In the middle of nowhere Nevada, the desert rises up from the wreck of an ancient seafloor. Shards of coil-shelled ammonites peek out from clusters of Utah juniper. And in a great fossiliferous heap, the bones of giant sea creatures prompt the question of how so many whale-sized reptiles came to be buried here over 200 million years ago.
In 1863, prospectors searching the parched center of the Sagebrush State found silver. The town of Berlin, Nevada, boomed and busted in the chase for the precious metal, becoming a collection of rickety shanties and ominous mine shafts. But there was something else the miners found: enormous bones that couldn’t possibly have come from any animal prowling the desert.
Those bones belonged to Shonisaurus popularis, a kind of ichthyosaur, or “fish lizard,” that reached 15 meters in length—the size of a humpback whale. And in the hills of what became Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Historic Park, there was a whole mess of them.