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Touching the Past: Fabulous Fossils at Explorit

This article appeared in the September 26, 2014 edition of the Davis Enterprise.

 

By Lisa Justice

Special to the Enterprise

 

If you’ve never touched something over 30 million years old, now’s your chance at Explorit Science Center.  Our stunning Green River Fossil has recently gone back on display, and visitors are encouraged to enjoy a hands-on exploration of its fishy wonders.

 

The Green River Fossil contains the remains of dozens of Knightia fish preserved in stone.  During the Eocene epoch, about 56-33 million years ago, subtropical lakes covered vast areas of present day Wyoming, Utah and Colorado. 

 

These lakes were inhabited by a wide variety of fish, which include herring, catfish and freshwater stingrays. Crayfish and turtles thrived in the shallows and huge crocodiles moved through the water stealthily. The palm-dotted lake shores were home to many types of insects, birds, reptiles and mammals.

 

When fish and other animals died, some of them sank to the bottom of the lake. Their bodies became covered with fine layers of mud and organic matter that accumulated on the lake bottom.

 

Over time, these mud deposits became hundreds of feet thick and hardened to become a collection of whitish rocks known to geologists as the Green River Formation. The remains of ancient plants and animals trapped in the rocks became fossils.

 

The fossils from the Green River Formation are among the most complete in the world. Scientists are still trying to understand what conditions allowed for such perfect preservation to occur. Water at the bottom of the lake may have been too salty or too stagnant for scavengers to feed on the dead bodies.

 

Occasionally, hundreds or thousands of fish died at once and became preserved on one slab of rock. Poisonous algal blooms or volcanic ash may have triggered these mass kills.

 

The Knightia specimens covering both sides of Explorit’s Green River Fossil are ancient relatives of herring and sardines.  All the specimens are about the same size, which suggests that they represent one season’s adults that schooled together and were killed together.

 

Make sure not to miss the Green River Fossil on your next visit to Explorit.  Conveniently mounted next to our probe microscopes, this fascinating fossil is ready for its close-up!

 

For more hands-on fossil fun, challenge yourself to our Fossil Paintings Scavenger Hunt.  Explorit’s collection of Theodore McFall’s “Fossil Art” bas-relief paintings is on display throughout our main gallery. 

 

These works of art are meant to provide a tactile experience as well as a visual one, so look with your hands as well as your eyes!  What will you discover about fossils on your next visit to Explorit?

 

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Explorit’s coming events:

 

  • Explorit’s Beautiful World: Science and Art exhibition is open to the public every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 1:00-5:00 p.m. and every Friday, 3:00-6:00 p.m.  Admission is $5.00 per person; Explorit members, teachers and children 2 and under are free.
  • Interested in membership?  Think your Explorit membership may have lapsed?  Call Explorit at 530-756-0191 to check or sign up!
  • Birthdays are back at Explorit!  Call Explorit at 530-756-0191 for more information or to book your party.
  • Join us for a free public lecture on Monday, October 27, 6-7:30 in the Blanchard Room at the Mary L. Stephens public library in Davis.  Dr. Robert Poppenga will discuss how to poison-proof your home for safe and healthy pets.

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Explorit Science Center is located at 3141 5th St. For more information call (530) 756-0191 or visit http://www.explorit.org, or “like” us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/explorit.fb.

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