On Tour: An Icky Situation

Ichthyosaurs and prospectors, a particular Nevada context

In each installment of “On Tour,” The Usonian takes a look at a cool place in some obscure (and sometimes not so obscure) corner of the world. This week, we spotlight Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park in Austin, Nevada, a location with its fair share of Western American history—and that of deep time and marine reptiles.

The year was 1896. That was when Berlin, Nevada, a settlement in central Nevada along the Shoshone Mountain Range, was a boomtown. As many as 250 people—okay, so boomtowns are relative—subsisted on an economy based on a gold mine. By 1911, the town collapsed and Berlin was abandoned, becoming an archetypal Western “ghost town.”

In the 1920s another type of ghost was discovered on site: that of ichthyosaurs, aquatic reptiles of the Triassic (distinct in their classification from dinosaurs). Essentially, these critters were the reptilian precursor to dolphins. Except for one thing—at Berlin, the ichthyosaurs discovered were much, much larger than dolphins.

They were the size of whales. Whales!

Shonisaurus popularis, the species discovered on-site, measured 49 feet long. For comparison, an adult orca usually tops out at 26 feet long. Only the Shastasaurus sikanniensis, a distant relative of the ichthyosaur, discovered in 2004 in British Columbia, has been determined to be bigger (69 feet, still short of a blue whale’s 82 feet).

In the 1950s and 60s, more than 37 of these massive ichthyosaurs were discovered at Berlin. One theory (propounded by my tour guide) was that this “pod” of ichthyosaurs were all killed in some sort of landslide, which would account for why they were all found together.

But how, you might ask, did so many marine reptiles come to find their final resting place in a location which is today about 400 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean?

About 250 million years ago, the Sierra Nevada mountain range had yet to emerge, and what is now California and Nevada was part of the ocean. As John McPhee described in Annals of the Former World, his epic history of North American geology:

You are in central Nevada, about four hundred miles east of San Francisco, and after you have climbed these mountains you look out upon (as it appears in present theory) open sea. You drop swiftly to the coast, and then move on across moderately profound water full of pelagic squid, water that is quietly accumulating the sediments which—ages in the future—will become the roof rock of the rising Sierra. Tall volcanoes are standing in the sea. Then, at roughly the point where the Sierran foothills will end and the Great Valley will begin—at Auburn, California—you move beyond the shelf and over deep ocean. There are probably some islands out there somewhere, but fundamentally you are crossing above ocean crustal floor that reaches to the China Sea. Below you there is no hint of North America, no hint of the valley or the hills where Sacramento and San Francisco will be. (McPhee 29-30)

Nevada, the state perhaps most associated with being a desert, formed the shoreline of that primordial sea.

Today, you can visit Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park, where a barn protects some of specimens left in situ, only accessible by daily park ranger tours. Meanwhile, about a mile from the barn, the ghost town lingers.

The park, quite remote (the nearest gas station is an hour away), is a three-hour drive from Reno. The destination, however, is quite interesting, with a microclimatic atmosphere distinct from its surroundings. Piñon trees lend the landscape a distinct Northern New Mexico vibe.

Campgrounds are also available for reservation. More information about visiting Berlin-Ichthyosaur Park can be found on their website.

Of course, if you’re a fan of ichthyosaurs but don’t have the ability to drive to Berlin, you can always look for the popular beer of Reno origin—Great Basin Brewing Company’s “Icky IPA,” featuring an ichthyosaur skeleton on its label. “Distinct not extinct” is the brew’s tagline. Thus the humble ichthyosaur lives on in local popular culture.

Selected Bibliography

“Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park,” Wikipedia. Website, February 2, 2021.

“History of Berlin Ichthyosaur State Park,” Nevada State Parks, Website, Accessed 2021.

McPhee, John. Annals of the Former World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. Kindle Edition.

“Shonisaurus,” Wikipedia. Website, March 17, 2021.