They come to hike among spindly ocotillo, brush shoulders with a javelina or pitch a tent alongside the Rio Grande.
But most visitors to Big Bend National Park leave without realizing that dinosaurs once trundled through ancient marshlands here and a reptile the size of a small airplane flapped across that big, blue West Texas sky.
That’s about to change.
This fall, park officials will break ground on a paleontology exhibit that will explain what park geologist Don Corrick calls one of the great untold stories of Big Bend — its dinosaurs.
“The scientific significance of our fossils is big, and this is a chance to get kids interested,” Corrick says.
Big Bend is a diverse place, with more bird, bat and cactus species than any other national park. That diversity extends to the creatures that lived here eons ago. More than 1,200 kinds of fossils have been uncovered at Big Bend National Park — more than any other U.S. national park.
“It’s a tremendously thick and complete record,” Corrick says.
Museums all over the world, including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., the new Perot Museum in Dallas, and the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin, display bones unearthed at the park. But except for a small glassed-in case that holds a few dinosaur bone replicas at a roadside pullout, they get little attention.
“This is a letdown,” Corrick says of the mattress-sized display case that includes a jawbone, rib fragments and part of a turtle. “They’re not even real fossils, and this is not how you’d find them — lying on a bed of sand.”
Two 25-foot by 35-foot shelters will be built behind a ridge just off the main park road between Persimmon Gap and Panther Junction to house the new exhibit. Life-size touchable bronze skulls — one a cast of a 7-foot set of jaws from a crocodile-like dinosaur found in the park’s hills, the other a tyrannosaur — will be displayed on an outdoor patio. A small parking lot, picnic shelter and restrooms already exist at the site.
“We’ve been pushing for this for 10 years,” Corrick says. “It’s quite a bit better than bones lying on sand.”
The project will cost an estimated $350,000 to $400,000. The Friends of Big Bend National Park, a nonprofit group that raises money to maintain and improve the park, has already raised $220,000. The National Park Foundation will pitch in an additional $100,000 in matching grants if the Friends group reaches $275,000 in donations.
“Some of the most important finds in America are right here in Big Bend,” said Courtney Lyons-Garcia, executive director of the Friends of Big Bend National Park. “To properly interpret this fantastic resource, we need to create a new exhibit. This is an opportunity to bring the prehistoric world alive for visitors, particularly children, who venture out to the park.”
The land the park now encompasses was once an interior sea swimming with fish, ammonites and turtles. As the Rocky Mountains continued to rise, the sea shrank and a swampy coastline emerged in this corner of West Texas. That’s when the first real dinosaurs appeared. Later, the sea receded further, creating an inland floodplain. Eventually, the dinosaurs became extinct and more familiar animals replaced them. Big Bend is especially rich in fossils representing the end Cretaceous period 144 million to 66 million years ago, which ushered in the age of mammals.
The exhibit will be divided into four parts, each covering a different time period. Because the park doesn’t have a museum’s ability to preserve and protect real bones, only replicas will be displayed. It also will include photos showing imprints of dinosaur skin and egg shells.
Visitors will learn about Quetzalcoatlus, a lizard with a 35-foot wingspan and one of the largest known flying creatures of all time. A University of Texas graduate student found the first Quetzalcoatlus at Big Bend National Park in 1971.
They’ll get to know Platecarpus, an ancient aquatic lizard that grew up to 14 feet long. “It’s one of our bragging rights. Evidence suggests we might have some of the oldest in North America,” Corrick says.
They’ll see a replica of Xiphactinus, a 15- to 20-foot bony fish that resembled an overgrown tarpon, and read about saber-toothed cats that once prowled the area.
Paleontologists have discovered bones all over Big Bend and are still searching for more. Barnum Brown and R.T. Bird, rock stars in the paleontology world, explored the park in 1940, digging up the long-neck plant eater known as Alamosaurus. The paleontologists’ campsite has since been excavated, and artifacts from it saved. Those, too, will be shared with the public.
“There are a lot of stories like that we want to tell,” Corrick says.
Exhibit organizers hope the display will help visitors understand what this corner of Texas was like long before humans appeared.
“Fossils are cool and 6-foot thigh bones are cool, but what’s important is what they’re telling us,” Corrick says, pointing to a dry, rocky ridge visible from the exhibit site. “That limestone was full of oyster reefs. It was full of life.”
To make a donation to help fund the new paleo exhibit at Big Bend National Park, mail a check to P.O. Box 200, Big Bend National Park, TX 79834, or donate online at www.bigbendfriends.org.