The Nebraska panhandle may be remembered historically for the pioneers passing through on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails. But, the biggest distinction of the panhandle may actually travel back several years, up to 20 million, to be specific.
Agate Fossil Beds National Monument near Harrison is home to one of the biggest fossil finds in history. Nebraska didn’t have dinosaurs, but the state is home to many mammal fossils.
The mammal fossils at Agate tell the story of a “Serengeti”-type region – large watering hole area, home to several different creatures. Scientists believe the water source dried up, which led to vegetation dying. The animals, of course, followed.
The first fossils were found by paleontologists in the 1890s. Two sets of teams dug at the conical hills – Carnegie and University.
The digs unearthed the remains of these prehistoric mammals at what was dubbed “The Great Bonebed of Agate”:
- Moropus. It was likely an ancestor to the modern horse. The feet made scientists think it was a ground sloth originally, according to the park’s website (http://www.nps.gov/agfo/index.htm). However, once they found the horselike skull, they later determined it had slim neck, long front legs sloping back, short hind legs and a little switch tail. The creature stood 7-8 feet tall. With three claws on its feet, it posed a threat to others. Its diet consisted of shrubs, brush and low-lying branches primarily.
- Menoceras. It was a smaller version of a modern rhinoceros. Can you believe we had rhinos in Nebraska? The early rhino grew to about three feet and had two horns that grew side-by-side at the end of the nose.
- Stenomlyus. Likened to today’s antelope, this creature was referred to as an early camel. It was a small animal, growing to only about two feet tall. It seemed like the herd suffered a punishing death during the drought. Several fossils had the animals’ heads pulled far back in an unnatural position, likely due to the tightening of a back neck muscle.
- Paleocastor. The early beaver was about the size of a modern prairie dog. They dug deep holes in a spiral motion to about 6-8 feet below ground. They have some fossilized holes on the park grounds.
- Dinohyus. Called a “terrible pig,” this animal is considered a cross between the American bison and pig, with “a whole lot of mean thrown in.” Imagine coming across this creature on a trail, standing at about 6 feet at the shoulder with a three-foot long. No thanks. It was an omnivore.
- Daphaenodon. This animal is referred to a “bear dog.” They had a heavy head and strong jaws. They could dismember the remains of animals. Apparently, it is uncommon to find fossils of carnivores, so it was an even better find for so many to be located together. The bear dogs were discovered in 1905. Then, in 1981, their den was found in a nearby hill.
The park has two trails – one to the dig sites and a second to the beaver burrows.
We walked the main trail to the Carnegie and University hills. The walk is about 2.5 miles, involving some uphill walking. It’s an easy walk for most people.
Prior to leaving the visitors’ center, we saw a warning about rattle snakes in the area. I asked the park ranger how abundant they were on the trail. She said there hadn’t been any reports of them for a few weeks, so we figured it was OK to walk.
The trail was a nice walk. We crossed the Niobrara River, which is more like a small creek or stream at the park. It encompasses the wetlands section.
The hills themselves are no longer used for excavation. It was interesting to see them, though. Standing in front of both the hills, it’s weird to imagine that these creatures roamed the land. The land didn’t look the same. Wowza!
After spending several minutes at the excavation sites, we headed back down to the car.
We made great time downhill until… we encountered a skunk family near the bridge over the Niobrara. Mind you, this was the only safe route on the trail. We stood waiting for the mother skunk and her four babies to go back into the high grass. She must have seen us, as she started moving our way. We backed up slowly and she eventually went back to her kids.
They stayed on the sidewalk for about 10 minutes. They made their way into the high grass. We watched for about a minute and started walking again. Out they come. Man, we cannot catch a break! We stopped. Backed up again. After a couple more minutes, they went back into the grass. We waited a little longer. No more skunks. We quickly – and I mean quickly – moved down the trail and crossed the bridge. As we walked across, I saw mom’s tail against some grass. Phew!
As we walked to the car, we discussed the situation.
“There was no one to call, since the center is closed,” Lisa said.
“Nope,” I replied. “Plus, there is no cell service out here.”
Alas, we survived our ordeal. And here, I thought I had to be worried about rattlers.
In addition to the great walking trail and dig sites, Agate park offers a look at the collection of Native American artifacts and history that once belonged to rancher Thomas Cook. Cook was the original owner of the park area, known as Agate Springs Ranch.
Cook befriended Native Americans, including a long-term friendship with Red Cloud. The items on display were gifts from Red Cloud and other Native Americans.
The collection is worthy of a museum by itself. The collection is in a temperature-controlled area.
Clothing, jewelry and weapons highlight the collection.
We recommend visiting Agate Fossil Beds National Monument. It has to be a destination trip, or at least be in the Scottsbluff or Fort Robinson areas. It’s located on Highway 29, between Mitchell and Harrison. It is a beautiful drive. Be prepared for the lack of cell phone service on the road, as well as seeing only a few people on the road. You’ll encounter more cattle than people.
Check out the national monument, which has free admission, and you will enjoy a great history lesson.