Range Roaming – Nebraska 2013 – Day 16

The nerd goes to see the elephants: Lincoln to Lincoln

Tuesday April 30, 2013

Today I unleash the nerd on Lincoln. First, I drop off the bike at a shop so it can be pampered with a new chain and rear brake pads. Then it’s off to be touristy.

My first, and most highly anticipated stop, is the University of Nebraska State Museum – my introduction to the natural history of Nebraska. I cram everything in in four hours, but you could spend the whole day here marveling at the exhibits which range from rocks and minerals to evolution to how genes and DNA determine who and what you are.

The big draw at Morrill Hall is the elephants. Just behind the entry desk lies the entrance to Elephant Hall. This display is the most complete collection of elephant evolution in the world. Mammoths of all kinds march down the hall next to modern day elephants. I find the display fascinating, thorough and almost too much for my little brain to handle. The diversity in form over geologic time is one of the greatest examples of evolution I’ve ever seen in one place.

If you are ever in Lincoln, NE and have any sense of wonder or curiosity in your bones, you absolutely must go to Morrill Hall on the UNL campus. The hall of elephants is the largest fossil collection of elephant evolution in the world and is simply amazing. This is only half of the display.

Nebraska is a hot-spot for elephant family fossils. They have found over 10,000 fossil elephants in the state with fossils found in 90 of the 93 counties. Fossils are so common in the state that, if you live here, you have a 1 in 10 chance of having an extinct elephant underneath your home.

Who knew that Nebraska was an elephant family hot spot?

Nebraska is also a hot-spot for fossil mammals – with a rich fossil record of horses, rhinos, camels, rodents and dogs. What is so fascinating to me in the displays is that you can see the adaptation of mammals over time – grabbing a glimpse at odd-looking creatures which became extinct to the giant camels that were the predecessors to today’s smaller camels. The transformation over time is astounding, thought-provoking, and all on display if you take the time to ponder.

If that is not enough, other exhibits show what life would have been present in Nebraska at other points in time. For example, NE was underwater for much of the Cretaceous. Dinosaurs roamed the edges in the Jurassic.

It just blows my little mind to think about the incredible diversity and abundance of life present throughout geologic time in just one particular state – in this one tiny spot on Earth.

Verne standing next to some ancestors.

By the time I make it down to the dino hall, the beauty of life, as exemplified in these fossils spanning so many millions of years, is just overwhelming. The significance of this, the diversity and abundance of life, and our insignificance as humans, brings tears to my eyes. I guess you really know you’re a nerd when fossils make you cry.

Cornhusker stadium in the background and a mammoth chasing a UNL flag in the foreground. I spend half the day inside Morrill Hall but pry myself away to head down to an art gallery and the state museum. We also hit up the state capitol building (amazing mosaics) and the International Quilt Museum (fascinating!) while we’re in town. The nerd was truly unleashed in Lincoln.

Eventually, I force myself to leave. My head is so full, I have to have a walk around town and a bite to eat before I can delve into Nebraska’s cultural history.

The second floor of the state history museum has exhibits tracing Nebraska’s human history from occupation to nearly present day. I’m interested in learning about the different Indian nations, how they migrated to their territories present at the time of white settlement, how the nations interacted with each other, and their individual approaches to the arrival of Europeans. I’m also intrigued by the state’s path from territory to statehood and the influence of agriculture and low population densities on the formation of policy and political representation. Of course, if that is too nerdy, there’s a replica sod house to look at and a thorough explanation of the different types and uses of windmills. I enjoy all of this, and the exhibits are all well done, but I’m not blown away. Perhaps my brain circuitry has already taken too much in today.

Finally, I head down to the state capitol building. Nebraska has the only unicameral legislature in the US – the tour explains its origins and gives you an excellent look at the intricately-detailed mosaics which depict Nebraska’s history. Absolutely phenomenal and worth a visit to see these, even if you don’t care too much about politics like me.

Totally mentally exhausted now, I head up to get my bike. The warm wind has gone gusty – a precursor to a large cold front due to arrive tomorrow. The bike shop owner gives me directions for a bike-friendly way to get out of town before I head back to the motel.

What an amazing day! The nerd was unleashed and inspired.

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