Eastern Oregon – 44 million years ago
Eocene Fossil Story from the Clarno Nuts Beds Formation
John D. Fossil Beds National Monument, painted by Larry Eifert in 2004
This scene is a depiction of eastern Oregon 44 million years ago. Oregon was a very different place then. Land that is now a desert, covered with grass and sagebrush, long ago supported a lush subtropical-like rainforest growing on the flanks of active volcanoes. The ecosystem that existed here then was unlike any living ecosystem on earth today. Warm weather plants such as palm trees (1), cycads (2), magnolias (3), ancient sycamores (4), bananas (5), and tropical vines (6) co-existed with more temperate species like walnuts, oaks, pines, birches, and grapes (7). Leaf-eating herbivores such as Orohippus, a three-toed horse (8); Telmatherium, a rhino-like creature (9); and Hyrachyus, a small “running rhino” (10) existed. Animals that preyed on these herbivores were Pistichampsus, a large crocodile (11), and Patriofelis, a very odd carnivorous animal not closely related to any modern carnivores (12).
This was the view just before a devastating lahar (a mudslide resulting from a nearby volcanic eruption) flooded the forest. What remains today of this ancient ecosystem are petrified jumbles of sticks, nuts, leaves, and the occasional remains of an animal preserved in hardened deposits of rocks. Today, this deposit is called the Clarno Nutbeds. It is one of the most species-rich floral localities in the world and it captures a unique snapshot of Oregon’s natural history.
Painting from the John Day Fossil Beds collection and commissioned by Crater Lake Institute