Yellowstone Paleo Survey: Stratigraphy


According to the National Park Service Natural Resources Management Guidelines (NPS-77), "Paleontological research by the academic community will be encouraged and facilitated under the terms of a permit…."

In Yellowstone, a Collecting Permit is required for research that includes field collection of fossils. A Special Use Permit (Form 10-114) is required for any other research. The Special Park Uses Guidelines (NPS-53) provide details on the issuance of permits.

Current Research

The following descriptions of recent research projects related to Yellowstone's paleontological resources are based on the Investigators' Annual Reports. See Appendix D for a list of the principal investigators' addresses.

Proposed Research

Background research, including bibliographic reviews and direct communication with paleontological researchers, has generated many ideas for future research at Yellowstone. These five projects are considered to have the highest priority.

• Inventory Yellowstone Paleontological Localities. Other than this survey and limited work on the fossil forests, fossil sites at Yellowstone have not been inventoried. This lack of data on the distribution and diversity of Yellowstone’s paleontological resources limits park management’s ability to plan research and protect fossil resources.

• Correlate Eocene volcaniclastics with Absaroka fossil vertebrates. Extensive research has been done on the east flank of the Absarokas, just outside of the park, where significant collections of fossil vertebrates have been obtained. A correlation of this data with fossil surveys and collection of paleomagnetic samples from units in the park would provide valuable information about the geologic events that shaped Yellowstone during the Eocene.

• Survey Yellowstone's Cretaceous biostratigraphy. Vertebrate and paleobotanical fossils from preliminary surveys of the thick sequence of Cretaceous sedimentary rocks that is exposed in the northern parts of the park have provided valuable stratigraphic data. Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies believes that the park may contain exposures of a unit that is possibly Judith River Formation, which is recognized as an important fossil producing unit in Montana, or an equivalent formation.

Map Fossiliferous limestone formations of Yellowstone. Limestone rocks in the Gallatin and Northeast Regions of Yellowstone contain information about changes in oceanic chemistry since the first animals appeared on Earth half a billion years ago. Mapping and study of these Paleozoic limestones will enable correlation of Yellowstone rocks with those worldwide.

Permit System

Fossil parks within the NPS often benefit from the information obtained through park-related research. New discoveries and interpretations of the resource have expanded park management's and the public's understanding of the resource significance.

The research permit serves as an administrative tool to help ensure resource protection by identifying the limitations on and responsibilities of researchers in the park. One difficulty in surveying information related to the history of paleontological research at Yellowstone has been the lack of compliance with the permit require
ments. In some cases researchers have not appropriately curated their specimen collections and reported their findings to the park. Yellowstone should consider denying permits to researchers that have not complied with the permit rules.


Funding for paleontological research has traditionally been difficult to secure within the NPS. Fossils do not have specific legislation that provides for financial support of resource-related projects. Most financial support for paleontological resource projects has come from park cooperating associations, park donation accounts, or support from academic institutions.

The NPS has moved toward a greater recognition of paleontological resources within the last few years. A staff position in Washington was created to oversee geologic and paleontological resource issues. The newly created Geological Resources Division in Denver is working towards securing sources of funding to support paleontological research in the national parks.

Publication Needs

Discussions with researchers reveal a wealth of paleontological data from Yellowstone that has not been published and many suggestions for research that would be published if funding or a publication source were available.

A possible solution would be for Yellowstone to support a Paleontological Resource Symposium to bring together for the first time all of those involved in paleontological research in the park, provide a catalyst for future research, and produce a publication of articles that would provide an up to date interpretation of the park's paleontological resources.

Literature Surveys

As part of this survey, searches of biological, geological, paleontological, and government bibliographic databases were conducted to locate any published information related to paleontological resources at Yellowstone. The Yellowstone National Park research library provided access to copies of unpublished material and park archives. Current and past paleontological researchers were contacted directly to obtain copies of their published and unpublished research. The bibliographic information obtained through this search was-cross referenced with the collections at the park’s research library. Park librarian Vanessa Christopher is attempting to obtain copies of any relevant publications not within the park library collections.

Collections and Curation