Making "Secrets of Fossil Lake"

After months of research, organization, and work, the newest Bruce Museum exhibit is coming together. Secrets of Fossil Lake opens on Saturday and stars fossils from the Green River Formation of  ancient Wyoming and Utah. Fossil Lake is an amazing site. The area is now a desert, but 52 million years ago, Fossil Lake was lush and thriving. It had a diverse array of birds, early mammals, reptiles, and insects. Unsurprisingly for a lake, fish fossils are especially common.

A stingray from Fossil Lake. Stingrays are very rare fossils, as their skeletons were made of easily-degraded cartilage instead of bone.  Photo by Cynthia Ehlinger

A stingray from Fossil Lake. Stingrays are very rare fossils, as their skeletons were made of easily-degraded cartilage instead of bone.

Photo by Cynthia Ehlinger

The abundance of Fossil Lake is staggering. Over one million fossils have been unearthed across dig sites. Even more incredibly, these fossils are preserved in near perfect condition. Many fish are recovered without a scale out of place.  Luckily for us, the conditions of ancient Fossil Lake were just right to produce amazing fossils.

The bottom of the lake floor was low in oxygen. This made it difficult for decomposers and scavengers to damage deceased organisms. Additionally, a steady influx of limestone ooze poured into the lake from upstream. This ooze covered deceased animals quickly, leaving them less time to be disturbed at the surface. 

Of course, not all fossils from Fossil Lake were so fortunate. The photo above shows some of the fossils for the exhibit, waiting to be arranged for display. The large fossils at the top of the photo are fish that were more heavily decomposed before becoming fossils. Their scales and bones are scattered around their bodies. They must have been exposed in the lake for longer than than the more pristine fossils below. 


As of this morning, there was a lot of work still needing to be done on the exhibit. The large crocodilian was mounted on the wall, but the smaller objects had yet to be placed.

It takes a lot of people to put together an exhibit. We had staff specializing in science, exhibit design, and construction all come together to work out ideas. Fossils were arranged on a table (covered in bubble wrap) to decide their final positions.

Our displays are constructed on site by museum staff. The Bruce Museum houses both art and science exhibitions, so our specialists have to be both skilled and flexible. Here you can see how the fossils from the table have transitioned to their places in the exhibit.

As I write this post, we are not yet finished, but are are well on our way. Please come by and see these marvelous fossils for yourself from November 21, 2015 - April 17, 2016. If you want to learn even more, we encourage you to attend one of our scientific lectures:

•Early Birds: Extinct Species from Fossil Lake, by Dr. Daniel Ksepka, Bruce Museum, on Friday, November 20.

•The Subtlety of Snakes and a Quarter-Billion Years of Lizard Evolution, by Dr. Jack Conrad, New York Institute of Technology College of Osteopathic Medicine, on Tuesday, January 12.

• The Lost World of Fossil Lake: Snapshots from Deep Time, by Dr. Lance Grande, Field Museum of Natural HIstory, on Tuesday, March 15.

Lectures are free to Bruce Museum members and $15 to non-members. Reservations are required and can be made by contacting 203.413.6757, or

- Kate Dzikiewicz, Paul Griswold Howes Fellow