Morrill Hall in Lincoln, Nebraska is the home of the University of Nebraska State Museum (UNSM), a wonderful university museum that is dedicated to the natural history of Nebraska. During much of the Mesozoic Era the land that is now Nebraska was underwater, part of the Western Interior Seaway, and fossils of ancient sea reptiles and pterosaurs have been found in the state and are displayed in the museum. But what Nebraska is most known for in paleontology are the fossils of mammals and other animals that lived in the post-dinosaur era: mammoths, mastodons, a variety of ancient horses, camels, rhinos, terror birds, and many, many more. In fact there are few places on earth that have yielded such a wide variety of ancient animals, particularly mammals, and the sand hills and badlands of western Nebraska have played a significant role in our understanding of life in the millions of years after the non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. The University of Nebraska State Museum is a great place to explore this time period that is regularly overlooked and often misunderstood.
The Nebraska state fossil is the mammoth, and the Columbian Mammoth specimen on display in the Elephant Hall at UNSM is terrific. “Archie” is thought to be the largest mammoth skeleton ever found, and he is pretty amazing. Nebraska is a great place to find mammoth fossils–they have been found in almost every county in the state, and no state has a more complete fossil record of elephant evolution. A trip through the Elephant Hall will take visitors through the story of how elephants got to North America, how they changed, and ultimately how they disappeared over their millions of years on this continent. This incredible room is one of the first you might typically encounter at the museum, located right behind the information/ticket desk. It is a room that can leave visitors in awe: I counted at least ten different mammoth or mastodon displays, and one of the highlights of the room is a wonderful mural of a group of mammoths by Nebraska paleoartist Mark Marcuson. A mammoth enthusiast might spend a couple of hours in the Elephant Hall alone!
In addition to mammoths, the UNSM has several more displays on other ancient mammals whose fossils have been found in the state. There are very nice examples of ancient horses, camels, and rhinos, all of which evolved in North America. For many people, the only knowledge they have of the 65-million-year period between dinosaurs and humans is that there were woolly mammoths and saber-tooth cats living in an ice age. But that is only accurate for a relatively small (and recent) sliver of that time. The University of Nebraska State Museum does a lot to correct that misunderstanding with the breadth of mammal fossils on display from many different time periods.
As far as the dinosaur era goes, one of my favorite rooms in the museum is the Mesozoic gallery, which houses a bunch of nice fossils from the Western Interior Seaway. Among them include the pterosaur Nyctosaurus, the large fish Xiphactinus, vertebrae and teeth from the Cretaceous shark Cretoxyrhina, a very impressive sea reptile Mosasaurus, and one of the favorite fossils for both my sons–a long display of a plesiosaur neck and skull that is embedded in the floor of the room! Every time we go my sons insist on doing the “plesiosaur walk” as we call it…in other words marching up and down the impressive length of this ancient sea reptile.
Given that it was mostly underwater, you wouldn’t expect many dinosaurs to be found in Nebraska, and in fact although a few bones have been found, they are very, very rare. Nevertheless, the Mesozoic gallery at UNSM has a great Chasmosaurus fossil displayed in front of a beautiful mural of the Cretaceous period. The gallery also has a very nice depiction of a dinosaur “fossil dig”, which displays paleontological tools and such, and highlights the state’s innovative “Highway Paleontology” program which for the past fifty years has helped paleontologists recover many fossils that have been unearthed during various road construction projects.
The Chasmosaurus is not the only dinosaur at UNSM. In the Jurassic Gallery upstairs you can see three fossils from two iconic Jurassic dinosaurs–an Allosaurus adult and juvenile, and a very nice fossil Stegosaurus. The Allosaurus juvenile is the smallest one I have seen displayed anywhere. The adult fossils of Allosaurus and Stegosaurus are displayed in a manner that is now considered outdated based on our knowledge of how these creatures lived and walked, still they are impressive specimens. The Allosaurus comes from the well-known Cleveland-Lloyd Dinosaur Quarry in Utah and the Stegosaurus is one of only a couple Stegosaurus specimens displayed anywhere that are considered to be part of a species called Stegosaurus ungulatus. (The type species is Stegosaurus stenops).
Several years ago the UNSM added a new exhibit with a lot of interesting ancient creatures called “Bizarre Beasts”. This exhibit had traveled to several museums before finding its permanent home in Lincoln, where it is a welcome addition in the corner of the main floor. The room focuses on ancient creatures that evolved unusual physical characteristics in response to environmental factors. There are displays of dinosaurs with horns, frills, plates, and other interesting physical features. Among the highlights: ancient sharks with odd adaptations for eating various prey; mammals with bumps, knobs, antlers; a variety of pterosaurs with teeth adapted for eating particular food. There is also a life-size recreation of a large, flightless “terror bird” from North America called Gastornis (sometimes still referred to as Diatryma). This was the favorite “bizarre beast” for both of my sons: the skeletons they have seen are impressive but a fleshed out and fully feathered life-size creature is apparently even more memorable.
In 2019 a new exhibit opened on the museum’s fourth floor called “Cherish Nebraska” which features several new galleries. A few of the new galleries showcase prehistoric life in Nebraska. As soon as you enter the exhibit you are sure to notice the life-size Bison antiquus, near it is a life-sized saber-tooth carnivore that prowled in ancient Nebraska over 7 million years ago named Barbourofelis.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
Do you like ancient mammals? If so, the University of Nebraska State Museum is one of the best museums in North America to see them. There are other very nice exhibits as well, including a cool collection of “Weapons Throughout Time” which my sons love to look at. There are some really scary weapons! There is also a room dedicated to Nebraska wildlife, and perhaps my favorite: a large room dedicated to exploring evolution. I have to admit that I have a special fondness for this exhibit partly because it has a nice space devoted to one of my college professors at the University of Michigan, Dr. Phil Gingerich, and his research on the evolution of whales. It was pretty cool to be able to show my sons his work, and say “I took a class from him in college!” The evolution exhibit is really good, regardless of any personal biases I might have. There are several interactive displays and my children enjoy spending a lot of time in this room every time we go. Another option for visitors is the Mueller Planetarium, which is very good and usually offers several different shows.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
The one thing that jumps out at me when I consider this question is the overall layout of the exhibits. The Elephant Hall is exactly where it should be, front and center for such a grand room that is the pride of Nebraska. But the other rooms and their contents seem scattered–there are Cretaceous dinosaurs on the main floor, but the Jurassic dinosaurs are one floor up. On one side of the Elephant Hall is a wonderful room full of ancient rhinos and horses, both regular finds in the state. But other ancient mammals like camels, oreodonts and such are in another room on the opposite side of Elephant Hall. The individual rooms in the museum are each really interesting but the flow from room to room is not particularly smooth.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
Yes, my children enjoy visiting the Nebraska State Museum. We live in the Omaha area about 45 miles from the museum so we are able to go quite regularly. My oldest son enjoys the “Bizarre Beasts” section the most; my youngest the room with the plesiosaur fossil in the floor. Both of them love the Elephant Hall as well, my youngest son has taken quite a liking to a pygmy mammoth fossil that is on display there. The gift shop is small but has a lot of cool stuff packed in there.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
There is quite a bit to see at this terrific museum. Our family has visited numerous times and typically we spend between an hour or two at the museum. If it is your first visit, I would plan on closer to two hours than one.
The University of Nebraska State Museum is one of the finest university museums of natural history and easily among the top 25 natural history musems in North America. There are a few nice dinosaurs to see on your visit, but the real stars here are the fossil mammoths in the Elephant Hall. I have not seen a room devoted to mammoths anywhere like it, and it is really very impressive. When you add the fossil mammals, sea reptiles, and ptersosaurs that the museum displays, it is clear that you are in a museum with a great collection. If you are in Lincoln visiting for a Nebraska Cornhuskers football game, Morrill Hall is conveniently located right near the stadium. If you are just driving through the state on I-80, I strongly recommend a visit to the University of Nebraska State Museum, the Elephant Hall alone is worth your time.
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (7 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (7.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (7.5 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (8 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7 out of 10)