In The Middle Of The High Desert, A Fantastic Killer Lies In Wait.
By Kevin Franklin
THE LARGE, DARK body barely breaks the surface. Its mass is incredible--over 50 feet long and eight feet wide. Teeth the size of steak knives line its six-foot jaw.
A five-foot long fish, huge by any other standard, becomes alerted to the sea monster by its approaching shadow. Quickly it dives in an attempt to escape. It's too late. Few things escape the plate-sized eyes of this terror. Its tail, a full six-feet high, thrashes violently--propelling the beast at tremendous velocity. It's Captain Nemo's Nautilus come to life. The monster snaps up the unfortunate fish and continues to prowl.
At least, this what I imagine might have happened now and then as I look at the fossilized remains preserved here at Nevada's Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park.
The remains of more than 40 ichthyosaurs unearthed here are on display. A relief mural on a concrete wall gives visitors an idea of the size of an ichthyosaur fully assembled. All I can think is it would have been a hell of a place to do any surfing when these critters were up and about.
In 1928, Simeron Muller discovered these prehistoric remains while doing geologic field work. Actually, before then locals had found some of the fossils and were using them for dinner plates and door stops. Excavations by Charles L. Camp and Samuel Welles of the University of California, Berkeley, began in 1954. A year later the state established the park to protect the site.
Unlike the toothed whales of our time, this behemoth is no mammal. It's a lizard. A "fish-lizard," or ichthyosaur, to be exact. Unlike marine mammals, it has a vertical tail as opposed to horizontal flukes, and its vertebrae are aligned differently.
Ichthyosaurs first appear in the geologic record near what is now Switzerland about 215 million years ago, during the period known as the Middle Triassic, Camp writes in Child of the Rocks: The Story of Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park.
These aquatic reptiles kicked around for 135 million years or so, and fossil remains have been found on every continent except Antarctica. Not a bad record in the global scheme of things.
The largest ichthyosaurs in the world are found here in Nevada on the slopes of the Shoshone Mountain Range. One skull measures 10 feet in length. An extension of the Pacific Ocean once created a shallow sea here, making it possible for the ichthyosaurs to live in Nevada. Of course "Nevada" looked nothing like it does now. The mountains and topography were formed long after these fossils were buried.
In his book, Camp figures ichthyosaurs were comparable in bulk to modern whales: "A whale 60-feet long with a body the size of a large ichthyosaur, and about eight feet in diameter, may weigh as much as 40 tons," he writes. "Therefore we can assume this may have been the weight of one of our largest ichthyosaurs."
In the same book, Camp postulates on the likelihood that space aliens watched the ichthyosaurs firsthand, so his statements of fact might be taken with a grain of salt.
Friend and official "Out There" geologist Bob Moulton spent part of a summer up here working with the fossils. The work of scientists is often misunderstood by their families, but during that summer, in a phone conversation with his mother, Bob did his level best to explain the project. His mother seemed to follow along with the talk about analyzing the fossils and their surroundings--until she asked, "Well now, Robert, are these animals dangerous?"
For a moment Bob considered going into a long-winded explanation of geologic time, the absence of an ocean in Nevada to support 60-foot-long sea monsters and the general concept of a fossil.
Instead, he replied, "Hold on mom, one of them has a hold on the truck! I'll be right back...."
"Robert? Robert, dear? Are you okay? Hello?"
Getting ThereNevada's Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park is located 45 miles south of Highway 50. Take Highway 361 south towards Gabbs, and veer off on Highway 844. The park is on the side of the mountain. Call (702) 964-2440 for more information. Entry fee is $1. Camping and some facilities are available.
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