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Museum holds a glimpse into the state’s ancient mysteries

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science has an almost complete fossil of a Camelops hesternus, a camel species that lived 150,000 years ago. It was found in a gravel quarry in Albuquerque. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Editor’s note: The third Sunday of each month, Journal Arts Editor Adrian Gomez tells the stories behind some of the hidden gems you can see across the state in “Gimme Five.”

Imagine a cold day in the grasslands of the Rio Grande rift.

Scattered individuals or groups of Columbian mammoths, mastodons and camels graze as they keep watch for saber-tooth cats and wolves.

The Rio Grande and Sandia Mountains look like they do today, but one of the volcanoes to the west is just beginning to erupt.

What would the aftermath look like?

New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science holds many of these mysteries of nearly 4.55 billion years of the Earth’s history.

Jayne Aubele, senior educator and geologist sees an abundance of subtle science detail built into each exhibit.

Take, for instance, “The Albuquerque Camel,” in the New Mexico Ice Age Hall.

Aubele says the juvenile camel lived about 150,000 years ago. More than 95% of it is fossilized bone.

“The skeleton is also unusual in that it was found in a gravel quarry right in the middle of Albuquerque in 1979,” she says. “And it is one of the most complete specimens known of this species of camel (Camelops hesternus or ‘Yesterday’s Camel’).”

Aubele says Camelops hesternus was probably similar to modern camels, although larger, and one of the last of the native North American camel species to go extinct.

She says the mystery lies in how the youngster died.

This volcano display shows minerals and rocks displayed at the proper depth where they actually form within the Earth at The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science.

“When found, the skeleton was nearly intact and arranged in the proper sequence of bones, with no apparent disruption of the bones by a predator,” she says. “Death appears to have occurred quickly, and the body must have been buried or covered relatively rapidly.”

Aubele describes some of her favorite – and often missed – objects inside the museum.

Part of New Mexico’s geology story is at your feet.

The entry floor is paved with a rock called travertine, from one of only three commercial travertine quarries in North America, near Belen.

“This floor is a perfect way to enter the museum, as you walk on rock that was definitely ‘made in New Mexico,’ ” Aubele says. “Each piece of the entry floor has a geological story to tell.”

As for lunar samples, the museum has one of the largest on display.

Aubele says the moon rock has plenty of stories. The first is that it is a type of volcanic rock called basalt.

Basalt is one of the building blocks of planets, and it is common on the Earth, and in New Mexico.

“You can see basalt in the lava flows of Petroglyph National Monument and many other locations throughout our state,” she says. “Although the moon rock might look like a rock you could find on Albuquerque’s West Mesa, there are two differences: Lunar basalt has more titanium than Earth basalt, and although the moon rock looks very young, as though it erupted very recently, it is actually about 3 billion years old.”

The Cretaceous/Tertiary boundary of iridium was collected near Raton and shows evidence of the asteroid impact that caused the extinction of 75% of the species on Earth and ended the age of dinosaur. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

Aubele says the second story of the rock is the story of New Mexico’s link to the moon and a boy who was born and grew up in the Silver City area to become one of only 12 astronauts – and the only scientist – to walk on the moon during the Apollo program.

“New Mexico’s Dr. Harrison H. Schmitt is the only geologist to do hands-on field geology on a world other than Earth, and our rock was collected by Dr. Schmitt during the last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, in December 1972,” she says. “The third story of our rock is a love story. Funding for the special case and for the long-term loan of the moon rock from NASA was donated by Mr. A.E. ‘Tommy’ Thomas as a very special 65th wedding anniversary gift for his wife. When they were married, he promised her the moon – and he delivered.”

Aubele says visitors can also learn about New Mexico’s iridium layer in the New Mexico Seacoast Hall.

There, visitors can witness the asteroid impact that caused the extinction of 75% of the species on Earth and ended the age of dinosaurs.

“This exhibit is one-of-a-kind,” she says. “No other museum has a display like this that includes a unique video, information about the crater, and unique samples. But there is one very special sample on display in this exhibit that is easy to miss.”

This moon rock was collected by New Mexico’s Harrison H. Schmitt during the Apollo 17 mission, the last to the moon.

Aubele says the major piece of evidence that an impact occurred is a clay layer that contains high concentrations of the cosmic element iridium.

“New Mexico is one of the few places that has a particularly well-preserved exposure of the iridium-rich clay layer,” she explains. “A section of this thin white clay layer, collected from just west of Raton is on display in the exhibit.”

“New Mexico: Land of Volcanoes” is one of the most popular exhibits, yet there’s something new to see each time.

The New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science entry floor is paved with travertine, a sedimentary rock produced by precipitation of calcium carbonate out of spring water in arid desert environments, from one of only three commercial travertine quarries in North America, near Belen.

At the end of the exhibit, visitors can find a case of minerals and rocks that most people miss.

“The display illustrates a ‘volcano laying on its side,’ ” she says. “As you face the case, the source of the volcano (molten rock from the Earth’s mantle) is on the far right, and the erupted rocks of the volcano are on the far left. As you look from right to left, you are traveling from the mantle to the surface, and minerals and rocks are displayed at the proper depth where they actually form within the Earth.”

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