Dinosaurs, Fossils and Lessons from Big Bend

Flying dinosaur in forest

You may think of Big Bend National Park as a land trapped in time, but we’re always looking for ways to evolve so we can enhance the visitor experience. The park is known to be one of the top-tier fossil parks in the US and recently added a brand new fossil exhibit to show off. The Fossil Discovery Exhibit began construction in 2016, and today hosts a stunning display of fossils from over 130 million years—all of which have been found in our backyard! So let’s take a step back in time and discover just a slice of ancient Big Bend.

130 — 90 Million Years Ago

The early Cretaceous period takes us back to a time when Texas was underwater. You might not believe it today, but a warm shallow sea known as the Western Interior Seaway once divided North America, running from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Sea. Within the limestone of Big Bend that formed during this era, archaeologists have unearthed the oldest known North American Mosasaur fossil. One of the top ocean predators, the Mosasaur was an air-breathing marine mammal that could get up to 40-feet in length. We like to think of it as the T-rex of the sea!

83 — 72 Million Years Ago

During the late Cretaceous period, the expanse of land that is today’s Big Bend was a coastal floodplain, believed to resemble the tropical coastlines of Mozambique today. Various discoveries from this time have been key to archeological research:

  • The discovery of a herd of Agujaceratops (a plant-eating, four-legged, horned dinosaur that could reach 21 feet in length) supports the hypothesis that dinosaurs lived within herds, although this is still debated today.
  • The gigantic alligatoroid Deinosuchus, uncovered by Barnum Brown* (imagine a 29-foot, dinosaur-eating alligator!) whose teeth marks are found in many fossils in the area, including in the turtle-like shell of the Chupacabrachelys. What’s more astounding is that the side-necked turtle appears to have escaped. A full skull reconstruction of this fossil can be seen on display at the Fossil Discovery Exhibit.
  • Even discoveries of fossilised tree stumps have been found from this period. Two species of flowering, evergreen tree stumps with 4.3-feet diameters indicate that they reached a height of 164 feet!

*If you don’t know the name Barnum Brown, you might be familiar with his most famous discovery, the Tyrannosaurus rex. Brown spent his last working years in Big Bend in the early 1900s with his associate R.T. Bird.

72 — 65 Million Years Ago

With the Rocky Mountains pushing their way up, the landscape became an inland floodplain resembling the Brazos River valley in southwest Texas today. The most notable fossil from this era is the world’s largest flying creature to have ever existed: the Quetzalcoatlus northropi.

Dinosaurs continued to grow during this time becoming the largest of their kind, notably the Bravoceratops, a horned dinosaur the size of a dump truck (discovered in Big Bend in 2013), and the Alamosaurus, a long-necked herbivore that is believed to be one of the largest dinosaurs to have ever existed—80 feet and 65,000 pounds of vegetarian power! The end of this era was defined by the most well-known extinction event in history. When a giant meteor hit Mexico just south of Big Bend 65 million years ago, the dinosaurs soon became extinct. This change is known as the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) boundary.

The Javelina and Black Peaks Formation is the only place in a national park in the US where you can catch a glimpse of the geological change from the K-Pg distinction. It can also be seen from the Fossil Discovery Exhibit itself! Alternatively, our custom hikes are the perfect opportunity for you to arrange your own archeological trek, so get in touch and we’ll arrange it with you.

63 Million — 10,000 Years Ago

With dinosaurs gone, the mammals were free to take over. The Rocky Mountains continued to rise, the ancient Western Interior Seaway disappeared and frequent volcanic eruptions resulted in the drying landscape and the Chisos Mountains. This period is defined by animals that more closely resemble our wildlife today, including the Coryphodon, a large hippo-like mammal; the Titanoides, a bear-like mammal; and the Phenacolemur, tree dwelling primates. Various reptiles, like the turtle and the snake, remained from the dinosaur era. Many reptilian species are even thought of as “living fossils” due to their largely unchanged appearance.

The Big Bend Fossil Discovery Exhibit is open from dawn to dusk every day, so you can see all the fossils of these ancient beasts for yourself. The exhibit is one of the most significant additions to Big Bend National Park in the last 50 years, and is well worth a stop or a detour if you’re planning a stay at Far Flung Outdoor Center. It’s super accessible for all abilities and even includes interactive areas for the kids to play in or a picnic spot to grab a bite. If you have any questions or want to know more on how to include a trip to the exhibit, you can contact us or shoot me an email at greg@bigbendfarflung.com.

– Greg