Congress created Fossil Butte National Monument on October 23, 1972 to protect exceptionally rare paleontological sites and other geographical phenomena in southwestern Wyoming near Kemmerer. Fossil Butte is the site of a 50-million-year-old lakebed from the Eocene Epoch within the Green River Formation.

Dubbed “America’s Aquarium in Stone” by the National Park Service, Fossil Butte is exceptional because it has many well-preserved fossils, especially those of aquatic animals. It is considered by researchers to be one of the richest paleontology sites on earth. Paleontologists have recovered fossils of crustaceans, gars, stingrays, plankton, crocodiles, turtles, bivalves, and birds, among many others, preserved for 56 to 34 million years. Fossil Butte used to be the smallest of three prehistoric lakes from the Eocene Epoch in what is now southwest Wyoming, northeast Utah, and northwest Colorado, collectively known as the Green River Lake System. The bottom of the lake is thought to have contained hydrogen sulfide, which is poisonous, which prevented fish from scavenging off of the lake bottom. When an animal in the lake died, it sank to the bottom of the lakebed and remained undisturbed, eventually to be covered and preserved beneath the mud. Fossil Butte is also famous for fossils of mass mortalities, where many fish all died at the same time and became fossilized next to each other. This could be caused by a variety of factors like seasonal changes in water salinity or PH. It is likely as well that the hydrogen sulfide became disturbed from time to time and caused poisonings.

Though some explorers like Ferdinand V. Hayden and John C Frémont already knew about the fossil beds in this area, the full extent of Fossil Butte’s paleontological significance wasn’t understood until the late 1860s. The Union Pacific Railroad’s construction passed through the formation, and railroad workers showed fossils to paleontologists. One collector, Robert Craig, began quarrying fossils there in 1897. The site gained interest from museums around the world for its richness in high-quality fossils. As a result of this fame, Congress created the Fossil Butte National Monument in 1972 to preserve some of it for public viewing.

The visitor center of the Fossil Butte National Monument Visitor Center has over eighty fossils on display of various types of prehistoric aquatic creatures, as well as a variety of prehistoric bats, birds, plants, and insects. The center shows a thirteen-minute video to inform visitors about the discoveries paleontologists have made within the site. Visitors are allowed to make their own “fossil imprints” as souvenirs and access an educational computer program about fossils and the natural history of the monument.

Images

Fossil Butte National Monument
Fossil Butte National Monument Source: "Fossil Butte National Monument Entrance Sign." TigerScientist (pseud.), June 27, 2021. Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0). https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fossil_Butte_National_Monument_entrance_sign.jpg.
Fossils in the ridge
Fossils in the ridge Mass extinction victims overlooking the splendid scenery of the National Monument. Source: "Fossils on the Ridge." National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery-item.htm?pg=1912551&id=649864BA-155D-451F-67F17EE25CCA78EA&gid=F1AABA70-155D-451F-67B02614F984D161. Creator: National Park Service
Fossilized fish
Fossilized fish A type of prehistoric perch, these fish became fossils due to a mass extinction event within the lake. Source: "Cockerellites liops Mass Mortality." National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery-item.htm?pg=1912551&id=2E7AA4E2-1DD8-B71B-0BE86821C83D8CA0&gid=F17B1C64-155D-451F-6765341D9B8E553F. Creator: National Park Service
Fossilized bat
Fossilized bat The earliest known species of bat. Note the presence of a tail. Source: "Onychonycteris finneyi (cast)." National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery-item.htm?pg=1912551&id=2E7AA4E2-1DD8-B71B-0BE86821C83D8CA0&gid=F17B1C64-155D-451F-6765341D9B8E553F. Creator: National Park Service
Fossilized ray
Fossilized ray Ancient, fossilized stingray. Modern stingrays haven’t changed in appearance for tens of millions of years. Source: "Heliobatus radians." National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery-item.htm?pg=1912551&id=2E7AA4E2-1DD8-B71B-0BE86821C83D8CA0&gid=F17B1C64-155D-451F-6765341D9B8E553F. Creator: National Park Service
Fossil Butte snowed in
Fossil Butte snowed in Fossil Butte after a heavy snowfall. Source: "Snow Covered Butte." National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/media/photo/gallery-item.htm?pg=1912551&id=649864BA-155D-451F-67F17EE25CCA78EA&gid=F1AABA70-155D-451F-67B02614F984D161. Creator: National Park Service

Location

864 Chicken Creek Rd, Kemmerer, WY 83101

Metadata

Jacob French, Northern Arizona University, “Fossil Butte,” Intermountain Histories, accessed May 20, 2024, https://www.intermountainhistories.org/items/show/514.