Wednesday, 18 March 2020


The beauties you see here are ichthyosaurs. The largest of their lineage is the genus Shonisaurus who ruled our ancient seas 217 million years ago.

At least 37 incomplete fossil specimens of the marine reptile have been found in hard limestone deposits of the Luning Formation, in far northwestern Nye County of Nevada. This formation dates to the late Carnian age of the late Triassic period when present-day Nevada and parts of the western United States were covered by an ancient ocean.

The first researcher to recognize the Nevada fossil specimens as ichthyosaurs was Siemon W. Muller of Stanford University. He had the work of Sir Richard Owen and others to build on. That being said, there are very few contenders for a species that boasts vertebrae over a foot wide and weighing in at almost 10 kg or 21 lbs. Muller contacted the University of California Museum of Paleontology at Berkeley. Surface collecting by locals continued at the site but no major excavation was planned.

Sir Richard Owen, the British biologist, comparative anatomist and paleontologist, coined the name ichthyopterygia, or "fish flippers," one hundred and fourteen years earlier, but that wee bit of scientific knowledge hadn't made its way west to the general population. The finds at Luning were still, "marine monsters."

Owen, too, was building on research going back to 1699, the very first recorded fossil fragments found of these beasties in Wales. Shortly thereafter, fossil vertebrae were published in 1708 from the Lower Jurassic.

The first complete skeleton was discovered in the early 19th century by Mary Anning and her brother Joseph along the Dorset Jurassic Coast. Mary's find was described by a British surgeon, Sir Everard Home, an elected Fellow of the Royal Society, in 1814. The specimen is now on display at the Natural History Museum in London bearing the name Temnodontosaurus platyodon, or “cutting-tooth lizard.”

In 1821, William Conybeare and Henry De La Beche, a friend of Mary's, published a paper describing three new species of unknown marine reptiles based on the Anning's finds. The Rev. William Buckland would go on to describe two small ichthyosaurs from the Lias of Lyme Regis, Ichthyosaurus communis and Ichthyosaurus intermedius. All of this early work was instrumental in aiding the researchers who would join the project at Luning.

Owen is considered to have been an outstanding naturalist with a remarkable gift for interpreting fossils. Contrary to common belief, advanced study does help with identifying fossils, but what is truly needed is a keen eye. The finds at Luning were blessed to be seen by an enthusiastic local with just that right kind of keen eye.

Almost a quarter of a century after Muller's initial reports, Dr. Charles L. Camp from UCMP received correspondence further detailing the finds from a lovely Mrs. Margaret Wheat of Fallon. She wrote to Camp in September of 1928 to say that she'd been giving the quarry section a bit of a sweep, as you do, and had uncovered a nice aligned section of vertebrae with her broom. The following year, Dr. Charles L. Camp went out to survey the finds and began working on the specimens, his first field season of many, in 1954.

Back in the 1950s, these large marine reptiles were rumoured to be "marine monsters," as the concept of an ichthyosaur was not well understood by the local townsfolk. Excitement soon hit West Union Canyon as the quarry began to reveal the sheer size of these mighty beasts. Four of the specimens were fully excavated. Most of the ichthyosaur bones were left in situ, partially because the work was tremendously difficult, and partially to allow others to see how the specimens were laid down over 200 million years ago.

Camp continued to work with Wheat at the site and brought on Sam Welles and a host of students to help with excavations. The team understood the need for protection at the site. They canvassed the Nevada Legislature to establish the Ichthyosaur Paleontological State Monument. You can see one of the Park Rangers above giving a tour within the lovely Fossil Hut building they built on the site to protect the fossils.

In 1957, the site was incorporated into the State Park System and Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park was born. The park Twenty years later, in 1977, the population of Nevada weighed in and the Legislature designated Shonisaurus popularis as the State Fossil of Nevada. Visitors are welcome to collect fossils from the exposures of the Upper Triassic (Early Norian, Kerri Zone) of the Luning Formation, West Union Canyon, just outside Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park.

Address: State route 844, Austin, NV 89310, United States. Area: 4.58 km². Open 24 hours;
Elevation: 6,975 ft (2,126 m); Tel: +1 775-964-2440;