The Pompeii of the Plains: 12 million years ago, northeastern Nebraska was a lush, Serengeti-like savanna teeming with herds of exotic wildlife

 

The Pompeii of the Plains : 12 million years ago, northeastern Nebraska was a lush, Serengeti-like savanna teeming with herds of exotic wildlife. Things changed quickly, however, when a cloud of ash from a massive volcanic eruption suddenly swept across these grasslands. As the cloud blew eastward, tiny shards of volcanic glass filled the air.

Within hours, the abrasive, airborne ash killed the birds and other small animals whose remains were found at the very bottom of the ashbed. Thanks to their greater lung capacities, the larger animals survived the initial dust storm, but the ash soon covered and destroyed their food supplies and filled their lungs. Many bones from the large- and medium-sized mammals found at the site have abnormally rough and porous patches on their surfaces, characteristics that are often pathologically associated with lung damage or disease.

This evidence, along with scavenger bite marks on the skeletons of the medium-sized animals, suggests that the animals slowly suffocated over a period of weeks rather than hours or days. As they suffered, hundreds of rhinos, camels, horses and other creatures sought relief from the ash at a local watering hole, where they slowly succumbed to the effects of the eruption. Their relative positions in the ashbed indicate that the largest creatures — the rhinos and giant tortoises — were the last to perish.

Like the citizens of Pompeii, the Roman city infamously buried in volcanic ash from the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, the last moments of these creatures’ lives are frozen in time, offering heartbreaking glimpses into their untimely deaths. Young rhino calves have been found pressed up against females presumed to be their mothers, while other females were pregnant. Other creatures’ mouths and stomachs contain the fossilized remnants of their final meals.