Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, Nevada, U.S.A.
Copyright © 2001-2009 by Mike Everhart
Last revised 12/07/2009
Shonisaurus oil painting © Ron Garrett, Used with permission of Ron Garrett
According to local accounts, the first bones of Shonisaurus popularis were found near the mining town of Berlin, Nevada about 1869. Stories are told of miners using the large, round vertebrae as dinner plate but these stories are apparently unsubstantiated (See Note at bottom of the page). It seems to be a very unlikely place to find fossils of anything, let alone a group of 50-foot long ichthyosaurs laid out on the side of a mountain, at an altitude of over seven thousand feet in the middle of a desert!
|The picture at left shows a view looking west from the main parking area at the ichthyosaur shelter. In 1928, Professor S. M. Muller of Stanford University was the first to identify the fossils as ichthyosaur remains. It wasn't until 1953, however, that Dr. Charles L. Camp (right, center) and Dr. Samuel Wells of the University of California, Berkeley began to excavate the site. In all, the partial remains of at least 37 adult ichthyosaurs have been located. It is not yet certain how these large creatures died and were buried together in such a small area.
|One early theory holds that they
represent a school of ichthyosaurs that were beached and died together like a group of
stranded whales. Another is that they were trapped in a shallow embayment and died
one by one over a longer period of time. The latest theory and most likely theory is that
they died and were buried in a deep ocean shelf environment. In any case, the skeletons
are generally oriented along a north-south axis, suggesting that currents or tides played
some part in deciding their final resting place. Most of the skeletons are incomplete,
with the most easily detachable parts missing. The condition of some remains suggests
scavenging or an extended exposure to the elements, while others appear to have been
buried relatively rapidly.
LEFT: Paleo-art by Ron Garrett - Copyright © 2003 by Ron Garrett. Used with permission.
All of the remains, except one, are still in place where they were found. One specimen was removed and put on display at the Nevada State Museum in Las Vegas. Most of the 36 others were covered and protected for later study. The remains of 8 or 9 individuals are safely exposed inside the ichthyosaur shelter that is open year-round. The site became the Berlin-Ichthyosaur Park in 1970 (for more information on the Park, CLICK HERE). It is located about 100 miles southeast of Fallon, Nevada near the old mining town of Berlin.
The geology of the area is complex to say the least. Now in the middle of a dry, sage brush covered desert, it is hard to imagine that 200 million years ago an ocean covered these rocks, or that hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of gold and silver were mined next to the fossils of these giant marine predators.
|At more than 15 meters (50+ feet in length, and 40 tons, Shonisaurus popularis was for many years the largest known ichthyosaur in the world, and is still the largest ichthyosaur known from the United States. The recent recovery of the remains of a 23 meter-long ichthyosaur in Canada has dramatically shown that even larger marine reptiles have existed but does not take away from the paleontological importance of these large, late Triassic ichthyosaurs. The human standing beside the sculpture (me) appears to be about bite size. (Larger photo here)
|At one of the larger exposures, a number of large vertebrae were found eroding from the side of Union Canyon in the Shoshone Mountains at an altitude of about 7000 feet above sea level. The current ichthyosaur shelter was built over the site in 1966 to protect the fossils from further weathering.
|The shelter encloses a number of partial ichthyosaur skeletons, most notable of which is a large, nearly complete individual that stretches nearly the full length of the exposed rock surface inside the building. In these pictures, the head of the animal would be at the bottom of the picture, with the vertebral column going upward toward the top of the picture. The animal was preserved laying on its stomach, with it's skull dislocated and laying at an angle of greater than 90 degrees to the right of the vertebrae.
|This picture shows parts of the 3 meter long skull of the above individual. The bones are in relatively poor condition and are not readily recognizable in this picture.
|In this view of the same area, the vertebrae of another ichthyosaur are laying across the first set of remains. Dr. Camp originally believed that several species of ichthyosaurs were found at this site, but there is general agreement now that all are Shonisaurus popularis.
|Shot from above and looking down, this pictures shows the dorsal vertebrae and pelvic bones of another large ichthyosaur. The tail of the animal continues below the path at my feet. Several ribs are visible at the upper right of the picture. The bones labeled "J" are probably the right and left femurs. Unlike most later ichthyosaurs, the front and hind limbs of Shonisaurus were approximately the same size. Also, the 'tail-bend' in Shonisaurus is much less than in later ichthyosaurs.
|This is a closer view of the pelvic region of the same individual with a 15 cm (6 inch) ruler included for scale.
|In this picture, you are looking from the tip of the snout to the back of the skull (3 meters or about 9 feet) of a third ichthyosaur. None of the skulls are complete, or in good condition. The vertebrae of the neck are visible at the top left and some limb bones are at the top right of the picture.
|Another view of the same skull.
|A mixture of vertebrae and rib fragments. The vertebrae are 15-20 cm (6-8 inches) in diameter.
|The thoracic ribs of fourth individual located near the top of the exposure. Some of the ribs are almost 3 meters (nine feet) long. A series of vertebrae is visible in the left side of the picture.
|A slightly different view of the same set of ribs.
|Another assortment of ribs and limb bones.
|Outside the shelter, a 4 meter (12+ feet) long string of caudal vertebrae are on display where they were found. The scale in the picture is 15 cm (6 inches).
|Two views of the late Triassic ichthyosaur, Shonisaurus
popularis.... in life, and death, by Doug Henderson. Copyright © Doug
Henderson; used with permission of Doug Henderson.
While some fetal material may have been found in association with the adult ichthyosaurs at the Berlin site, all of the remains appear to represent adult or near adult individuals.
|Comments by Brad K. from the Marine Reptile Forum (May,
It is great to get some discussions on ichthyosaurs going, I
thought I would post some comments related to Mikes comment about being hard to
believe S. sikanniensis being larger than the wall at Berlin-Ichthyosaur State
Park. And to comment on some myths about the ichthyosaurs of the park.
Camp, C. L. 1981. Child of the rocks - The story of the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology, Special Publication 5, 36 pp.
Dupras, D. L. 1988. Ichthyosaurs of California, Nevada and Oregon. California Geology (May) 99-107.
Hogler, J. A. 1992. Taphonomy and paleoecology of Shonisaurus popularus (Reptilia: Ichthyosauria). Palaios. 7:108-117.
Kosch, B. F. 1990. A revision of the skeletal reconstruction of Shonisaurus popularis (Reptilia: Ichthyosauria). Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 10(4):512-514.
McGowan, C. and R. Motani. 1999. A new interpretation of the Upper Triassic ichthyosaur, Shonisaurus. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19(1):42-49.
Motani, R. 1999. Phylogeny of the Ichthyopterygia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 19:472-495.
Nicholls, E. L. and M. Manabe. 2004. Giant ichthyosaurs of the Triassic - a new species of Shonisaurus from the Pardonet Formation (Norian: Late Triassic) of British Columbia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 24(3): 838-849.
Orndorff, R.L., R. W. Weider and H. F. Filkorn. 2001. How the West was swum. Natural History 110(5):22-24 (Adapted from Orndorff, R. L., R. W. Weider and H. F. Filkorn, 2001. Geology Underfoot in Central Nevada, Mountain Press Publishing, Missoula, MT.
Other Ichthyosaur Webpages:
Ryosuke Montani's Ichthyosaur Page Baptodon in Wyoming