Big Bend’s new fossil exhibit tells story of park’s earliest inhabitants

11:00 p.m Friday, Feb. 17, 2017 Travel
A new Fossil Discovery Exhibit opened recently at Big Bend National Park. Pam LeBlanc/American-Statesman

Beneath the rust-colored, corrugated metal roof of a new open-air exhibit at Big Bend National Park, one kid after another wedges his head between the gaping jaws of an ancient, toothy alligator.

That’s what park officials hoped for as they planned the new Fossil Discovery Exhibit, devoted to the last 130 million years of the park’s geologic history, dinosaurs and all.

The low-slung shelter, unveiled to fanfare in mid-January, features museum-quality replicas of dinosaur bones, educational panels depicting the evolving landscape, photos showing imprints of dinosaur skin and egg shells, a concrete cast of a dinosaur’s femur and pieces of real petrified wood. Overhead, a replica of Quetzalcoatlus, a flying lizard the size of a small airplane, once again soars across the West Texas sky.

Visitors have long flocked to West Texas to pitch tents in the desert, hike the Chisos Mountains and rub shoulders with prickly plants and animals. But until now, most learned little about what park geologist Don Corrick calls one of the great untold stories of Big Bend — its dinosaurs.

“At the beginning, I knew Big Bend had great fossils we weren’t sharing with the public,” Corrick says. “That was the impetus.”

The gleaming $1.5 million exhibit, which park officials call the most significant addition to the park in the past 50 years, replaces a decaying, mattress-sized case holding a smattering of small, poor-quality plaster fossil replicas.

Three adjoining shelters made of perforated steel walls are located near a ridge at a pullout off the main park road between Persimmon Gap and Panther Junction. From the 3,000-square-foot exhibit, visitors can peer into the distance, where scientists unearthed some of the fossils.

Big Bend claims more bird, bat and cactus species than any other national park. That diversity extends to the creatures that lived here eons ago. More than 1,200 kinds of fossils have been uncovered at Big Bend National Park — more than any other U.S. national park.

Barnum Brown and R.T. Bird, rock stars in the paleontology world, explored the park in 1940, digging up pieces of a skull of a giant alligator called Deinosuchus, parts of a duck-billed hadrosaur called Kritosaurus and bones of the long-neck plant eater Alamosaurus.

Museums all over the country, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the Perot Museum in Dallas and the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin, display bones unearthed at Big Bend. But until now, they’ve been all but ignored at the park. Exhibit creators hope the display will help visitors understand what this corner of Texas looked like long before humans appeared.

“The distinctive thing about Big Bend geology is we have an almost complete history of 130 million years,” Corrick says. “In that time environments changed and plants changed and animals changed.”

The land the park now encompasses was once an interior sea swimming with fish, reptiles and turtles. As the Rocky Mountains continued to rise, the sea shrank and a swampy coastline emerged. That’s when the first real dinosaurs appeared. Later, the sea receded further, creating an inland flood plain. Eventually, the dinosaurs became extinct and more familiar animals replaced them.

Because the park doesn’t have a museum’s ability to preserve and protect real bones, only museum-quality replicas are displayed here. “Every bump and dent is accurate,” Corrick says.

Still, the exhibit impressed several hundred visitors who filed through for the grand opening last month.

“I knew there were dinosaurs here, but you don’t think of Big Bend being the only place for some of the species,” Caneel Cardwell, a photographer from Alpine, said as she perused a display about an armored dinosaur called Bravoceratops, found only in this area. “This used to be ocean and marsh, and it’s desert now. It’s pretty neat to think about that.”

The Big Bend Conservancy, a nonprofit group that raises money used to maintain and enhance the park, ledfundraisingefforts, and the National Park Service contributed $300,000 in grants. The conservancy discussed the idea for a paleontology exhibit at its first board meeting in 1996, said Lori Palmer, who founded the organization.

“(We wanted) to recognize that there was a hidden asset — the park’s geologic history and the story yet to be told of the millions and millions of years of this land and the dinosaurs that were here.”

“It’s been a long time coming, and this will benefit the world for generations to come,” says Vidal Davila, acting superintendent of Big Bend National Park. “It tells the story of what happened here thousands of years ago so the average visitor can gain knowledge.”

The exhibit is open from dawn to dusk and includes a small parking lot, a shaded picnic area, fossil-themed climbing structures and a vault toilet.

Still, the bronze skulls seem to capture the most attention.

“There’s going to be a million photos on Facebook,” Corrick says. “And if it gets even one kid interested in science, we’ve done our job.”

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