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Icky, Icky, Icky: Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park hypnotizes visitors


Christopher Smith

Here lies Icky, the most famous specimen of Nevada's official state fossil.

No one really knows how Icky died, but it was likely an ignominious end. His corpse was one of nine that sunk to the bottom of the sea, piling criss-crossed atop one another, and were quickly covered in sediment to become fossils.

These nine form the centerpiece of Berlin-Icthyosaur State Park, 7,000 feet up in the Shoshone Mountain Range, some 20 miles northeast of Gabbs, Nevada. (The "Berlin" part refers to a now-defunct mining community a mile south down the mountain — also part of the state park.) But remains of 37 other icthyosaurs are scattered around the site that was discovered by Siemon Muller in 1928 and excavated by U.C. Berkeley paleontologist Charles Camp and his associates throughout the '50s and '60s. And based on concentrations of existing discoveries, bones of another 100 or more of these fascinating creatures may lie buried in the area.

The thing that makes this park thrilling is not that it's the largest concentration of ichthyosaurs in North America, or that it features the largest species of ichthyosaur discovered throughout the world. It's that Camp's dig was preserved in situ. Walk around the burial ground of Icky — as rangers and scientists came to call the animal represented by a mostly-intact skeleton at the center of the site — and his unfortunate pod-mates, and you're seeing their actual resting place, not a museum exhibit.

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But who is Icky, and how did he come to be here? We asked 16-year park ranger Jeff Morris, and he gave us this primer.

Pronunciation: "Ick-thee-o-sore"

Species: Shonisaurus popularis, named after the Shoshone Mountains, where he was found

True: Ichthyosaurs were highly specialized marine reptiles that breathed above water and bore live young.

False: They were related to whales and dolphins, which are cetaceans.

Heyday: 220 million-95 million years ago

Not great blind-date material: Defining characteristics include propulsive tail and paddles, dorsal fin, long snouts, loads of sharp teeth (for eating crustaceans), and big, googly eyes

Why'd you have to leave so soon? Icky and his kind appear to have vanished in a sudden extinction event. Theories about the cause abound. Camp believed they were accidentally beached or stranded on a tidal flat. Mount Holyoke College paleontologist Mark McMenamin argued that a kraken, or large sea creature resembling a squid, would kill the ichthyosaurs and bring them down to its lair. (Once decomposed, the kraken would arranged the ichthyosaur vertebrae in the same shape as his own tentacles, like a self-portrait.) The most widely accepted theory is that Icky and friends came to feed at the site and consumed a lot of ammonites, huge snails, which were infected by a red tide, or toxic algae bloom. The second-hand poison would then have killed them all around the same time and place.