Trailside Museum of Natural History

Museums don’t have to be large to interesting and the Trailside Museum of Natural History at Fort Robinson State Park is a prime example. Located in Crawford, Nebraska in the northwestern corner of the state, the Trailside Museum is only one room, but it makes the most of it. As you walk through the doors, the first thing you see is a life-size skeleton of a Columbian Mammoth (the state fossil of Nebraska). The walls of the room are lined with fossils from the area arranged in chronological order, and include many fossils including ammonites, fossil trees, and big horn sheep.

The most impressive exhibit is without a doubt the ‘Clash of the Mammoths’. You can’t miss it; it dominates most of the back of the museum. Tens of thousands of years ago, two male mammoths fought and died in what is now western Nebraska. Both of these mammoths were around 40 years old and, because male mammoths continue growing throughout most of their adult lives, were very large. More importantly, each of these mammoths had one whole and one broken tusk. In modern elephants, males with a broken tusk tend to be vicious fighters and use the broken tusk to stab their opponent. For this reason, these fighting males were at very close quarters. Somehow they managed to entangle themselves and died that way, each dragging the other down. (Side note: if you look closely at the tusks while standing at the back of the exhibit, you’ll see a small rectangular hole in one of them. Unfortunately, it is not visible in this picture. This hole was made by Dr. Dan Fisher, a paleontologist who studies the life histories of mammoths and mastodons. You’ll see these little marks on tusks in museums across the country.)

Clash of the Mammoths

Clash of the Mammoths

Don’t let the size of this museum mislead you, it is definitely worth a visit. If you’re ever driving through southwestern South Dakota or northwestern Nebraska, I highly recommend visiting the Trailside Museum, the Mammoth Site, and other museums along the Fossil Freeway.


Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits

Last December I had the wonderful opportunity to visit the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. I spent a week in southern California and the La Brea Tar Pits were without a doubt my favorite part!

First of all, let’s talk about the tar pits themselves. Before you even see the museum or the grounds, you can smell them; the smell of tar permeates Wiltshire Boulevard for blocks, especially on hot days. These tar pits have been around for tens of thousands of years and formed when crude oil oozed to the surface through cracks in the crust. After the oil reached the surface the lightest part of the ooze–the oil–evaporated, leaving behind the thick, sticky asphalt. Luckily for scientists (but unluckily for the animals), during the Pleistocene many plants and animals got stuck in the tar, and can now be studied. When you walk around the grounds today you can see tar pits large and small still bubbling away. In front of the museum is a massive pond with mammoth sculptures reenacting how these animals may have become stuck. Also on the grounds you can see Project 23 and some of the pits that scientists have been excavating for 100 years, as well as the Pleistocene Garden, a recreation of what the Ice Age flora was like.

Dire Wolf skulls, Page Museum, Los Angeles, CA (Wikimedia Commons)

Once you go inside the Page Museum itself, things are no less impressive. The museum is filled with some of the millions of specimens found at the site. Smilodon (saber-tooth cats) are some of the most well known fossils (it is the state fossil of California) and some of the bones even have evidence of injuries and disease. Unlike in museums in other states, large specimens such as mammoths and horses are suspended from the ceiling instead of mounted from the floor in case of earthquakes! One of my favorite exhibits was the wall of over 400 dire wolf skulls that was made to solve the problem of too many fossils and not enough storage.

In the middle of the museum is the Fishbowl Lab. For me, fossil preparation is one of the most exciting parts of the scientific journey. Visitors can watch volunteer preparators clean and repair fossils. You might even get a chance to see Zed, the largest and most complete mammoth found so far at the site!

If you find yourself in southern California, I highly recommend visiting the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. I could easily spend days in that museum and I would love to go back! To learn more about the tar pits, check out the links below!


UC-Berkeley: La Brea Tar Pits

The Page Museum

The Tar Pits blog

Black Hills Institute

During my summers in South Dakota, I would frequently visit the Black Hills Institute Museum. The building may be small, but don’t hold that against the BHI; it’s absolutely packed with specimens! The museum is located on Main Street in Hill City, SD and is about an hour from The Mammoth Site and 30 minutes from Rapid City, Mt. Rushmore and Crazy Horse.

When you first walk into the museum, it can be overwhelming to see the sheer number of fossils. Stan the T. rex dominates the room, along with cases and cases of ammonites and other vertebrate and invertebrate fossils. Though many of these fossils come from around the world, part of the museum is dedicated to local finds. South Dakota has a rich paleontological history and the BHI takes you through that history. Every time I came back to the museum, I saw something new. For those of you who prefer rocks and minerals to fossils, there is a back room full of them!

Black Hills Institute

I highly recommend the Black Hills Institute Museum. It is difficult for me to describe without sounding redundant because it packs a lot of science into a small space beautifully (it reminded me of an oversized cabinet of curiosities). The average person can get through the collection in about 30 minutes, but I could spend the whole day in there. I wouldn’t normally mention the gift shop, but the BHI gift shop is one of my favorites in the Black Hills. It is nearly as large as the museum itself and is full of geology and paleontology gifts. I am particularly partial to their collection of postcards.

Gray Fossil Site

This past week I started volunteering in the fossil preparation lab at the Gray Fossil Site in Gray, Tennessee. The site has a similar history to that of The Mammoth Site; the Gray Fossil Site was discovered in 2000 when construction crews were working on a road project near Daniel Boone High School in Gray, Tennessee. Scientists and construction workers alike quickly realized that this was a major paleontological find. In 2007, the Natural History Museum, operated by East Tennessee State University, opened to the public.

Front of the Gray Fossil Museum on the grand opening weekend (by PaleoClipper)

The site itself is remarkable. It is between 4.5 and 7 million years old from the Neogene period and is one of only a handful of sites of that age in the eastern United States. It was once a sinkhole pond that supported many species of plants, vertebrates and invertebrates. The fossils left behind by these organisms tell us a lot about what the environment was like during that time. The Gray Fossil Site has the world’s largest record of fossil tapirs (large, stout browsing mammals with prehensile snouts that are now only found in Central and South America and Southeast Asia), as well the second North American record of the red panda (the first was in Washington) and a new species of herbivorous badger.

The museum is full of interactive exhibits about the history of the site. Be sure to check out the telephones with news, traffic, and weather reports from the history of the Gray Fossil Site! The main floor also includes a temporary exhibit hall with traveling exhibits such as ‘Hatching the Past’ about dinosaur eggs and babies that wrapped up on June 1st.

A hand holding a painted turtle (Chrysemys picta) shell from the Gray fossil site (by Robert W Williams)

The second floor is home to the preparation lab where visitors can look through the windows to see what the volunteer preparators are doing. Preparators could be working on anything from picking through screenwash to glueing together fossil turtle shells. Outside, visitors can wander along the walkway overlooking the dig site. I would recommend going on one of the guided tours to get a more detailed explanation of the exhibits, prep lab and dig site.

For more information about exhibits, admission prices and museum hours, check out their website below.

Natural History Museum

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD

I have had the great pleasure of spending the past two summers as an intern at the Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD. The Mammoth Site is in the Black Hills and is within an hour or so of other travel destinations such as Crazy Horse and Mount Rushmore.

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD (from Jeff the quiet)

The Mammoth Site is one of my favorite museums, and not just because I worked there for two summers. The site was discovered in 1974 when a land developer wanted to build a housing development. The bulldozer operator came across something that he didn’t recognize, so Dr. Larry Agenbroad was called in to identify the find. Dr. Agenbroad, now the site director, recognized the find as a mammoth bone, and the rest is history.

The site itself is a sinkhole that formed when a cave collapsed and a hot spring filled the hole with water. When this sinkhole was open approximately 26,000 years ago during the last Ice Age, the warm waters kept the grass green around the edges of the sinkhole even in the dead of winter. Unsuspecting creatures trying to get a bite to eat would fall into the sinkhole and be unable to climb out due to the steep, slippery clay walls. The most impressive and abundant of these unsuspecting creatures is the Columbian Mammoth (Mammuthus columbi). At the end of the last field season, 120 tusks had been found, meaning that the remains of at least 60 mammoths are buried in the sediment.

The Mammoth Site is unique, and not just because of the abundance of mammoth fossils. Because the sinkhole is rimmed by a ring of red rock, scientists know where the edges of the sinkhole are and a building was built over it to protect the fragile fossils from exposure to the elements. Visitors can take a guided tour through the bonebed itself, and might even have the opportunity to see scientists excavating. The Mammoth Site holds more than just mammoth fossils: almost 100 species of plants and animals have been uncovered from the site.  Each summer interns, Earthwatch, and Road Scholars come to excavate and expand our knowledge of the last Ice Age.

There is more to explore than just the bonebed! Inside the building, there is a museum and a fossil preparation laboratory. Outside, visitors can take classes in Junior and Advanced Paleontology digs and learn to throw the atlatl. To learn more about the Mammoth Site, check out the link below, or visit the museum! Tell them Aly sent you.

The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, SD

University of Michigan Museum of Natural History

I am lucky enough to have had the opportunity to work as a docent at the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, one of my favorite museums. UMMNH is located on central campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and is an exceptional place to visit.

The Alexander G. Ruthven Museums Building also houses the research museums of paleontology, anthropology, zoology, and the University Herbarium. Unfortunately, the research museums are not open to the public. The building was erected in 1928 and in 1929 a small zoo was built behind it. This zoo was home to native and non-native animals including skunks, badgers, black bears and even a wolverine. In 1962, the zoo was removed to make room for an addition to the Ruthven Building. The building facade bears the inscription “Go to Nature, take the facts into your own hands, look and see for yourself. – Louis Agassiz” and above the bronze doors is the inscription “Truth conquers by itself”, a quote attributed to Antonius or Epictetus.

Though most of the Ruthven Building is not open to the public, UMMNH packs quite a punch into its relatively small space. The rotunda houses rotating temporary exhibits ranging from water conservation and recycling to mite research. Currently the exhibit is ‘Race: Are We So Different?’.

Hall of Evolution at UMMNH

Hall of Evolution at UMMNH

The second floor houses Prehistoric Life and the Hall of Evolution. The Hall of Evolution is a favorite of many museum visitors, including myself. Exhibits on this floor include mastodons (the state fossil of the State of Michigan), Allosaurus, Deinonychus and one of the world’s largest fossil whale exhibits. ‘Back to the Sea’ includes replicas of Dorudon, Basilosaurus, and Maiacetus, as well as others.

The third floor houses Michigan Wildlife. Specimens of native birds, mammals, reptiles, amphibians, fish and plants line the walls, as well as one non-native animal: the wolverine. Dioramas demonstrate the remarkable natural diversity of the state and a balcony gives an spectacular overhead view of the Hall of Evolution below.

The fourth houses anthropology, geology, the planetarium, and a temporary traveling exhibit. Currently the traveling exhibit is ‘Evolution & Health’, which allows visitors to learn about the significance of skin tone, lactose intolerance and a sweet tooth in our evolutionary history. Geology displays include rocks and minerals found in the State of Michigan and the anthropology exhibits include a genuine white pine canoe that visitors can climb into.

The University of Michigan Museum of Natural History is free to the public ($6 suggested donation) and is open Monday-Saturday from 9-5 and on Sunday from 12-5.

Ruthven Museums Building

Michigan Today: Animal House