Vast, remote, and wild, beautiful Big Bend National Park attracts over 500,000 visitors (mostly Texans) each year. They come to hike, camp, birdwatch, explore the backcountry, float the Rio Grande River, and enjoy the expansive panoramas of the Chihuahuan Desert. Wherever one goes in the park, geology is on full display. Deep canyons, folded layers, and rugged volcanic peaks tell stories of tremendous forces and change over millions of years.
Big Bend National Park’s geologic history is not only complex and diverse, but also contains an amazing fossil record, especially of the late Cretaceous and early Tertiary periods. In fact, with over 1,200 known fossil species, Big Bend’s fossil record is one of the most diverse in the National Park System.
The park’s fossil assemblage, including some found nowhere else in the world, record the existence and demise of dinosaurs and the flourishing of mammals, enabling us to ponder evolution and our impermanence in the world. Some of Big Bend’s fossil finds include bones of a giant pterosaur, the largest known flying creature of all time with a 36-foot wingspan, as well as the massive skull of the horned dinosaur Bravoceratops. Recently discovered in 2013, it is only known from Big Bend. In addition to numerous dinosaurs, giant crocodiles, and other reptiles, the park has abundant fossilized wood, early mammals, and a wide variety of marine vertebrates and invertebrates.
To help visitors appreciate the paleontological wonders of the area, the National Park Service and the park’s philanthropic partner, Big Bend Conservancy, worked together to develop a world class exhibit to display many of the park’s most famous fossils. Opened in 2017, the Fossil Discovery Exhibit allows visitors to discover the changes to Big Bend’s plants and animals, and the world they lived in, through 130 million years of geologic time. The exhibit highlights four primary “chapters” in Big Bend’s past. Each chapter is richly represented with an array of specimens and photo-realistic murals to illustrate the fascinating story of Big Bend’s ancient life.
- The story begins at a time when a broad, shallow sea covered Big Bend and much of Texas, leaving behind a fossil record that includes mosasaurs (swimming reptiles), predatory fish, sharks, and numerous “seashell” fossils, such as clams, oysters, snails, and sea urchins.
- As the ancient sea receded, Big Bend became a swampy, coastal environment, much like the coast of Texas today but inhabited by dinosaurs and giant crocodiles.
- Later, the coastline moved farther to the east, and Big Bend was crossed by rivers and forests, where dinosaurs roamed and giant pterosaurs soared overhead.
- After the extinction of the dinosaurs, mammals flourished, including those whose bones were found just a stone’s throw from the Fossil Discovery Exhibit.
Located 8 miles north of Park Headquarters, the Fossil Discovery Exhibit is a self-guided interpretive experience. The exhibit is open from dawn to dusk daily. A shaded picnic area is nearby, and it has an assortment of fossil-themed climbing structures and engaging displays for children. A vault toilet is available at the site (no water is available). Cellular telephones generally can get reception at the site.
The Fossil Discovery Exhibit is the most significant addition to Big Bend National Park’s visitor services system in the past 50 years. Thanks to the generosity of individuals, corporations, and foundations across the state, this beautiful exhibit gives park visitors the opportunity to meet the past right where actual fossils were found.
Visit Big Bend
Big Bend National Park
1 Panther Junction
Big Bend National Park, TX 79834
Fossil Discovery Exhibit
Tom VandenBerg is the Chief of Interpretation and Visitor Services at Big Bend National Park.