Fifty-two million years ago, subtropical forests stretched across what is now the United States, inhabited by a stunning array of animals ranging from miniature three-toed horses to fourteen-foot-long primitive crocodilians. These species died out long ago, but their remains are preserved in astonishing detail in a rich trove of fossils collected from the Fossil Lake site in present-day Wyoming. Visitors to the Bruce Museum in Greenwich will be able to encounter the now-vanished lake’s denizens in the exhibition Secrets of Fossil Lake, opening November 21, 2015.
“Fossil Lake is arguably the most important paleontological site in the world,” says Dr. Daniel Ksepka, the curator of the new exhibition and an expert on fossil birds. “Nowhere else can we observe such an abundance
and quality of fossils from the beginning of the Age of Mammals. From the paper-thin leaves of an ancient sassafras tree to the delicate feathers of a tiny bird, the detail of preservation is beyond exceptional.”
Visitors to the exhibition will see fossils from aquatic animals that lived in the lake itself, terrestrial animals that fossilized when chance events washed them in to the waters, and the leaves, fruits, and branches of the forests that grew alongside. They will learn how scientists painstakingly remove the rock matrix to expose a new fossil specimen, and how paleontologists piece together the lifestyles of extinct species from fossil evidence.
“These fossils capture remarkable moments from the lives of the animals,” explains Dr. Ksepka. “A soft-shelled turtle bears bite marks on its shell, testifying to a close encounter with a crocodilian. A freshwater stingray is preserved with the last of its three stingers detached near its tail, perhaps fired in a final deadly encounter. A densely packed layer of herrings lies side by side, wiped out in a mass die-off caused by lethal water conditions.”
The exhibition is organized to provide an overview of the aquatic ecosystem within Fossil Lake and the terrestrial ecosystem along its shores. Two large murals provide life reconstructions of the extinct species to help visitors visualize the plants and animals in living color. Guests can watch a fossil emerge from the rock in a time-lapse video documenting 90 hours of preparation work and try a hands-on activity that tests their skills at identifying perch, herring, and other fish from their fossil skeletons.
Public programming complementing the exhibition will include world-renowned paleontologists. Three science lectures include:
•Early Birds: Extinct Species from Fossil Lake, by Dr. Daniel Ksepka, Bruce Museum, on Friday, November 20.
•The Subtlety of Snakes and a Quarter-Billion Years of Lizard Evolution, by Dr. Jack Conrad, New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, on Tuesday, January 12.
• The Lost World of Fossil Lake: Snapshots from Deep Time, by Dr. Lance Grande, Field Museum of Natural HIstory, on Tuesday, March 15.
Secrets of Fossil Lake is generously underwritten by Gabelli Funds and the Charles M. and Deborah G. Royce Exhibition Fund, and made possible by loans from the Field Museum of Natural History and the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. The show’s cell phone audio tour guide is kindly underwritten by Lucy and Nat Day.