Ichthyosaurs weren’t exactly guppies.
At 50 to 60 feet long and 40 to 50 tons — not to mention with a snout lined with hundreds of razor-sharp teeth — these prehistoric sea creatures — Ichthyosaur means “fish lizard” — were real monsters of the sea, capable of holding their own against any of their contemporaries.
At Nevada’s Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, visitors can get up close and personal with ichthyosaurs, albeit ones that have been dead for more than 200 million years.
Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park has not only the largest ichthyosaur ever uncovered (nearly 60 feet) but also the world’s greatest concentration of these prehistoric marine reptile remains. The bones of 37 ichthyosaurs have been identified at the site.
How these beasts came to be buried in Union Canyon in the Shoshone Mountains of Central Nevada is an intriguing story.
At the turn of the century, miners working in the nearby town of Berlin stumbled upon the ichthyosaur fossils. Not certain of their origins, some of the prospectors kept the bones as fireplace decorations while others used the large, round vertebrae as dinner plates.
In 1929, a few of the disc-shaped backbones came into the possession of Professor Siemon W. Muller, a geologist at Stanford University. Muller recognized them as ichthyosaur remains but could not excavate the bones because of their remote location.
About two decades later, Dr. Charles L. Camp, a paleontologist and director of the Paleontological Museum in Berkeley, visited the site and decided to conduct a formal excavation.
Working with a colleague, Samuel P. Wells, and students, Camp studied the site from 1954 to 1957 and again from 1963 to 1965. His efforts yielded 37 adult ichthyosaurs, which were some of the largest known animals from the Triassic Period.
Camp found that the Berlin ichthyosaurs had several distinctive features and assigned them to a new branch of the family, which he named “Shonisaurus” after the surrounding mountains.
Camp’s research also hinted at possible reasons for the creatures’ demise. He noticed that the majority of the skeletons were found lying in a north-south direction and that all were adults.
Additionally, there were no complete skeletons and many bones appeared crushed or damaged.
He concluded that the ichthyosaurs had become beached in a mudflat, as happens to modern-day whales, when the tide receded. The bones had become scattered as a result of being dismembered by scavengers and as a result of crashing waves.
The partial skeletons eventually were covered by thousands of feet of mud and sand — millions of years ago this part of Nevada would have been underwater — which eventually petrified into rock.
The fossils later became exposed as a result of the same geologic uplifting that created the Shoshone Mountains.
In the 1980s, however, paleontologists restudied the site and concluded that the massive creatures may have died of food poisoning from consuming toxic shellfish.
Camp’s pioneering work resulted in the Nevada Legislature creating the Ichthyosaur State Monument in 1955 (which was combined into Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in 1970). The ichthyosaur was designated the official state fossil in 1977.
In 1966, a large A-frame shelter, called the Fossil House, was constructed over one of the largest quarries, which protected the bones and provided an archaeological dig site that could be observed by the public.
Guided tours of the Fossil House, which run about 40 minutes, are available at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. daily Memorial Day through Labor Day, with a noon tour on Saturdays and Sundays.
From the third Saturday in March to Memorial Day and from Labor Day to the second Sunday in November, tours are offered at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. There is a $5 tour fee.
A large sculpture wall near the dig site displays a representation of a life-sized ichthyosaur — which gives you some idea of how big these fish were in their time.
Berlin-Ichthyosaur Park also has 14 campsites with picnic tables, barbecue grills, water and an RV dump station. The remoteness provides for a quiet vacation spot far from bright lights and traffic. Cost is $15 per night for overnight camping.
Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is located about 95 miles southeast of Fallon via U.S. 50 and Nevada State Route 361. For more information, go to http://parks.nv.gov/parks/berlin-ichthyosaur.
Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.