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Early Triassic Ammonoid Fossils In Nevada

Take A Fossil-Hunting Virtual Field Trip To The Wilds Of Nevada:

Find Abundant 240-Million Year Old Ammonoids

Field Trip To Early Triassic Ammonoid Sites In Nevada

In the backcountry wilds of Nevada lie two truly classic Early Triassic ammonoid localities. Both sites yield innumerable, beautifully preserved ammonoids--an extinct order of cephalopods--in what geologists, stratigraphers and fossil cephalopod researchers alike refer to as the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, roughly 240 million years old. The Thaynes is exposed at several localities in the rugged mountain ranges of the Great Basin, yet it is nowhere as reliably fossiliferous as its stratigraphic development at two specific, classic exposures in Nevada. Each of the Thaynes localities is highly regarded among ammonoid specialists, of course--and both are visited rather frequently by paleontologists the world-over--but one of those two specific fossil sites, the place that happens to produce the most prolific numbers of and best-preserved cephalopods, is not only the finest Early Triassic ammonite-bearing site in North America, it is also one of the great Mesozoic Era cephalopod horizons in the United States, in general--and this, despite the fact that the overall aerial outcrop of fossiliferous sedimentary rock is confined to a meager few hundred feet of limestone and shale deposited approximately 240 million years ago in a vast tropical sea. The entire section lies within what ammonoid enthusiasts call the Meekoceras beds--a unit of cephalopod-bearing rocks in which the ammonoid Meekoceras gracilitatus is the most distinctive and characteristic specimen.

What makes that single, specific ammonoid locality so special in a paleontological sense is that nowhere in North America are the world-famous Meekoceras beds exposed through anywhere near the thickness that they are at the fossil-rich section. Through roughly 175 feet of exposed strata, abundant ammonoids representing the Meekoceras beds can be found. At the most fossiliferous and famous of the Early Triassic geologic sections, the extinct cephalopods occur in three of the seven limestone beds in the lowermost portions of Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation. Above that principally carbonate interval, the Thaynes consists of several hundred feet of thin-bedded grayish brown to tan shales in which organic remains of any kind are completely absent. Recent geologic studies, though, have demonstrated that the fossiliferous section consists of several faulted, fractured and vertically displaced blocks, and at least one of the blocks is overturned. The upshot here is that, contrary to the opinion expressed by early geological investigators, there is only one ammonoid-bearing horizon at the locality, not several separate zones as previously determined--yet, that zone can still be correlated with several other notable Meekoceras occurrences worldwide, places such as the Olenek-Lena River Basin in Siberia; Okhostsk-Kolyma Land, Siberia; Japan; Kwangai, China; Timor; New Zealand; Himalayas, India; Salt Range, Pakistan; Barabanja, Madagascar; northern Caucasus Mountains; Arctic Canada and former Yugoslavia.

At the most-special of ammonoid-bearing localities, the uppermost and youngest fossiliferous bed in the Thaynes, member "g", consists of 12 feet of gray limestone that tends to weather into shades of dark brown. It is a fine to medium-crystalline carbonate unit characterized by thick to irregular bedding, with fragmental and complete ammonoid conchs throughout. While the cephalopods are perhaps not as well preserved as in the oldest member at the measured section, at least eight species of ammonoids have been described from the rich interval, including Juvenites septentrionalis, Owenities koeneni, Owenoites stokesi, Parannanites mulleri, Pseudosageceras multilobatum, Meekoceras gracilitatus, Flemingites russeli, and Wyomingites arnoldi.

Unit "f", just below the fossiliferous "g" member, is a barren section of fine to medium ,crystalline light gray limestone some 48 feet thick; it is difficult to distinguish the two from a distance, but the uniformly unfossilferous nature of "f" suggests that if you come upon it in the field, you should walk up section a short distance, through the barren carbonates, to intersect the productive limestones of member "g" above it.

The next oldest unit in the Thaynes section, member "e" is a rusty-brown weathering, fine to medium crystalline limestone roughly 45 feet thick. Here can be found abundant remains of a genuine "living fossil"--the inarticulate brachiopod called Lingula, which is considered by most paleontologists to represent one of the great survivors of geologic time, a species that has persisted through the eons when many other, perhaps more glamorous creatures such as the dinosaur, the trilobite and the ammonite vanished from Earth many millions of years ago. Resembling a slender fingernail, Lingula first appears in the fossil record during the Early Cambrian Period, approximately 540 million years ago. It has survived, unchanged in physical appearance, for all that time.

Immediately below the productive Lingula zone lies the second ammonoid-rich layer, unit "d". It is a fine to medium-crystalline light-gray limestone, massively bedded with slabby partings, some 15 feet in thickness. It is everywhere crammed with plentiful cephalopodal remains, mostly fragmental, but the coquinoid nature of member "d" keeps many collectors busy for hours at a time, gently cracking the organic-rich carbonates to free the prized ammonoids within. Kummel and Steele identified eight species of ammonoids from the horizon: Juvenites septentrionalis, Aspenites acutis, Owenites koeni, Inyoites stokesi, Paranannites mulleri, Meekoceras gracilitatus, Wyomingites aplanatus, and Preflorianites toulai.

Units "c" and "b" are both poorly exposed--and unfossiliferous. They have a combined thickness of roughly 30 feet, consisting of pale gray limestone and occasional micaceous calcareous shales that tend to weather into platy slabs.

But the underlying unit "a", which reaches a maximum development of some 33 feet, is abundantly fossiliferous with both broken and complete cephalopods. As a matter of fact, approximately half or more of the light-gray, brown-weathering limestone, characterized by frequent limonitic flecks and partings, is composed of ammonoid remains. It is, indeed, a stunning deposit that has been visited by innumerable fossil collectors over the past decade. As a consequence, horizon "a" has suffered a noticeable decline in outstanding ammonoid specimens remaining to be collected; the perfect fossils have become increasingly difficult to find, especially the larger, showy shells, several inches in diameter, for which commercial dealers pay top dollar. There is obviously no way to prevent commercial fossil collectors from visiting the area, but one can only make the observation that if the trend continues, within three to five years there won't be much left to find there except unidentifiable fragments. Member "a" of the Thaynes Formation is justifiably a world-famous ammonoid deposit; some 23 species have been described from it, including Dieneroceras (three species), Xenocelities (two species), Juvenites (two species), Meekoceras gracilitatus, Hemiaspinites obtusus, Flemingites russeli, Anaflemingites silberlingi, Preflorianites toulai, Pseudospidites wheeleri, Owenites koeneni, Paranannites apenensis, Prophingites slossi, Parussuria compressa, Lanceolites compactus, Aspenites acuts, Wyomingites whiteanus, Arctoceras tuberculum, Arctoprionites sp. and Pseudosageceras multilobatum.

A second major Early Triassic ammonoid also occurs in Nevada. While not as world-famous as the primary locality just discussed, it does bear abundant, nicely preserved cephalopods of identical geologic age as those found elsewhere in the Thaynes Formation of Nevada--though curiously enough, the remote, yet accessible area apparently has been visited far less frequently by paleontology enthusiasts: at last visit the fossiliferous section was still in essentially pristine condition, even though the ammonoidiferous horizon--amateurs call it the Meekoceras beds, while professional ammonite specialists refer to the same series of fossil-bearing strata as the Tardus and Romunderi Zones--has been known to fossil hunters since at least the late 1800s. Famed ammonoid specialist James Perrin Smith visited the locality in the early 1900s and took away loads of identifiable cephalopods; of course, sporadic numbers of fossil enthusiasts have since found their way to the productive deposits, including a smattering of commercial collectors (who for the benefit of all conscientious collectors must keep their distance, or the Bureau of Land Management will surely close it all down, enacting severe restrictions on who can keep what they find there)--yet, even after decades of semi-regular visitation the area remains rich with well preserved Early Triassic ammonoids, roughly 240 million years old. The ammonoids occur, of course, in the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, which is sporadically exposed throughout a specific geographic area of Nevada. In California, noteworthy fossiliferous outcrops of ammonoid-bearing Early Triassic strata also occur at Union Wash (Inyo County, in the shadows of Mount Whitney; the ammonoids there can be found in the Union Wash Formation). And Early Triassic ammonoids occur in western Utah, as well--see Kevin Byland's page, Fossil Cephalopods In Utah.

Both fossil localities in the Early Triassic Thaynes Formation described here provide collectors with numerous well-preserved invertebrate animal remains: ammonoids and brachiopods from the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation. They are remote localities, but a system of well-graded dirt roads provides surprisingly easy access to the fossil zones. Most conventional cars in perfect working order should have no difficulty reaching the productive sites.

At the Nevada ammonoid zones in the Early Triassic Thaynes Formation, it is intriguing to realize that as you hold in your hand an ammonoid specimen collected from the famous Meekoceras beds, an identical species of extinct cephalopod may be weathering out thousands of miles away, in China, in Madagascar or in Siberia--a species that swam through the same Mesozoic sea at an identical moment in geologic time, some 240 million years ago, is now preserved on distant continents.

Images Of Early Triassic Ammonoids

Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, 240 Million Years Old

 

 
At left: an ammonoid from the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada, Dienoroceras spathi. At right: an ammonoid from the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada, Meekoceras gracilitatus--the specific species for which the world-famous Meekoceras beds were named.

At left: an ammonoid from the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada, Wymomingites whiteanus. At right: an ammonoid from the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada, Paranannites aspensis.

At left: an ammonoid from the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada.  Dienoroceras knechti. At right: an ammonoid from the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada, Inyoites stokesi.

At left: an ammonoid from the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada. Dienoroceras subquadratum; this specimen, incredibly, shows some of its original color markings. At right: An ammonoid from the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada. Inyoites stokesi.

On-Site Images Of The Ammonoid-Bearing Localities

At left, a fossil hunter hikes up the fossiliferous limestone slopes at one of two classic Early Triassic ammonoid localities discussed at this Web Page. Practically every chunk of limestone along that slope contains broken and complete ammonoids. At right, a fossil hunter collects ammonoids from the productive limestone ledges in the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada; not every carbonate layer here yields cephalopods, but there are enough fossiliferous sections to keep everybody happy for hours on end.

Image at left is a scenic overview of one of the famous Early Triassic ammonoid localities in the Thaynes Formation, Nevada; the view is southwest to the richly fossiliferous Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation outcrops roughly just below dead-center of the photograph at the inclined, dark narrow strip along the hillslope in middle distance. At right, a paleontology enthusiast explores the exceptionally fossiliferous Member "a" of the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, Nevada; it is not an exaggeration to say that every chunk of limestone in this view contains fragmental and complete ammonoids.

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Paleontology-Related Pages

Web sites I have created pertaining to fossils

  • Fossils In Death Valley National Park: A site dedicated to the paleontology, geology, and natural wonders of Death Valley National Park; lots of on-site photographs of scenic localities within the park; images of fossils specimens; links to many virtual field trips of fossil-bearing interest.
  • Fossil Insects And Vertebrates On The Mojave Desert, California: Journey to two world-famous fossil sites in the middle Miocene Barstow Formation: one locality yields upwards of 50 species of fully three-dimensional, silicified freshwater insects, arachnids, and crustaceans that can be dissolved free and intact from calcareous concretions; a second Barstow Formation district provides vertebrate paleontologists with one of the greatest concentrations of Miocene mammal fossils yet recovered from North America--it's the type locality for the Bartovian State of the Miocene Epoch, 15.9 to 12.5 million years ago, with which all geologically time-equivalent rocks in North American are compared.
  • Fossils At Red Rock Canyon State Park, California: Visit wildly colorful Red Rock Canyon State Park on California's northern Mojave Desert, approximately 130 miles north of Los Angeles--scene of innumerable Hollywood film productions and commercials over the years--where the Middle to Late Miocene (13 to 7 million years old) Dove Spring Formation, along with a classic deposit of petrified woods, yields one of the great terrestrial, land-deposited Miocene vertebrate fossil faunas in all the western United States.
  • Fossil Plants Of The Ione Basin, California: Head to Amador County in the western foothills of California's Sierra Nevada to explore the fossil leaf-bearing Middle Eocene Ione Formation of the Ione Basin. This is a completely undescribed fossil flora from a geologically fascinating district that produces not only paleobotanically invaluable suites of fossil leaves, but also world-renowned commercial deposits of silica sand, high-grade kaolinite clay and the extraordinarily rare Montan Wax-rich lignites (a type of low grade coal).
  • Trilobites In The Marble Mountains, Mojave Desert, California: Take a trip to the place that first inspired my life-long fascination and interest in fossils--the classic trilobite quarry in the Lower Cambrian Latham Shale, in the Marble Mountains of California's Mojave Desert. It's a special place, now included in the rather recently established Trilobite Wilderness, where some 21 species of ancient plants and animals have been found--including trilobites, an echinoderm, a coelenterate, mollusks, blue-green algae and brachiopods.
  • A Visit To Ammonite Canyon, Nevada: Explore one of the best-exposed, most complete fossiliferous marine late Triassic through early Jurassic geologic sections in the world--a place where the important end-time Triassic mass extinction has been preserved in the paleontological record. Lots of key species of ammonites, brachiopods, corals, gastropods and pelecypods.
  • Late Triassic Ichthyosaur And Invertebrate Fossils In Nevada: Journey to two classic, world-famous fossil localities in the Upper Triassic Luning Formation of Nevada--Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park and Coral Reef Canyon. At Berlin-Ichthyosaur, observe in-situ the remains of several gigantic ichthyosaur skeletons preserved in a fossil quarry; then head out into the hills, outside the state park, to find plentiful pelecypods, gastropods, brachiopods and ammonoids. At Coral Reef Canyon, find an amazing abundance of corals, sponges, brachiopods, echinoids (sea urchins), pelecypods, gastropods, belemnites and ammonoids.
  • Fossils From The Kettleman Hills, California: Visit one of California's premiere Pliocene-age (approximately 4.5 to 2.0 million years old) fossil localities--the Kettleman Hills, which lie along the western edge of California's Great Central Valley northwest of Bakersfield. This is where innumerable sand dollars, pectens, oysters, gastropods, "bulbous fish growths" and pelecypods occur in the Etchegoin, San Joaquin and Tulare Formations.
  • Field Trip To The Kettleman Hills Fossil District, California: Take a virtual field trip to a classic site on the western side of California's Great Central Valley, roughly 80 miles northwest of Bakersfield, where several Pliocene-age (roughly 4.5 to 2 million years old) geologic rock formations yield a wealth of diverse, abundant fossil material--sand dollars, scallop shells, oysters, gastropods and "bulbous fish growths" (fossil bony tumors--found nowhere else, save the Kettleman Hills), among many other paleontological remains.
  • A Visit To The Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed, Southern California: Travel to the dusty hills near Bakersfield, California, along the eastern side of the Great Central Valley in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada, to explore the world-famous Sharktooth Hill Bone Bed, a Middle Miocene marine deposit some 16 to 15 million years old that yields over a hundred species of sharks, rays, bony fishes, and sea mammals from a geologic rock formation called the Round Mountain Silt Member of the Temblor Formation; this is the most prolific marine, vertebrate fossil-bearing Middle Miocene deposit in the world.
  • Middle Triassic Ammonoids From Nevada: Travel to a world-famous fossil locality in the Great Basin Desert of Nevada, a specific place that yields some 41 species of ammonoids, in addition to five species of pelecypods and four varieties of belemnites from the Middle Triassic Prida Formation, which is roughly 235 million years old; many paleontologists consider this specific site the single best Middle Triassic, late Anisian Stage ammonoid locality in the world. All told, the Prida Formation yields 68 species of ammonoids spanning the entire Middle Triassic age, or roughly 241 to 227 million years ago.
  • Fossil Bones In The Coso Range, Inyo County, California: Visit the Coso Range Wilderness, west of Death Valley National Park at the southern end of California's Owens Valley, where vertebrate fossils some 4.8 to 3.0 million years old can be observed in the Pliocene-age Coso Formation: It's a paleontologically significant place that yields many species of mammals, including the remains of Equus simplicidens, the Hagerman Horse, named for its spectacular occurrences at Hagerman Fossil Beds National Monument in Idaho; Equus simplicidens is considered the earliest known member of the genus Equus, which includes the modern horse and all other equids.
  • Fossil Plants At Aldrich Hill, Western Nevada: Take a field trip to western Nevada, in the vicinity of Yerington, to famous Aldrich Hill, where one can collect some 35 species of ancient plants--leaves, seeds and twigs--from the Middle Miocene Aldirch Station Formation, roughly 12 to 13 million years old. Find the leaves of evergreen live oak, willow, and Catalina Ironwood (which today is restricted in its natural habitat solely to the Channel Islands off the coast of Southern California), among others, plus the seeds of many kinds of conifers, including spruce; expect to find the twigs of Giant Sequoias, too.
  • Fossils From Pleistocene Lake Manix, California: Explore the badlands of the Manix Lake Beds on California's Mojave Desert, an Upper Pleistocene deposit that produces abundant fossil remains from the silts and sands left behind by a great fresh water lake, roughly 350,000 to 19,000 years old--the Manix Beds yield many species of fresh water mollusks (gastropods and pelecypods), skeletal elements from fish (the Tui Mojave Chub and Three-Spine Stickleback), plus roughly 50 species of mammals and birds, many of which can also be found in the incredible, world-famous La Brea Tar Pits of Los Angeles.
  • Field Trip To Pleistocene Lake Manix, California: Go on a virtual field trip to the classic, fossiliferous badlands carved in the Upper Pleistocene Manix Formation, Mojave Desert, California. It's a special place that yields beaucoup fossil remains, including fresh water mollusks, fish (the Mojave Tui Chub), birds and mammals.
  • Trilobites In The Nopah Range, Inyo County, California: Travel to a locality well outside the boundaries of Death Valley National Park to collect trilobites in the Lower Cambrian Pyramid Shale Member of the Carrara Formation.
  • Ammonoids At Union Wash, California: Explore ammonoid-rich Union Wash near Lone Pine, California, in the shadows of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States. Union Wash is a ne plus ultra place to find Early Triassic ammonoids in California. The extinct cephalopods occur in abundance in the Lower Triassic Union Wash Formation, with the dramatic back-drop of the glacier-gouged Sierra Nevada skyline in view to the immediate west.
  • A Visit To The Fossil Beds At Union Wash, Inyo County California: A virtual field trip to the fabulous ammonoid accumulations in the Lower Triassic Union Wash Formation, Inyo County, California--situated in the shadows of Mount Whitney, the highest point in the contiguous United States.
  • Ordovician Fossils At The Great Beatty Mudmound, Nevada: Visit a classic 475-million-year-old fossil locality in the vicinity of Beatty, Nevada, only a few miles east of Death Valley National Park; here, the fossils occur in the Middle Ordovician Antelope Valley Limestone at a prominent Mudmound/Biohern. Lots of fossils can be found there, including silicified brachiopods, trilobites, nautiloids, echinoderms, bryozoans, ostracodes and conodonts.
  • Paleobotanical Field Trip To The Sailor Flat Hydraulic Gold Mine, California: Journey on a day of paleobotanical discovery with the FarWest Science Foundation to the western foothills of the Sierra Nevada--to famous Sailor Flat, an abandoned hydraulic gold mine of the mid to late 1800s, where members of the foundation collect fossil leaves from the "chocolate" shales of the Middle Eocene auriferous gravels; all significant specimens go to the archival paleobotanical collections at the University California Museum Of Paleontology in Berkeley.
  • Early Cambrian Fossils In Western Nevada: Explore a 518-million-year-old fossil locality several miles north of Death Valley National Park, in Esmeralda County, Nevada, where the Lower Cambrian Harkless Formation yields the largest single assemblage of Early Cambrian trilobites yet described from a specific fossil locality in North America; the locality also yields archeocyathids (an extinct sponge), plus salterella (the "ice-cream cone fossil"--an extinct conical animal placed into its own unique phylum, called Agmata), brachiopods and invertebrate tracks and trails.
  • Fossil Leaves And Seeds In West-Central Nevada: Take a field trip to the Middlegate Hills area in west-central Nevada. It's a place where the Middle Miocene Middlegate Formation provides paleobotany enthusiasts with some 64 species of fossil plant remains, including the leaves of evergreen live oak, tanbark oak, bigleaf maple, and paper birch--plus the twigs of giant sequoias and the winged seeds from a spruce.
  • Ordovician Fossils In The Toquima Range, Nevada: Explore the Toquima Range in central Nevada--a locality that yields abundant graptolites in the Lower to Middle Ordovician Vinini Formation, plus a diverse fauna of brachiopods, sponges, bryozoans, echinoderms and ostracodes from the Middle Ordovician Antelope Valley Limestone.
  • Fossil Plants In The Dead Camel Range, Nevada: Visit a remote site in the vicinity of Fallon, Nevada, where the Middle Miocene Desert Peak Formation provides paleobotany enthusiasts with 22 species of nicely preserved leaves from a variety of deciduous trees and evergreen live oaks, in addition to samaras (winged seeds), needles and twigs from several types of conifers.
  • Early Triassic Ammonoid Fossils In Nevada: Visit the two remote localities in Nevada that yield abundant, well-preserved ammonoids in the Lower Triassic Thaynes Formation, some 240 million years old--one of the sites just happens to be the single finest Early Triassic ammonoid locality in North America.
  • Fossil Plants At Buffalo Canyon, Nevada: Explore the wilds of west-central Nevada, a number of miles from Fallon, where the Middle Miocene Buffalo Canyon Formation yields to seekers of paleontology some 54 species of deciduous and coniferous varieties of 15-million-year-old leaves, seeds and twigs from such varieties as spruce, fir, pine, ash, maple, zelkova, willow and evergreen live oak
  • High Inyo Mountains Fossils, California: Take a ride to the crest of the High Inyo Mountains to find abundant ammonoids and pelecypods--plus, some shark teeth and terrestrial plants in the Upper Mississippian Chainman Shale, roughly 325 million years old.
  • Field Trip To The Copper Basin Fossil Flora, Nevada: Visit a remote region in Nevada, where the Late Eocene Dead Horse Tuff provides seekers of paleobotany with some 42 species of ancient plants, roughly 39 to 40 million years old, including the leaves of alder, tanbark oak, Oregon grape and sassafras.
  • Fossil Plants And Insects At Bull Run, Nevada: Head into the deep backcountry of Nevada to collect fossils from the famous Late Eocene Chicken Creek Formation, which yields, in addition to abundant fossil fly larvae, a paleobotanically wonderful association of winged seeds and fascicles (bundles of needles) from many species of conifers, including fir, pine, spruce, larch, hemlock and cypress. The plants are some 37 million old and represent an essentially pure montane conifer forest, one of the very few such fossil occurrences in the Tertiary Period of the United States.
  • A Visit To The Early Cambrian Waucoba Spring Geologic Section, California: Journey to the northwestern sector of Death Valley National Park to explore the classic, world-famous Waucoba Spring Early Cambrian geologic section, first described by the pioneering paleontologist C.D. Walcott in the late 1800s; surprisingly well preserved 540-million-year-old remains of trilobites, invertebrate tracks and trails, Girvanella algal oncolites and archeocyathids (an extinct variety of sponge) can be observed in situ.
  • Fossils From The Savage Canyon Formation, Nevada: Images of fossil plants and an insect from a classic Middle Miocene geologic rock formation in Nevada.
  • Petrified Wood From The Shinarump Conglomerate: An image of a chunk of petrified wood I collected from the Upper Triassic Shinarump Conglomerate, outside of Dinosaur National Monument, Colorado.
  • Fossil Giant Sequoia Foliage From Nevada: Images of the youngest fossil foliage from a giant sequoia ever discovered in the geologic record--the specimen is Lower Pliocene in geologic age, around 5 million years old.
  • Some Favorite Fossil Brachiopods Of Mine: Images of several fossil brachiopods I have collected over the years from Paleozoic, Mesozoic and Cenozoic-age rocks.

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