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National Park Service
US Department of the Interior

Paleozoic Partner Highlight

Fossil sponges and modern lichens are amoung the discoveries awaiting visitors to Guadalupe Mountains National Park (Texas). Snorkels were required about 270 million years ago! NPS Photo.

Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Snorkel Far West Texas

Snorkeling far West Texas's Delaware Sea and her world class reef requires only a little imagination and a beautiful hike. Guadalupe Mountains National Park is home to the Capitan reef, recognized as one of the most well-preserved Permian fossil reefs in the world. The Permian Period lasted approximately 47 million years from 299 to 252 million years ago; the rocks in the park were deposited in the Middle Permian and span nearly 12.5 million years from 272 to 260 million years ago. Forty five miles of this ancient reef's 450 mile length are exposed between Carlsbad, New Mexico and majestic El Capitan peak. The park's Permian Reef Geology Trail offers visitors the opportunity to get up close and personal with the creatures who built Capitan reef. The fossil record the sea and reef left behind create a perfect natural classroom bringing scientists from all over the globe to investigate the formation processes of Permian basins and reefs as well as the marine life which lived in them. New species continue to be discovered; among the latest, is a giant sponge up to 6 feet long. Gigantospongia grew on the reef both vertically and horizontally.

The supercontinent Pangea was fully formed by the early Permian; what is now Texas and New Mexico lay close to the equator. Instead of the mountain and desert landscape of today, Permian park visitors would have enjoyed the pleasures of a tropical sea. The Hovey channel allowed waters and marine life from the Panthalassa Ocean to flow freely into the 150 mile long Delaware Sea.

This sea urchin fossil is an example of the incredible diversity of fossils from the Capitan reef. NPS photo by Michael Haynie.

During the Middle Permian, the Capitan reef grew along the shores of the sea. Marine life on the reef varied with the depth of the water and was every bit as diverse, but very different than that found on modern reefs. Unlike today's coral reefs, Permian reefs were built by a community of sponges, lacy bryozoans (moss animals), and algae. Brachiopods and, to a lesser extent, clams also played an integral role in reef life. There were ammonites, echinoderms such as sea urchins, crinoids or sea lilies, fusilinids (rice-shaped single celled organisms with a hard skeleton), tusk shaped scaphopods, snails, trilobites and, though they were rare, a few corals.

Just as 21st century coral reefs face environmental pressures so, too, did the ancient Capitan reef. For several million years the great reef grew until the Hovey Channel connecting the Delaware Sea to the Panthalassa Ocean became restricted. Gypsum precipitated from the dense brines, trapped by the choked channel, gradually filling the sea basin and the highly salty water killed the reef.

In the late Tertiary, approximately 27 million years ago, erosion of the overlying sediments began, as uplift, associated with the formation of the Basin and Range Province, affected west Texas. Somewhere between 12 and 2 million years ago, faulting in west Texas raised the Guadalupe and Delaware mountains. The long buried Capitan reef was pushed several thousand feet above its original position as tectonic activity moved faults on the western side of the Delaware basin. The eroding effects of wind and rain uncovered the reef and formed the modern Guadalupe Mountains.

Brachiopods populated the Permian Capitan reef within what is now Guadalupe Mountains National Park. NPS photo by Michael Haynie.

Come visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park, hike the Permian Reef Geology Trail, pause your fossil exploration for a few minutes to imagine you're snorkeling along the Capitan reef. Suddenly you see a small school of ammonites jetting across the reef. A little one lagging behind the others, uses her big eyes to search for both food and danger. She would be an easy meal for a hybodontid (hump-toothed shark). Suddenly, a hybodontid swims into view speeding towards the ammonite; she releases an inky black swirl into the water, making her escape in its darkness. The frustrated shark swims on searching for an easier meal, perhaps a paleoniscid fish (ray-finned fish). Paleoniscids are known only from isolated scales and teeth, which have been found in the Capitanian age rocks of the park. A shadow glides through the sea, over a colony of sponges and bryozoans who quickly close up. It's another hybodontid shark looking to fill an empty belly. As the hump-toothed shark swims on, life in the reef resumes its peaceful pace.

Article by Laurie-Ann Curry, Student Conservation Association Intern, Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Special thanks to: Dr. Jonena Hearst, Geologist, Guadalupe Mountains National Park Natural Resources; and Michael Haynie Park Ranger, Guadalupe Mountains National Park Interpretation.

About Guadalupe Mountains National Park

Guadalupe Mountains National Park is a hiking and trail riding paradise, as we have more than 80 miles of trails which meander through woodland canyons and lush riparian springs, or zigzag up steep switchbacks directly into the park's rugged wilderness. 60% of the trails are available for horseback riding if you bring your own stock. The park is a wonderful place to look at fossils and learn about Permian Period geology, enjoy bird watching and wildlife observation, backpacking, delve into nature photography, or enjoy unlimited opportunities for stargazing under pristine night skies. Be sure to visit the Frijole Ranch Cultural History Museum, the Pinery, where the ruins of a historic Butterfield stagecoach station await you and, for the more adventurous, the Williams Ranch, which requires a high clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle.

The Pine Springs Visitor Center is the best place to begin your visit to Guadalupe Mountains National Park. Here you can pick up maps and brochures, view an informative orientation slide show, enjoy remarkable interpretive exhibits, browse the bookstore for additional educational material, get a current weather forecast, and talk directly with knowledgeable staff, at the information desk, about your itinerary. The Pine Springs Visitor Center and contact stations are open daily (except December 25th, although the park remains open to hikers).

Camping is available year round, on a first come, first served basis, at Pine Springs and Dog Canyon. Both campgrounds offer water, accessible restrooms, picnic tables, and sites for tents and RV's, however there is no dump station or hook-ups. There are ten backcountry campgrounds; a free permit, which is available at the Pine Springs Visitor Center or at Dog Canyon, is required. Be aware that there is NO WATER available in the backcountry, pets are not allowed, and you must cook only on camp stoves.


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2013 Paleozoic Partner feature articles:

| January: Fossils of the 2013 National Fossil Day Artwork | February: Paleontological Research Institution, Museum of the Earth | March: Falls of the Ohio State Park | April: Field Museum of Natural History, Mazon Creek Collection | May: Prehistoric Trackways National Monument | June: Cincinnati Museum Center | July: Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve | August: University of Michican Museum of Paleontology, Silica Formation Fossils | September: Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, Beecher's Trilobite Bed | October: Guadalupe Mountains National Park | November: Utah Geological Survey, Millard County Cambrian Fossils | December: Denver Museum of Nature and Science, High-Altitude Mass Extinction |

Last updated: September 1, 2013