In national parks, where are all the fossils?

 

When it was established in 1922, South Dakota's Fossil Cycad National Monument possessed the world's most significant beds of fossilized, Cretaceous Age cycads, large, fern-like plants. But management was left to local ranchers, and paleontologists working the site received limited federal support. By the time the state historical society offered to take over in 1955, the fossils were gone -- stolen, eroded, vandalized or destroyed. Congress de-authorized the monument the following year.

The National Park Service wanted to avoid another Fossil Cycad when it initiated a paleontological survey in 2001 to identify which and how many parks contain significant fossils. "You can't protect what you don't know is there," says Vincent Santucci, NPS senior geologist and survey architect.

The 2009 Paleontological Resources Preservation Act, which mandated the inventory and preservation of federal lands' fossils, added momentum to the effort. Before the survey, just 12 park units were known to have significant fossils. This September, the agency added a 232nd park to its list of those with scientifically relevant fossils.