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Electronic Field Trip to the Falls of the Ohio

Just beyond the Louisville skyline lies a geological and environmental treasure called the Falls of the Ohio. This area is one of the world’s largest exposed Devonian age fossil beds. Here, 265 species of bird and 125 species of fish now live in this nature preserve. On this field trip, students will:

  • visit the outer fossil beds and see the fossils of many Devonian age creatures.
  • learn how fossils are formed
  • find out how glacial actcion exposed the fossil beds and formed the Ohio River Valley
  • learn the importance of the falls to early Native Americans and eventually to the development of the Louisville area
  • see some of the animals that now call the Falls of the Ohio home
  • tour the Interpretive Center and get a behind-the-scenes look at how realistic displays were created

Grade Levels: 4-12
Resource Types: Video, handout

Electronic Field Trip to the Falls of the Ohio

An exploration of one of the world’s largest exposed Devonian-Age fossil beds, on the Ohio River near downtown Louisville, illustrates how the fossils were formed and later uncovered by glacial action. The program also takes a historical look at the importance of the falls to Native Americans of the region and to the settlement and growth of Louisville.

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Wading Through the Wetlands: Small Adventures at the Falls of the Ohio

By Larry Moore, KET Education Consultant

The water was warm, shallow, and muddy. Every so often a large fish, probably a carp or freshwater drum, would roll away from the bank almost directly under my feet. I was being careful to keep both cameras dry and using a walking stick to feel ahead of me for potholes and deep areas before stepping into them and possibly going up to my neck in the murky water. I was wading through a section of the wetlands known as the marsh and cottonwood areas, trying to capture some still pictures for the Electronic Field Trip to the Falls of the Ohio. I was really hoping to get photos of wildlife such as night herons, blue herons, great egrets, or perhaps even an osprey.

Marshland Habitat

Marshland Habitat

I was also looking for some evidence of the beavers that inhabited the area. There was little chance of actually spotting a beaver since they are nocturnal, moving about mainly at night, but it might be possible to find beaver sign such as cut saplings, or even a beaver lodge or hutch. A great egret and several blue herons took flight near where I was wading, but I wasn’t close enough or quick enough to get a good shot of any of them.

This is a piece of wood showing teeth marks where beaver have gnawed on it.

This is a piece of wood showing teeth marks where beaver have gnawed on it.

I was still enjoying my explorations however. Flowers such as Joe Pye weed, cardinal flower, wild potato vine, arrowhead, and milkweed were all in bloom.

Cardinal Flower

Cardinal Flower

Wild potato vine

Wild potato vine

Arrowhead flower

Arrowhead flower

Milkweed

Milkweed

The beautiful but invasive purple loosestrife was also in abundance. This plant is an exotic species which hurts the wetland environment by taking the place of native plants, but I had to admit its flowers were gorgeous and the butterflies seemed to like it. The butterflies were certainly in abundance too, flitting from flower to flower and lighting in the branches of the willows lining the banks.

Loosestrife plant

Loosestrife plant

Willow Habitat

Willow Habitat

I reached an area where mud and potholes made walking treacherous. I was concentrating so hard on what was under my feet that I almost missed the hornet’s nest in the small bush only about four feet in front of me! I carefully backed away to a safe distance and took a couple of pictures while thanking my lucky stars that I had looked up and seen the papery nest, instead of walking into a swarm of angry, stinging insects!

Hornet's nest

Hornet’s nest

Eventually I climbed the sandy bank into the cottonwoods to try and find one of the pond areas where there might be some beaver sign. While crossing the beach area, I noticed a small depression dug in the sand with little bits of what looked like thin dry white leather lying about. On closer inspection I noticed that the pieces of “leather” were actually the remains of turtle eggshells. An animal, probably a raccoon, had evidently decided to make himself a turtle omelet and had dug up the buried eggs.

Cottonwood leaves

Cottonwood leaves

I continued on into the grove of cottonwoods. The going quickly got rough with large piles of driftwood and thickets of willow, vines, and brambles barring the way. I came to a small clearing and almost stumbled over the skeleton of an animal that appeared to have been about as big as a medium-sized dog. The skeleton had no skull but the remains of a broad flat tail were a sure indication that I had indeed found a beaver, although not in the condition expected.

Leaving the skeleton undisturbed, I continued trying to make a path through the undergrowth. The brush was so thick, I finally gave up trying to find a way through it and returned to the waterway between the dam and the cottonwoods where I had originally been wading. Although I was trying to wade quietly, my splashing disturbed several mallard ducks and they took flight. Their silhouettes were beautiful against the pale morning sky.

As I started working my way back out of the wetlands, I reached an area of fairly clear water where the bottom could be seen and every once in a while, flashes of mother-of-pearl from broken pieces of clam and mussel shells. I also noticed fish bones and several dime-sized white round objects on the bottom. I picked up one of these objects and realized that it was what my father would have called a “lucky bone.” He called them lucky bones because they have an L shaped marking on them which people used to say stood for good luck. Back then farmers and fishermen would carry one of these bones in their pockets the same way someone else might carry a rabbit’s foot or four leaf clover. These “lucky bones” are actually inner ear bones from the skulls of fish known as drum or white perch.

"lucky bones" or inner ear bones of freshwater drum (a fish)

“lucky bones” or inner ear bones of freshwater drum (a fish)

Splashing along toward the fossil beds where most visitors to the Falls spend their time, I was struck by how alone I had felt back in this wild area, even though it was isolated by only a strip of willows and cottonwoods from what you might call civilization. I hadn’t seen a single person back in the wetlands and if it hadn’t been for the presence of the dam looming over to one side, I could almost believe I was walking in wilderness unchanged from the time when John James Audubon, the famous wildlife artist, also tried (with more success, I must add) to capture images of the birds and other wildlife that inhabited the area.

McAlpine Dam viewed from the marsh.

McAlpine Dam viewed from the marsh.

Although I walked back towards the park interpretive center with little more than wet sand-filled boots and a few shots of wildflowers, I realized I was bringing away something else from the wetlands at the Falls. It was a new appreciation of how important this environment was to the many animals that live there and an idea of what it might have felt like to explore this area hundreds of years ago, before the dams, railroad bridges, and other examples of human encroachment existed.

The KET crew video tapes field trip host Chip Polston in front of the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center.

The KET crew video tapes field trip host Chip Polston in front of the Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center.

Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center

Falls of the Ohio Interpretive Center

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A Short History of the Falls of the Ohio

The Falls of the Ohio is unique to say the least. Where else (within view of the modern Louisville skyline) can you go back over 375 million years to one of the world’s largest exposed Devonian age fossil beds? Beds that started as the floor of a shallow tropical sea when the land that is now Kentucky and Indiana was about twenty degrees south of the equator! A shifting of the earth’s continents eventually moved this part of the earth’s surface to its current location.

As geologic time passed and the continents continued to move, the climate changed, bringing several ice ages with glaciers stretching from Canada into Indiana. As the glaciers retreated, the resulting meltwater carved out the Ohio River Valley and exposed the fossil beds. These fossil bed ledges formed the Falls of the Ohio.

Ledges at the Falls

Ledges at the Falls

The Falls has played an important part in the area’s cultural history as well. The present-day communities around the Falls, including the city of Louisville, all owe their existence to this natural stopping place.

The first humans to visit the falls were early Native Americans who followed the herds of game such as bison to this area. They stayed and built their villages because of the closeness to water for drinking and transportation and the abundance of fish, game, and raw materials needed for clothing, shelter, and tools.

Native American visitors to the Falls of the Ohio used fishhooks made from bone.

Native American visitors to the Falls of the Ohio used fishhooks made from bone.

The Falls has played an important part in the area’s cultural history as well. The communities around the Falls including the current city of Louisville all owe their existence to this natural stopping place. George Rogers Clark established the first permanent English-speaking settlement in the Northwest Territory here at Corn Island in 1778. Many other people important to American history visited the area of the Falls. Some of these historical figures were Aaron Burr, William Clark (of the Lewis and Clark Expedition), and the famous wildlife artist John James Audubon. The writers Mark Twain and Walt Whitman both visited and wrote about the Falls area as well.

In 1990 the Falls of the Ohio State Park was established to preserve and protect this area and the 16,000 square foot Interpretive Center was constructed to help tell the story of this unique and fascinating natural wonder.

(This “Short History of the Falls of the Ohio” was adapted from The Falls of the Ohio State Park Map Brochure and from The Falls of the Ohio State Park Educator’s Handbook. Our thanks to the creators of these materials for granting their permission for us to use these valuable resources.)

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Habitat and Wildlife

Habitat and Wildlife Map
map

1. Pocket Prairie Habitat
Pocket Prairie Habitat
Prairie grasses have taken root in the cracks or joints in the rock ledges around the falls. In some areas these grasses–like little bluestem grass–catch enough soil around them to produce small areas of land. Then, many types of prairie plants, such as prairie mimosa, evening primrose, and tickseed sunflower may be seen blooming at various times. This habitat serves as a home for insects, small mammals, and birds.

2. Marshland Habitat
Marshland Habitat
This wetland area consists of shallow pools of water filled with aquatic plants, clams, amphibians, and fish. The pools are surrounded by wetland plants and small scrubby willow thickets. Some of the common animals that inhabit this area are birds such as ducks and herons; and mammals such as muskrat and beaver.

3. Willow Habitat
Willow Habitat
Willows are some of the first trees to take root in marshlands and sandbars. They thrive in soggy soil. As the trees multiply, their roots hold more and more soil to create areas of dry land. The willows cover these new pieces of land in very dense thickets which serve as cover for many different types of insects, amphibians, birds, and mammals.

4. Cottonwood Habitat
Cottonwood Habitat
Cottonwoods are tall trees with thick bark and heart shaped toothed leaves. They don’t mind “wet feet” and grow nicely along the banks of streams and rivers. Many times cottonwood areas get their start as seedlings springing up in willow habitats. As the cottonwoods seedlings grow, they compete with the smaller willows for sunlight and space and smother the willows out. After a while the willows are replaced by a grove of cottonwoods.

Wildlife
Bittern
Bittern resting in the marshes habitat

Beaver
Beaver in the cottonwood habitat

Invasive Exotic Species
Often, when a plant or animal that is not native to a habitat is introduced, disastrous results can happen. A non-native species can become “invasive” and grow and spread quickly–taking over and choking out the native plants and animals. This can cause changes in the environment by taking away food supplies of other plant and animal life.

Two examples are the pretty purple flower known as loosestrife and zebra mussels. Zebra mussels have become a problem in Kentucky waterways where they have taken resources away from the native mussels and clams. Zebra mussels cluster at intake pipes of water and energy plants, causing problems there.

Loosestrife
Loosestrife

Zebra Mussels
Zebra Mussels

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About the Falls of the Ohio Field Trip

Program Outline
Introduction Host Chip Polston introduces program, describes the location of the Falls and outlines plans to visit the fossil beds and then take a tour of the Interpretive Center.

Outer Beds Tour
Kenny Karem, a teacher from Louisville acts as Chip’s tour guide to the fossil beds. While on the tour Kenny and Chip:
• look at the floodgates of the McAlpine Dam and learn about the railroad bridge that crosses the river above the dam
• describe what the fossil beds looked like 375 million years ago when the area was a tropical sea
• explain how fossils are formed and how we “read” the geological record
• look at several examples of different kinds of fossils
• learn about the different kinds of wildlife that call the falls home
• learn how glaciers scoured the area and how erosion formed a natural arch in the riverbed

Falls History
Chip describes the history of the falls with accompanying video of the more important events such as:
• what the ancient sea and its inhabitants probably looked like
• the movement of glaciers across the land and other natural forces that shaped the area
• the cultural history of the area starting with the importance of the area to Native Americans
• the movement of the French and British into the area
• the roles played in the area’s history by important historic figures such as George Rogers Clark, Lewis and Clark, and John James Audubon
• the role of the steamboat and railroad to the growth of the cities around the falls
• the building of the wickets, the Portland canal, and later the McAlpine Dam
• damage done to the falls area due to human abuse
• the creation of the Falls of the Ohio State Park.

Interpretive Center Tour
Steve Knowles, property manager for the center takes Chip on a tour. During the tour they look at the following areas:
• a diorama representing 375 million years of history including models of the Devonian coral reef and a wooly mammoth skull all the way to life-like figures representing the pioneers who came to the area
• an exhibit devoted to showing what the ancient sea looked like in Devonian times
• a side trip to Terry Chase’s studios where all the dioramas and models in the museum were created
• artifacts and displays showing the lifestyle of the Native Americans who moved into the area,
• displays showing the influence of various early explorers and scientists on the area
• representations of the flora and fauna that now make their homes in the area
• a freshwater aquarium with native species of fish
• saltwater aquariums showing what a modern coral reef looks like
• the wildlife observation area where you can see birds and other wildlife through a two way mirror

Steve talks with Chip about career opportunities and they exit the Interpretive Center. Chip continues to interview Steve about the history and purpose of the park with an emphasis on environmental education on both the local and global levels.

We see a visual review of the subjects covered during the program. Chip wraps up the program and invites everyone to come explore in person.

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Falls of the Ohio State Park Educator's Handbook

Download the Falls of the Ohio State Park Educator’s Handbook (pdf). It includes hands-on activities, background materials, a glossary, and bibliography.

Scavenger Hunt

Have your students follow this scavenger hunt as they watch the program
Here is a printable version of the Scavenger Hunt

  1. What was the name of the geological period in which the tropical sea covered this area?
  2. What fossil resembles something a bee might make?
  3. In the column of rock that Kenny showed us, which rocks were oldest–the ones toward the bottom or toward the top?
  4. What fossil animal closely resembled the Asiatic clam that Kenny showed us?
  5. What force of nature polished many of the rock ledges and actually carved out the Ohio River Valley?
  6. How was the natural arch created?
  7. What form of transportation did Native Americans use for river travel?
  8. Who was the explorer who started the first permanent English-speaking settlement on Corn Island?
  9. What famous artist painted pictures of the wildlife around the falls?
  10. What were the 58 sets of wood and metal dams along the Ohio River called?
  11. What was the name of the dam built in 1964?
  12. What was Dunkleosteus?
  13. What fossils did early explorers think were actually horns from buffalo?
  14. How tall were the glaciers that carved out the Ohio River Valley?
  15. What wading bird with red eyes do many bird watchers come to the falls to see?

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Links

Falls of the Ohio State Park

Virtual tour of the fossil beds

Falls of the Ohio State Park Educators Page

Kentucky Paleontological Society

The Kentucky Geological Survey site includes a timeline and description of the geology of Kentucky.

Geologic Time is an online tour of Earth’s geologic history from the University of California-Berkeley.

Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Great Lakes and Ohio River Division

Google Satellite Map of the Falls of the Ohio park, near the McAlpine Dam

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