1995, and had heard they were going to expand it,and was disapointed when I went there in 1997 and apparently they were just talking about expanding. Glad after another 12 years they finally expanded the enclosed area. One of the truly cool places in the Midwest

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