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WWU exhibits show minerals, fossils of Washington state

Fossilized crabs, found near Neah Bay, are part of an exhibit on the first floor of the Environmental Studies building at Western Washington University.
Fossilized crabs, found near Neah Bay, are part of an exhibit on the first floor of the Environmental Studies building at Western Washington University. The Bellingham Herald

Washington state has a complex and fascinating geological history, going back more than 1 billion years, when some of the oldest rocks in the region were formed, according to Burke Museum publication “Northwest Origins.”

Northwest Washington remains one of the most dynamic areas of the planet geologically — with earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, landslides and flooding among the powerful natural forces that shape the land.

Scientific exhibits open free to the public at Western Washington University illustrate that history with displays of rocks, minerals, fossils and prehistoric bones collected over several decades. They’re on the ground floor and the first and second floors of the Environmental Studies Building, in the central part of campus south of Red Square.

It’s like a mini-museum, with displays that include mineral crystals, mammoth teeth and fossilized plant leaves, along with interpretive exhibits that highlight coal mining in Whatcom County and show some of the tools and equipment that scientists use to study the Earth. There’s even a seismograph and seismometer.

“It’s a really cool, little-known resource,” said Holly Roger of Wild Whatcom, an outdoor educational organization.

Possibly the most fascinating display is a four-foot slab of sedimentary rock containing the three-toed footprint of a diatryma, a giant flightless bird from the Eocene Period, some 34 million to 56 million years ago. It was discovered in sedimentary rock that shook loose in a landslide several years ago near Racehorse Creek in the Mount Baker foothills. The slab was airlifted by helicopter to WWU.

Diatryma’s footprint is just inside the front door on the first floor when entering from the north side of the building. Offices and classrooms may be filled with students and researchers, but don’t be afraid to roam the hallways to examine the displays. Take the elevator to the ground floor to see scientific tools and to the second floor, where there are more displays.

Environmental Studies is open daily from 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and until 6 p.m. Saturday and 11:30 p.m. Sunday when classes are in session.

Reach Robert Mittendorf at 360-756-2805 or robert.mittendorf@bellinghamherald.com. Tweeting @DressLikeADuck.

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