By Andrew Stuart
Shining peaks and blood-red desert wastes. Canyons that overwhelm the human scale. Big Bend National Park is an international destination, and a West Texas wonder. Its landscapes have the power to awe and humble.
But scientists have found that these landscapes also tell a vivid story of the past: of seawaters teeming with life, of lush forests alive with dinosaurs, of ancient mammals beneath fiery volcanos.
At the park’s Fossil Discovery Exhibit, opened in 2017, visitors enter this epic story.
It’s hidden below a ridge, to leave vistas unobstructed. But turning east from the Persimmon Gap road, 8 miles north of Panther Junction, the exhibit comes into view.
Big Bend boast more kinds of fossils than any national park – some 1,200 species. But there’s more that sets it apart, even from famous fossil parks like Petrified Forest or Florrisant Fossil Beds.
Park geologist Don Corrick led the exhibit’s design.
“Those parks have exquisite fossils,” Corrick said, “but they’re just a snapshot in time, just a very short, brief period of time. Big Bend is special because it has almost 130 million years of pretty much uninterrupted time, and during that time the environment changed over and over. Here at the exhibit, we tell that story.”
It begins in the Cretaceous Period, when a shallow sea bisected North America and submerged this land. Warm, sunlit, it was rich in life. The exhibit’s first section highlights marine fossils.
There were ammonites – squid-like creatures, with hard shells. Turtles, sharks, a massive fanged fish called Xiphactinus.
But this was the Age of Reptiles, and limestones here yield fossils of the seaway’s apex predator – a 40-foot-long marine lizard called a mosasaur.
Here, and throughout the exhibit, murals by a paleontologist-slash-artist bring vanished scenes to life.
Eighty million years ago, the Rockies began to rise, and the sea receded. What’s now Big Bend became coastline.
“It would have looked very much like the coast of Texas or Louisiana today,” Corrick said, “with broad swampy areas with forests, rivers coming down, estuaries and bays. The wildlife was pretty different, because it was dinosaurs.”
Different indeed. In this section, there’s the skull of a horned dinosaur discovered in Big Bend – agujaceratops, which grazed in herds. There was a distinctive tyrannosaur – as big as any T. Rex. And there was deinosuchus – a giant crocodilian. Other fossils bear its teeth marks. Petrified wood in the park testifies to the coastline’s evergreen forest.
From here, visitors enter the exhibit’s “Gallery of Giants” – with life-size bronze skulls of deinosuchus and T. Rex. Exhibits point visitors to sites of scientific importance in the distance, near the Dead Horse Mountains.
And overhead hangs one of Big Bend’s claims to fame.
Quetzalcoatlus was discovered in 1971. A reptile with a 35-foot wingspan, it’s the largest flying creature ever known.
“If you walk into the Smithsonian or any important, big museum, they almost always have a quetzalcoatlus hanging from the ceiling, because it’s so impressive,” Corrick said. “It was just a shame it wasn’t in the park where it was found. But now it is.”
By 70 million years ago, this land was an inland floodplain. Continuing through the exhibit, one sees fossils from that time, including alamosaurus, a long-necked dinosaur that weighed 70 tons. Further still, visitors learn of Big Bend’s volcanic epoch – and the mammals that endured it.
Big Bend’s paleontological richness was known early. Barnum Brown, a legend in the science, who discovered T. Rex, did his final fieldwork here in 1940.
Corrick and others long dreamed of an exhibit worthy of that richness. The nonprofit Big Bend Conservancy raised a million dollars in private donations for the project. It was supplemented by a park-service grant. In January 2017, the 3,000-square-foot facility opened.
It’s been a hit. Children gape in fascination before the dinosaurs. The bronze sculptures are social-media “stars.” Corrick said he knows personally what a childhood dinosaur connection can do.
“What warms my heart the most is seeing all the children come in and hear them get excited when they see the giant crocodile skull,” he said. “Hopefully it will get them interested in science. That’s what led me to science I think.”
Big Bend National Park is remarkable for its fierce beauty. It’s also made an important contribution to our understanding of the planet, and its life.