Meet the Museum: The University of Nebraska State Museum

Sarah here–

Not too long ago, I took a trip to Lincoln, Nebraska (USA) at the kind invitation of the Earth and Atmospheric Sciences Department. While I was there, I was able to take some time to go on a tour of the University of Nebraska State Museum, a place I’ve worked with for a long time but never had a chance to see in person! Today, I’m going to introduce you to what isn’t on display- as with the majority of museums, only a tiny percentage of their collections are on display for the public- the vast majority of specimens are stored behind closed doors for preservation and research. One thing to note- if you are ever behind the scenes at a museum, you should check to make sure photographs are OK. Some of the specimens may not be published yet and scientists are not ready for images to be public. In this case, I made sure to ask for permission before I took the photos and asked for permission to share them with interested readers, which they were kind enough to allow!  

The paleontology holdings of Nebraska and surrounding states in the Midwest are, without question, spectacular. Within the halls of this museum lie the remains of camels, elephants, rhinos, and mammoths that lived long ago in North America (Fig. 1). This museum also has fossils from even longer ago from a time when the Midwest was completely underwater as a shallow sea. I first started my tour in the main display halls of the museum, where I got to see skeleton reconstructions of the diversity of fossil proboscideans (the group containing mammoths and elephants; proboscidean literally means ‘elephant’s trunk in Latin) that lived in and around Nebraska a few million years ago. 

a museum display containing a variety of skeletons- all probosdiceans. Some are quite large, some are small, like the size of deer.
Fig. 1. A diversity of animals related to the modern elephant used to be present in North America and in this case, specifically those in the Midwest. They varied greatly in size, shape of their tusks, and more.

Next, I visited the invertebrate collections, which hold special meaning to me. I worked with this very museum to perform my first scientific research project, which became my master’s thesis. I took the time to visit the specimens that I studied- crinoids belonging to the genus Erisocrinus and closely related taxa that came from Oklahoma, USA (Fig. 2). I saw some very interesting crinoid fossils that preserved features of parasitism as well (Fig. 3)

A drawer of crinoid fossils- most are the round cups with the arms disarticulated. Hundreds of specimens in boxes with labels, none of them readable from the image.
Fig. 2. A drawer filled with crinoid fossils from the Midwest of the United States. I studied some of these very fossils for my master’s thesis
A box of crinoid stems (maybe 2 inches length max, but most are .5 inches or so in length). Most of them have substantial holes drilled into them- some have nearly a dozen!
Fig. 3. Crinoid stems with parasitic traces left on their bodies- you can see how the stem gets distorted and bloated with the more parasitic pits that are left on the body! My finger is in the bottom of the image for scale.

I then went to the vertebrate collections area, which was just incredible. Many of their fossils come from the Ashfall Fossil Beds from the northeast area of Nebraska. Just about 12 million years ago, an active volcano spewed significant amounts of ash- this type of volcanic ash contained tiny natural glass shards and, as you can imagine, it’s quite harmful to breathe it in. Unfortunately for the animals that were alive at the time, they did breathe it in, and they died- the ash continued to fall, and this led to some exceptional preservation of their skeletons, many of which have been uncovered (Fig. 4) and more are likely to be found in the future. 

A map of the skeletons found in the site. They are color coded to indicate which animals were found, listed here in the figure caption. The vast majority were rhinos in this area, but there are a number of horses too, with the deer and camels less common. Many of the rhinos are grouped very close together.
Fig. 4. This is a map of the skeletons uncovered in the Ashfall Fossil Beds, of the skeletons of rhinos, horses, camels, deer, and footprints. Image credit: University of Nebraska State Museum

Ash has the potential to preserve fossils extremely well and this fossil area is no exception at all. The collections of the University of Nebraska State Museum are filled with rows upon rows of beautifully preserved skulls and other bones of vertebrates that fell victim to the ash (Fig. 5, 6, 7). 

Shelves of rhino jaws- dozens of them. Most are just the bottom half, but the teeth are in place and detailed. Many are juveniles but the majority are adults.
Fig. 5. A row of rhinoceros jaws of all sizes, all exquisitely preserved.
A close up of a juvenile jaw bone of a rhino- the scientists who found it nicknamed it "Charlie" as the label indicates. the back most teeth of this one look missing, but the ones closer to the center are well preserved. lower jaw bones only.
Fig. 6. This is a close-up image of one of the juvenile jaw bones of a rhino fossil- many of the specimens were given nicknames, and this one is named “Charlie”.
A bird fossil- gray in color.the delicate bones are highly detailed in place as they would have been in life for the most part. you can see tendons along the bones of the limbs of the bird. Incredibly well preserved.
Fig. 7. This is a bird fossil that was found in association with the ashfall. This detailed preservation is not common for birds, whose delicate, hollow bones are often not well-preserved- but in this specimen, if you look carefully, you can even see where the tendons were.

This museum was a really great place to visit! If you ever find yourself in Lincoln, Nebraska, I highly encourage you to check out the museum! You won’t be disappointed. If you’re interested in learning more about the Ashfall Fossil Beds, read the linked website! 

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