One day in the late Triassic period, thousands of small theropod dinosaurs called Coelophysis were living in a warm, monsoon-like climate, but struggling with drought during the dry season. Those who hadn’t yet perished were languishing around a diminishing water source, when suddenly a violent storm arrived and the creatures were caught in a flash flood. Many hundreds were killed and their remains deposited in a muddy wash where they were quickly covered and would remain for over 200 million years.
Of course we don’t know for sure that this scenario played out exactly like that…but we do know that something catastrophic killed hundreds of the small dinosaurs, and covered their bodies quickly. In 1947, George Whitaker, an assistant to Edwin “Ned” Colbert of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was prospecting for fossils up in the rocky red and green hills in Abiquiu, New Mexico, about 50 miles northwest of Santa Fe. In a place called Ghost Ranch, then known primarily as the residence of artist Georgia O’Keefe, Whitaker found a huge dinosaur graveyard up in the hills. Eventually dozens and dozens of the lithe 9-foot carnivorous theropods were uncovered, including many fully articulated skeletons. While Coelophysis was not new to science (the dinosaur was first named in 1881 based on partial remains), the specimens from the Ghost Ranch quarry immediately became the best examples of the genus and eventually the type specimen was transferred from the original specimen to one of those found at Ghost Ranch.
Because of Ghost Ranch, there have been more Coelophysis remains found than just about any other dinosaur in the world, and the vast majority come from the quarry uncovered by Whitaker and Colbert. Because of the volume of fossils, and the fact that several were articulated and largely complete, Coelophysis has become one of the world’s most studied and best known dinosaurs. In 1998 it even had the honor of being the second dinosaur in space (behind Maiasaura), as astronauts of the space shuttle Endeavour brought a Coelophysis skull on board for their trip to the space station Mir.
Coelophysis was one of the early dinosaurs, having lived at the very end of the Triassic period at a time when dinosaurs were relatively new and not yet the top predators of their time. Fortunately for Coelophysis, it was a very fast and agile dinosaur, presumably able to avoid the apex predators in its environment. Because Coelophysis were not the only creatures living in the area, the blocks of fossil-bearing rocks that were quarried from Ghost Ranch in the late 1940’s continue to be studied by paleontologists today–and they continue to reveal more about the ancient environment and the animals that lived there.
When you come to Ghost Ranch and visit the Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, you expect to see a lot about Coelophysis. The names “Ghost Ranch” and “Coelophysis” are inextricably linked in paleontology history, and if you are interested in this amazing early dinosaur, then you will not be disappointed in the museum. In addition to a lot of photographs and educational material on the walls about the Coelophysis quarry discovery, visitors are treated to a cast of the most famous Coelophysis fossil–that of a fully articulated adult in the classic dinosaur death position (neck twisted backwards and head upside down over the body). The original resides at the AMNH in New York and is a fantastic dinosaur fossil–even the remains of its last meal can be seen inside the stomach area. For many years, it was thought that these food remains were from a baby Coelophysis and led to speculation that the dinosaur was cannibalistic, similar to what is seen today in crocodilians. More recently however, study of the fossil has revealed that instead of a baby Coelophysis, the “last meal” was in fact from a small crocodile-type animal, possibly Hesperosuchus, which has been found at Ghost Ranch.
In the middle of the Ghost Ranch Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, visitors can observe one of the Coelophysis quarry blocks being studied, currently by Ghost Ranch Curator of Paleontology Alex Downs. Many bones are visible to the naked eye, but a quick glimpse through the microscope (thank you, Alex!) reveals some minute details that are very interesting. When we visited we were able to get a good look at some baby Coelophysis teeth. The blocks when quarried were very large, and some contain dozens of individual skeletons, mostly Coelophysis. In the last ten or fifteen years, however, some of the blocks have revealed surprises.
One such surprise is a very interesting animal called Vancleavea, an armored semi-aquatic animal that doesn’t fit well into any known reptile family during its time. Vancleavea was first discovered in 1962, but not formally named until 1995. That first fossil is largely incomplete. At Ghost Ranch, however, an almost fully complete and articulated fossil of Vancleavea was discovered from the Coelophysis quarry and described in 2009. This fossil is on display at the Ghost Ranch Museum and is quite spectactular–the skull and armor of the creature are striking. It is very unusual in that it has an armor-coated tail with what looks like a fin, or tall spines along its tail. But rather than tall spines, as would be expected of such an armored fin, it is made of osteoderms, or bony plates in the dermal layers of the skin. It appears that Vancleavea propelled itself through the water primarily by using its armored tail as it had relatively small limbs. It is certainly not the only enigma of evolution, but hopefully future research and discovery will help us better understand this animal and its place in history.
The largest fossil mount in the museum is that of a Smilosuchus, a large phytosaur that was one of the apex predators of the late Triassic. The skeleton is actually a composite, with a skull of Smilosuchus, while the body of the skeleton comes from a closely related and contemporary phytosaur called Pseudopalatus. The very large skull was found on Ghost Ranch near the log cabin at the entrance to the property from the highway. In the display, the Smilosuchus patrols the shoreline near a misty lake looking for its next meal. My son was very impressed by this mount, and we spent quite a bit of time admiring the huge skull.
The mural behind the Smilosuchus mount shows many of the animals and plants that are found at Ghost Ranch. One such animal is the colorfully named Effigia okeeffeae, which means “O’Keefe’s ghost.” Effigia was discovered in 2006 in one of the 1947 quarry blocks by paleontologist Sterling Nesbitt while a graduate student at AMNH in New York. Nesbitt was later the lead author in the formal description of the Ghost Ranch dinosaur Tawa hallae, a smaller but similar dinosaur to Coelophysis which lived several million years earlier and was fairly close to the base of the dinosaur tree. In the museum there is a small display with fossils and pictures of Tawa.
Many of the displays at Ghost Ranch are relatively small…a nice skull of a Coelophysis in one case, a great little skull of the early theropod dinosaur Daemonosaurus in another. Daemonosaurus was found in a block from the original Coelophysis quarry by researchers at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh and named in 2011. It is smaller than Coelophysis, and comes from a line of theropods that is more closely related to dinosaurs at the very beginning of dinosaur evolution earlier in the Triassic.
There are several other creatures on display at the Ghost Ranch Museum. A fossil that is contemporary to Coelophysis and found at Ghost Ranch is the small crocodylomorph Hesperosuchus, a likely ancestor to modern crocodilians. One block on display contains numerous bones of this animal. There are also bones from the dinosaur-like archosaur Dromomeron, which may represent a smaller growth stage of Tawa hallae, in which case Tawa would not be considered a true dinosaur, and in fact would be a junior synonym of Dromomeron.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
Many, many people visit Ghost Ranch every year who aren’t particularly interested in dinosaurs. The area is a wonderful place for hiking–there are numerous trails on the ranch of varying length and difficulty, and many people enjoy the hikes through the picturesque landscape. But Ghost Ranch is much more than dinosaurs and hiking–it is an educational and conference center that regularly offers dozens of workshops in a large variety of subject areas including art, music, writing, spirituality and many others. Horseback riding, yoga, archaeology…there are many things to do at Ghost Ranch besides admire Triassic reptiles! Quite a few Hollywood movies have filmed at Ghost Ranch, and one of the tours you can sign up for takes you to various locations around the ranch where City Slickers, Silverado, Cowboys and Aliens, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, among many others, have shot scenes for the big screen.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
The Ghost Ranch Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology is a small but great museum dedicated to displaying the finds from the quarries on site. The museum does a very nice job of displaying the material they have given their resources, and it is easy to spend a couple hours at Ghost Ranch immersed in its remarkable paleontology story. While it would be fantastic to see more skeletal mounts, particularly of relatively recent finds like Effigia and Tawa, there is plenty of material in the museum describing these animals to satisfy those who come to Ghost Ranch to learn about them.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
We were very fortunate during our visit to Ghost Ranch. My younger son was with me on this trip, and we had a great time, especially thanks to the very friendly paleontologist (thanks again, Alex!) who took time out of his busy day to show us around the museum and even look at some fossils in his lab that he is currently studying. We spent some time hiking around Ghost Ranch, and it was easy to admire the beautiful scenery, but it was a very hot day so we didn’t get to go as far as we had hoped. Still, the trip was well worth our time, and we will surely go back the next time we visit New Mexico.
OVERALL RATING, Ghost Ranch Ruth Hall Museum of Paleontology, Abiquiu, NM: 33.5/50.0
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (6 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (7 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (7 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (8 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (5.5 out of 10)
Overall Rating Information:
40-50: Excellent, one of North America’s top museums.
32-39.5: Very Good, well worth spending half a day.
25-31.5: Good, worth spending a couple hours.
Below 25: Hopefully, a museum on the way up!