Collection Corner: Deep Time

If you spend a lot of time at the museum, it’s easy to forget just how incredibly old some of our specimens are. Many of us get distracted by the impressive size and anatomy of our prehistoric beasts or get sidetracked by ever-important “who would win in a fight?” questions. But when I walk through our collections and ponder the items in front of me, I’m struck by the vast stretch of time these fossils represent.

“Deep Time,” as it’s frequently referred to in earth science, is the multibillion year history of our planet. From the formation of the earth to the first dinosaur to the emergence of human civilization, a lot has happened! It’s one of those concepts that can make your brain hurt if you don’t break it down piece by piece. After all, 4.6 billion years of earth history is difficult to grasp if you’re an animal that typically lives less than a century.

I’ve found the best way to understand deep time is to imagine a long road trip (something with which many Montanans will be familiar). Let’s suppose that you hop in your vehicle at the Carter County Museum. For every mile you drive, you travel back in time one million years (let that soak in for a minute). You’ll barely make it out of town before you see the first woolly mammoth, but you won’t see any dinosaurs until you’re about fifteen miles past Plevna! Remember your camera so you can capture some good shots of Wyrex, Quetzalcoatlus, and Anatotitan.


Once you’ve landed in Miles City, about 115 million years in the past, you can stop to walk along the early Cretaceous beach to pick up washed up ammonite shells and perhaps witness an ichthyosaur hunting for dinner in the waves. And still, traveling at an unfathomable one million years per mile, it won’t be until you approach Billings, arriving approximately 250 million years back in time, that the dinosaur portion of your time travel trip will be wrapping up.

When I touch the triceratops horn core on display in our dinosaur hall, I think about that long drive, what a million years really means, and marvel at the fact that our specimens have survived deep time to ultimately reside here in the museum. Incredibly, the story doesn’t end there. If you go on to our sister institution, the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, you’ll witness the first animals to walk on land, the first land plants, and the bugs that hit your windshield will be gargantuan (extra wiper fluid is recommended). And past that, if you want to travel all the way back to the formation of the planet? Your drive won’t end until you’re in Russia.

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