NPS-Smithsonian Collaboration Promotes Public and Scientific Access to Important Fossils

Paleontologists and staff from both the National Park Service (NPS) and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (USNM) have been quietly working together on a project that will be available to the public as part of the 2018 National Fossil Day celebration. On October 17, 2018, the Smithsonian will premiered a website of interactive 3-D computer models produced by the National Park Service and hosted by Digitization Program Office featuring important fossils collected from several NPS areas and which are maintained in the collections of the USNM. This project will enable the public, researchers, and NPS staff to access rare and important fossil specimens from parks which are not currently on display and readily available for public viewing.

These models were created through the use of a technique called Structure-from-Motion or digital photogrammetry. Photogrammetry as a method, has been used since shortly after the invention of photography. It is in a sense, using photographs of an object to make accurate measurements by shifting camera positions known distances. The modern technique takes advantage of advances in digital cameras, powerful consumer-level computer hardware and software, to “virtually” reconstruct an object. The digital 3-dimensional model is made via the software by finding 1000s of points in common on the object surface from a group of overlapping images. Combined with scaling (e.g., objects of known length) in the image groups, highly accurate and precise digital renderings can be generated. Once created, these 3D models can be shared remotely on the web, emailed and even printed with 3D printing technology.
several pieces of a fossilized musk ox lay on the rocky ground
Euceratherium from Musk Ox Cave in Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

Ron Kerbo

There are several vertebrate fossils from NPS areas scanned as part of this 3D digitization effort. An important and rare specimen of Nanodelphys hunti was found in what is now Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado and is the most complete Eocene fossil marsupial known to date from North America. The Euceratherium cf sinclairi, also known as a shrub ox was found within a cave at Carlsbad Caverns National Park, New Mexico. The shrub ox fossil and others from the cave are representative of the animals that inhabited the Guadalupe Mountains during the last glacial period when the continental ice sheets were near maximum extent.
fossilized tree stumps sticking up from the ground.
Standing petrified stumps at Yellowstone National Park. Photo by Vincent L. Santucci
Fossil plants are also represented in this collection of 3D models. Yellowstone National Park is well known for geysers, hot springs, bison and grizzly bear, but it is also home to a 50 million year old fossil forest. Specimen Ridge preserves at least 27 layers of petrified trees, many in upright or growth position. Petrified wood is common, but fossils such as the pine cone, Pinus premurrayana are less common.
a small cave covered in small round fossils.
Rampart Cave sloth dung at Grand Canyon National Park.


Trace fossils are remains of the activity of past life including fossil footprints, trackways, burrows and even fossil dung or coprolites. The extinct Shasta Ground Sloth (Nothrotheriops shastensis) utilized caves for part of its life cycle. Rampart Cave in Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona preserves a thick sequence of sloth dung that is nearly 1.3 m or 4 feet deep in places and indicates that the cave was used by ground sloths for upwards of 40,000 years.

According to the NPS Senior Paleontologist, Vincent L. Santucci, “The NPS and the Smithsonian’s USNM have a long relationship and history of collaboration involving paleontology and fossils. Together the NPS preserves the places where the fossils are collected and the Smithsonian preserves the actual fossil specimens for the public to learn about and scientists to study.” To see these fossils and to learn about others, visit the Smithsonian’s digital archive. To see how the NPS is utilizing digital photogrammetry for improving our understanding of park geologic and paleontologic resources, visit our Geohazards site.

Last updated: April 22, 2020