Tanis (fossil site)

Tanis is a site of paleontological interest in southwestern North Dakota, United States. Tanis is part of the heavily studied Hell Creek Formation, a group of rocks spanning four states in North America renowned for many significant fossil discoveries from the Upper Cretaceous and lower Paleocene. Tanis is a significant site because it appears to record the events from the first minutes until a few hours after the impact of the giant Chicxulub asteroid in extreme detail. This impact, which struck the Gulf of Mexico 66.043 million years ago, wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and many other species (the so-called "K-Pg" or "K-T" extinction). The extinction event caused by this impact paved the way for the domination of the Earth by mammals, including human beings.

Photograph of the site taken in 2019


Various fossils from the Tanis site

The site was originally discovered in 2008 by University of North Georgia Professor Steve Nicklas and field paleontologist Rob Sula. Their team successfully removed fossil field jackets that contained articulated sturgeons, paddlefish, and bowfins. These fossils were delivered for research to the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. Recognizing the unique nature of the site, Nicklas and Sula brought in Robert DePalma, a University of Kansas graduate student, to perform additional excavations. The site was systematically excavated by Robert DePalma over several years beginning in 2012, working in near total secrecy.[1]: pg.11  Key findings were presented in two conference papers in October 2017.[2][3] The full paper introducing Tanis was widely covered in worldwide media on 29 March 2019, in advance of its official publication three days later. The co-authors included Walter Alvarez and Jan Smit, both renowned experts on the K-Pg impact and extinction. Other papers describing the site and its fossils are in progress.

At Tanis, unlike any other known Lagerstätte site, it appears freak circumstances allowed for the preservation of exquisite, moment-by-moment details caused by the impact event. These include many rare and unique finds, which allow unprecedented examination of the direct effects of the impact on plants and animals alive at the time of the large impact some 3,000 km (1,900 mi) distant. The events at Tanis occurred far too soon after impact to be caused by the megatsunamis expected from any large impact near large bodies of water. Instead, much faster seismic waves from the massive magnitude 10 – 11.5 earthquakes[1]: p.8  probably reached the Hell Creek area as soon as ten minutes after the impact, creating seiche waves between 10–100 m (33–328 ft) high in the Western Interior Seaway.[1]: p.8  The site formed part of a bend in an ancient river on the westward shore of the seaway,[1]: p.8192 [4]: pp.5, 6, 23  and was flooded with great force by these waves, which carried sea, land, freshwater animals and plants, and other debris several miles inland. The seiche waves exposed and covered the site twice, as millions of tiny droplets and debris from the impact were arriving on ballistic trajectories from their source in what is now the Yucatán Peninsula.

As of April 2019, reported findings include:

  • animals and plant material preserved in three-dimensional detail and at times upright, rather than pressed flat as usual, their remains thrown together by the massive wave movements
  • articulated and cartilaginous salt and freshwater fish and marine reptiles found together miles inland, with many microtektites (molten debris particles from the impact) embedded in their gills as they tried to breathe
  • millions of "near perfect" primary (that is, not reworked) microtektites "almost indistinguishable" in chemical composition from previously reported Chicxulub tektites found buried contemporaneous to the fossils in their own impact holes in the soft riverbed mud, and also preserved in amber on tree trunks
  • large primitive feathers 30–40 cm long with 3.5 mm quills believed to come from large dinosaurs
  • broken remains from almost all known Hell Creek dinosaur groups

and some incredibly rare finds, such as:

  • fossils of hatchlings and intact eggs with embryo fossils
  • fossil pterosaurs for which no other fossils exist at that time
  • drowned ant nests with ants inside and chambers filled with asteroid debris, and
  • tiny inhabited burrows from some of the first mammals in the area after the impact

The hundreds of fish remains are distributed by size, and generally show evidence of tetany (a body posture related to suffocation in fish), suggesting strongly that they were all killed indiscriminately by a common suffocating cause that affected the entire population. Fragile remains spanning the layers of debris show that the site was laid down in a single event over a short timespan. A Triceratops or other ceratopsian ilium (hip bone) was found at the high water mark, in circumstances hinting that the dinosaur might speculatively have been a floating carcass and possibly alive at or just before impact,[5] but the paper describing such remains was still in progress as of 2019[6] – the initial papers only include a photograph and its location within Tanis.[1]: figure S29 pg.53  In 2022, a partial mummified Thescelosaurus was unearthed here with its skin still intact.[7]

The exceptional nature of the findings and conclusions have led some scientists to await further scrutiny by the scientific community before agreeing that the discoveries at Tanis have been correctly understood.[8] The site continues to be explored.


The K-Pg extinction eventEdit

Chicxulub crater
Tanis (approx.)
Chicxulub crater
Tanis (approx.)
Location of Tanis and of the Chicxulub crater
Left: present day, Right: at impact 65 million years ago
(Note: Some media publications[9] incorrectly show Tanis on the Eastern shore.
In fact it was located on the Western shore as above)
K-Pg boundary sample from Wyoming. The intermediate claystone layer contains 1000 times more iridium than the upper and lower layers (San Diego Natural History Museum).

The Cretaceous–Paleogene ("K-Pg" or "K-T") extinction event around 66 million years ago wiped out all non-avian dinosaurs and many other species. Proposed by Luis and Walter Alvarez, it is now widely accepted that the extinction was caused by a huge asteroid or bolide that impacted Earth in the shallow seas of the Gulf of Mexico, leaving behind the Chicxulub crater.[10][11] The impactor tore through the earth's crust, creating huge earthquakes, giant waves, and a crater 180 kilometers (112 mi) wide, and blasted aloft trillions of tons of dust, debris, and climate-changing sulfates from the gypsum seabed, and it may have created firestorms worldwide. With the exception of some ectothermic species such as the ancestors of the modern leatherback sea turtle and crocodiles, no tetrapods weighing more than 25 kg (55 lb) survived.[12] It marked the end of the Cretaceous period and the Mesozoic Era, opening the Cenozoic Era that continues today.

However, because it is rare in any case for animals and plants to be fossilized, the fossil record leaves some major questions unanswered. One of these is whether dinosaurs were already declining at the time of the event due to ongoing volcanic climate change. Also, there is little evidence on the detailed effects of the event on Earth and its biosphere. No fossil beds were yet known that could clearly show the details that might resolve these questions. There is considerable detail for times greater than hundreds of thousands of years either side of the event, and for certain kinds of change on either side of the K-Pg boundary layer. But relatively little fossil evidence is available from times nearer the crucial event, a difficulty known as the "Three metre problem".

Hell Creek FormationEdit

The Hell Creek Formation is a well-known and much-studied fossil-bearing formation (geological region) of mostly Upper Cretaceous and some lower Paleocene rock, that stretches across portions of Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming in North America. The formation is named for early studies at Hell Creek, located near Jordan, Montana, and it was designated as a National Natural Landmark in 1966.[13]

The formation contains a series of fresh and brackish-water clays, mudstones, and sandstones deposited during the Maastrichtian and Danian (respectively, the end of the Cretaceous and the beginning of the Paleogene periods) by fluvial activity in fluctuating river channels and deltas and very occasional peaty swamp deposits along the low-lying eastern continental margin fronting the late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway. The iridium-enriched Cretaceous–Paleogene boundary, which separates the Cretaceous from the Cenozoic, is distinctly visible as a discontinuous thin marker above and occasionally within the formation. Numerous famous fossils of plants and animals, including many types of dinosaur fossils, have been discovered there.[citation needed]

At the time of the Chicxulub impact, the present-day North American continent was still forming. Most of central North America had recently been a large shallow seaway, called the Western Interior Seaway (also known as the North American Sea or the Western Interior Sea), and parts were still submerged. This had initially been a seaway between separate continents, but it had narrowed in the late Cretaceous to become, in effect, a large inland extension to the Gulf of Mexico. The Hell Creek Formation was at this time very low-lying or partly submerged land at the northern end of the seaway, and the Chicxulub impact occurred in the shallow seas at the southern end, approximately 3,050 km (1,900 mi) from the site.[1]: p.8 

Although Tanis and Chicxulub were connected by the remaining Interior Seaway, the massive water waves from the impact area were probably not responsible for the deposits at Tanis. Any water-borne waves would have arrived between 18 and 26 hours later,[1]: p.24  long after the microtektites had already fallen back to earth, and far too late to leave the geological record found at the site. It is not even clear whether the massive waves were able to traverse the entire Interior Seaway.[1]: p.8  Instead, the initial papers on Tanis conclude that much faster earthquake waves, the primary waves travelling through rock at about 5 km/s (11,000 mph),[1]: p.8  probably reached Hell Creek within six minutes, and quickly caused massive water surges known as seiches in the shallow waters close to Tanis.[1]: p.8  Seiche waves often occur shortly after significant earthquakes, even thousands of miles away, and can be sudden and violent. Some recent examples include the 1964 Alaskan earthquake (seiches in Puerto Rico),[14] the 1950 Assam-Tibet earthquake (India/China) (seiches in England and Norway), the 2010 Chile earthquake (seiches in Louisiana). Notably, the powerful magnitude 9.0 – 9.1 Tōhoku earthquake in 2011, slower secondary waves traveled over 8,000 km (5,000 mi) in less than 30 minutes to cause seiches around 1.5–1.8 m (4.9–5.9 ft) high in Norway.[15][1]: p.8 

The Chicxulub impact is believed to have triggered earthquakes estimated at magnitude 10 – 11.5,[1]: p.8  releasing up to 4000 times the energy of the Tohoku quake.[note 1] Co-author Mark Richards, a professor of earth sciences focusing on dynamic earth crust processes[16] suggests that the resulting seiche waves would have been approximately 10–100 m (33–328 ft) high in the Western Interior Seaway near Tanis[1]: p.8  and credibly, could have created the 10 – 11 m (33 – 36 feet) high water movements evidenced inland at the site; the time taken by the seismic waves to reach the region and cause earthquakes almost exactly matched the flight time of the microtektites found at the site.[17] This would resolve conflicting evidence that huge water movements had occurred in the Hell Creek region near Tanis much less than an hour after impact, although the first megatsunamis from the impact zone could not have arrived at the site for almost a full day.

Robert DePalmaEdit

Robert DePalma (left) speaks about the fossil evidence at the Goddard Space Flight Center

Robert DePalma is a paleontologist with an M.A. in geology,[18] the curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History,[18] and a doctoral student[17] in paleontology at the University of Kansas.[5] He has published several discoveries,[18] including a 2010 paper presenting the first known amber-trapped insect fossils from Hell Creek,[19] and a 2013 paper presenting a tyrannosaur tooth embedded in a hadrosaur tail, most likely belonging to Tyrannosaurus and Edmontosaurus annectens respectively, showing that tyrannosaurs were indeed hunters rather than pure scavengers – a controversy at the time.[5][20] On the other hand, a published paper was criticized in 2015 and corrected in 2016, after other scientists noticed that in his reconstruction of a new species he called Dakotaraptor, he had included turtle entoplastron (armor) fragments in error, taking them to be part of the fossilized furculum.[21][22][5] As a result, some paleontologists felt that he might be prone to "over-interpret".[5]

Co-author Professor Phillip Manning, a specialist in fossil soft tissues,[23] described DePalma's working techniques at Tanis as "meticulous" and "borderline archaeological in his excavation approach".[8]

In 2004, DePalma was studying a small site in the well-known Hell Creek Formation, containing numerous layers of thin sediment, creating a geological record of great detail. His advisor suggested seeking a similar site, closer to the K-Pg boundary layer.[5] The original discoverers of the site (Rob Sula and Steve Nicklas), who worked the site for several years, recognized its scientific importance and offered it to DePalma as he had some previous experience with working on fish sites. The site lacked the fine sediment layers he was initially looking for. Instead, the layers had never fully solidified, the fossils at the site were fragile, and everything appeared to have been laid down in a single large flood.[5]

Discovery and exploration of 'Tanis'Edit

Tanis location, schematic layout, and photo, showing: (1) Impact event deposits, covering (2) the slope of a prograding point bar of a river meander (bend). (3) Densest accumulations of fossil carcasses. (4) K-Pg boundary tonstein which directly overlays the impact deposit, and (5) directly overlays the adjacent river overbank. (6) location of Brooke Butte, the closest K-Pg outcrop to Tanis.

Inset: Tanis at time of impact. The site is some miles from a large inland sea connected to the Gulf of Mexico.

From DePalma et al. 2019

DePalma began excavating systematically in 2012[1]: 11  and quickly found the site to contain very unusual and promising features. Everything he found had been covered so quickly that details were exceptionally well preserved, and the fossils as a whole formed a very unusual collection – fish fins and complete fish, tree trunks with amber, fossils in upright rather than squashed flat positions, hundreds or thousands of cartilaginous fully articulated freshwater paddlefish, sturgeon and even saltwater mosasaurs which had ended up on the same mudbank miles inland (only about four fossilized fish were previously known from the entire Hell Creek formation), fragile body parts such as complete and intact tails, ripped from the seafish's bodies and preserved inland in a manner that suggested they were covered almost immediately after death, and – everywhere – millions of tiny spheres of glassy material known as microtektites, the result of tiny splatters of molten material reaching the ground.[5] The microtektites were present and concentrated in the gills of about 50% of the fossilized fish, in amber, and buried in the small pits in the mud which they had made when they contemporaneously impacted.[5] The fish were not bottom feeders. They had breathed in early debris that fell into water, in the seconds or minutes before death.[24] The sediment appeared to have liquefied and covered the deposited biota, then quickly solidified, preserving much of the contents in three dimensions.[24]

Later discoveries included large primitive feathers 30–40 cm long with 3.5 mm quills believed to come from large dinosaurs; broken remains from almost all known Hell Creek dinosaur groups, including some incredibly rare hatchling and intact egg with embryo fossils; fossil pterosaurs for which no other fossils exist at that time; drowned ant nests with ants inside and chambers filled with asteroid debris; and burrows of small mammals living at the site immediately after the impact.[5] Analysis of early samples showed that the microtektites at Tanis were almost identical to those found at the Mexican impact site, and were likely to be primary deposits (directly from the impact) and not reworked (moved from their original location by later geological processes).[1]

DePalma quickly began to suspect that he had stumbled upon a monumentally important and unique site – not just "near" the K-Pg boundary, but a unique killing field that precisely captured the first minutes and hours after impact, when the K-Pg boundary was created, along with an unprecedented fossil record of creatures and plants that died on that day, as well as material directly from the impact itself, in circumstances that allowed exceptional preservation.

When I saw [microtektites in their own impact craters], I knew this wasn’t just any flood deposit. We weren’t just near the KT boundary. This whole site is the KT boundary ... We have the whole KT event preserved in these sediments. With this deposit, we can chart what happened the day the Cretaceous died.

— Robert DePalma[5]

It is truly a magnificent site ... surely one of the best sites ever found for telling just what happened on the day of the impact.

— Walter Alvarez[5]

By 2013, he was still studying the site, which he named "Tanis" after the ancient Egyptian city of the same name,[5] and had told only three close colleagues about it.[5] Secrecy about Tanis was maintained until disclosed by DePalma and co-author Jan Smit in two short summary papers presented in October 2017,[2][3] which remained the only public information before widespread media coverage of the full prepublication paper on 29 March 2019.[25]

Site detailsEdit

This section is drawn from the original 2019 paper[1] and its supplementary materials,[4] which describe the site in detail. Page numbers in this section refer to those papers.
The Tanis river

The site was originally a point bar - a gently sloped crescent-shaped area of deposit that accumulates on the inside bend of streams and rivers below the slip-off slope. Point bars are common in mature or meandering streams. DePalma gave the name Tanis to both the site and the river. From the size of the deposits beneath the flood debris, the Tanis River was a "deep and large" river with a point bar that was towards the larger size found in Hell's Creek, suggesting a river tens or hundreds of meters wide.[1]: p.8192  The river flowed Eastward (other than impact driven waves),[1]: p.8192  with inland being to the West; Tanis itself was therefore in an ancient river valley close to the Westward shore of the Interior Seaway.[1]: Fig.1 and p.9181-8192  Although other flooding is evidenced in Hells Creek, the Tanis deposit does not appear to relate to any other Marine transgression (inland shoreline movement) known to have taken place.[1]: p.8193  The original paper describes the river in technical detail:[1]: Fig.1 and p.9181-8193 

  • "the fluctuating, reticulated terminal-Cretaceous shoreline was not far away from the Tanis region"
  • "The Event Deposit is a 1.3-m-thick bed that shows an overall grading upward from coarse sand to fine silt/clay and is associated with a deeply incised, large meandering river ... [and] sharply overlies the aggrading surface of a point bar..."
  • "the point bar exhibits ∼10.5 m of isochronous elevation change along its inclined surface and its width extends <50 m perpendicular to (ancient) flow direction. These dimensions are in the upper size range for point bars in the Hell Creek Formation and compare favorably with ... modern rivers with large channels that are tens to hundreds of meters wide"
  • "[The Event flood deposits are] indicative of a westward or inland flow direction that is opposite of the natural (ancient) current of the ... Tanis River"
  • "[The] Event Deposit is restricted to (an ancient) river valley and is conspicuously absent from the adjacent floodplains."
  • "Tanis exhibits a depositional scenario that was unusual in being highly conducive to exceptional (largely three dimensional) preservation of many articulated carcasses (Konservat-Lagerstätte). Such Konservat-Lagerstätten are rare ... because they require special depositional circumstances. Tanis is the only known site in the Hell Creek Formation where such conditions were met, [so] the deposit attests to the exceptional nature of the [Event]. The findings each preclude correlation with either the Cantapeta or Breien marine incursions (inland-directed floodings) ... the Tanis Event Deposit cannot be correlated with the known Hell Creek marine transgressions."
The Event Deposit

The deposit itself is about 1.3m thick, sharply overlaying the point bar, in a drape-like manner. It comprises two layers with sand and silt grading (coarse sands at the bottom, finer silt/clay particles at the top). It can be divided into two layers, a bottom layer about 0.5m thick ("unit 1"), and a top layer about 0.8m thick (unit 2), capped by a 1 - 2 cm layer of impactite tonstein that is indistinguishable from other dual layered KPg impact ejection materials found in Hells Creek, and finally a layer around 6 cm thick of plant remains. The excavated pointbar and event deposits show that the point bar had been exposed to the air for a considerable time, with evidence of habitation and filled burrows, before an abrupt, turbulent, high energy event filled these burrows and laid down the deposits. The event included waves with at least 10 meters run-up height (the vertical distance a wave travels after it reaches land).


Initial papers at GSA Conference, 2017Edit

Eighteen months before publication of the peer-reviewed PNAS paper in 2019[1] DePalma and his colleagues presented two conference papers on fossil finds at Tanis on 23 October 2017 at the annual meeting of the Geological Society of America. Jan Smit first presented a paper describing the Tanis site, its association with the K-Pg boundary event and associated fossil discoveries, including the presence of glass spherules from the Chicxulub impact clustered in the gill rakers of acipenciform fishes and also found in amber.[3] DePalma then presented a paper describing excavation of a burrow created by a small mammal that had been made "immediately following the K-Pg impact" at Tanis.[2]

PNAS Paper published in 2019: Prepublication and authorshipEdit

A paper documenting Tanis was released as a prepublication on 1 April 2019.[1] Simultaneous media disclosure had been intended via the New Yorker, but the magazine learned that a rival newspaper had heard about the story, and asked permission to publish early to avoid being scooped by waiting until the paper was published.[26] The discovery received widespread media coverage from 29 March 2019.[27]

DePalma's co-authors include Jan Smit (retired paleontologist and world authority[28][29][5] on the K-Pg impact and its tektites) and Walter Alvarez (professor, recipient of numerous prestigious awards, and co-developer with his Nobel Laureate father of the K-Pg impact theory, sometimes called the Alvarez hypothesis). Other authors are his advisor David Burnham, Klaudia Kuiper (professor of geochronology focusing on chronology of the late Cretaceous [30]), Phillip Manning (professor of natural sciences, specialist in soft tissue scanning [23]), Anton Oleinik (associate professor geosciences, specializing in Cenozoic periods of change and stratigraphy [31]), Peter Larson (paleontologist and fossil collector), Florentin Maurrasse (professor specializing in stratigraphy and biostratigraphy, and the K-Pg boundary in the Caribbean [32]), Johan Vellekoop (postdoctoral researcher, published on microfossil record of the Chicxulub impactor[33]), Mark Richards (professor earth and planetary sciences, focus on earth crust tectonic and dynamic processes[16]), and Loren Gurche (a colleague at the Palm Beach Museum of Natural History). A wide range of other people are credited with analysis, specific studies, and other contributions.

As of April 2019, several other papers were stated to be in preparation, with further papers anticipated by DePalma and co-authors, and some by visiting researchers.[34]

This fossil fish from Tanis shows microtektites (molten splattered glass droplets) that are a chemical match for ejecta from the Chicxulub asteroid crater. The microtektites are concentrated in large numbers in the gill rakers of approximately 50% of the sturgeon and paddlefish fossils, and show that the fish were alive when the impact occurred.

2021 and 2022 papersEdit

Three papers were published in 2021. The first two were conference papers presented in January of that year.[35] The last was published in December in Scientific Reports.

The first documents a turtle fossil found at Tanis, killed by impalement by a tree branch, and found in the upper of two units of surge deposit, bracketed by ejecta. This further evidences the violent nature of the event.[36][37][38][39] The second draws on "patterns of growth history, including periodicity of ẟ18O and ẟ13C and growth band morphology, plus corroborating data from fish ontogeny and seasonal insect behavior" to show that "the impact occurred during boreal Spring/Summer, shortly after the spawning season for fish and most continental taxa".[40]

The Scientific Reports paper, published December 2021, builds on the two previous 2021 papers. It suggests that the Chicxulub impact occurred in late Spring or early Summer, based on analysis of fish bone growth rings and insect development in specimens recovered at the Tanis site.[40]

A further paper was also published in Nature February 2022, by a separate team. It studied the fish skeletons found at Tanis, and identified annual cyclical changes, which corroborated the conclusion in the 2021 paper, that the impact had occurred in spring, a timing which affected the surviving species.[41]

Other mediaEdit

A BBC documentary on Tanis, titled Dinosaurs: The Final Day, with Sir David Attenborough, was broadcast on 15 April 2022. This program was also aired as "Dinosaur Apocalypse: The Last Day" on PBS Nova starting 11 May 2022.[42][43]


  1. ^ If two earthquakes have moment magnitudes M1 and M2, then the energy released by the second earthquake is about 101.5 x (M2M1) times as much at the first. (Formula and details)
    The 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami was estimated at magnitude 9.1, so the energy released by the Chicxulub earthquakes, estimated at up to magnitude 11.5, may have been up to 101.5 x (11.5 – 9.1)=3981 times larger. The 1960 Valdivia Chile earthquake was the most powerful ever recorded, estimated at magnitude 9.4 to 9.6. Using the same formula, the Chicxulub earthquakes may have released up to 1412 times as much energy as the Chile event.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w DePalma, Robert A.; Smit, Jan; Burnham, David A.; Kuiper, Klaudia; Manning, Phillip L.; Oleinik, Anton; Larson, Peter; Maurrasse, Florentin J.; Vellekoop, Johan; Richards, Mark A.; Gurche, Loren; Alvarez, Walter (23 April 2019). "A seismically induced onshore surge deposit at the KPg boundary, North Dakota". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 116 (17): 8190–8199. Bibcode:2019PNAS..116.8190D. doi:10.1073/pnas.1817407116. PMC 6486721. PMID 30936306.
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External linksEdit

Supporting material and analysis for above paper (2019) - Public readable version, containing supplementary text, analysis, and data referred to in the main paper