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A new face will be greeting visitors to Ashfall Fossil Beds this summer: A bronze sculpture of a giant tortoise.
The statue, along with a statue of two barreled-body rhinos, were installed last week to help illustrate what the fossilized creatures housed at Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park near Royal were actually like.
When one imagines what Nebraska would have been like with prehistoric creatures, many wouldn't imagine giant tortoises being apart of the wildlife. Rick Otto, Superintendent of the Ashfall Fossil Beds, said they were common to the area.
"Giant tortoises were common animals back at Ashfall time. They were local residents just like the barreled-body rhinos and the three-toed horses," he said.
As evident by the size of the sculpture, giant tortoises were indeed giant. They are closely comparable to the Galapagos giant tortoises that exist today on the Galapagos Islands off the coast of South America.
"They are just one of the many different kinds of exotic animals that lived in Nebraska long long ago. They are something that you wouldn't expect to be here, but they indeed did live here," he said.
Otto said the funding came from the Hubbard family of Omaha. The Hubbard family has been active in supporting projects at Henry Doorly Zoo, as well as helping to fund the Rhino Barn at Ashfall Fossil Beds.
Along with the sculptures, sidewalks were put in to allow the visitors to get up close with the lifelike statues.
"The sidewalks were built a couple weeks ago, so visitors can now go right up to the sculptures and climb on and interact with them," he said.
Gary Staab, the artist behind the sculptures, said the total project took just over a year to complete. Staab is a Paleoartist, which he defines as someone who takes extinct animals and makes them into sculptures for museums.
Staab grew up in Grand Island and spent his childhood years exploring Nebraska. Staab said the wildlife he encountered inspired him into this field of work.
"Exploring my family farm in Nebraska and interacting with the wildlife really made me want to explore into the natural world, and this allows a way to look back in time and get a sense of what our past was like," he said.
Otto said that the sculptures will allow visitors to have a better understanding of what prehistoric life was like in this area.
"I think this is an impressive exhibit that will help people to understand the Ashfall story a little better," he said.