Major fossil discovery in Colorado Springs inspires documentary and exhibit at Denver Museum of Nature and Science

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Animal skull

A cranium of a Carsioptychus, uncovered at the Corral Bluffs fossil site. Photo courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

Scientists from the Denver Museum of Nature and Science discovered an extraordinary collection of fossils in Corral Bluffs open space on the east side of Colorado Springs. The fossils provide striking detail about how the world and life recovered after the catastrophic asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

 

The scientists describe it as an unprecedented find. Thousands of exceptionally preserved animal and plant fossils from the first million years after the astroid struck. 

"The course of life on Earth changed radically on a single day 66 million years ago," said Dr. Tyler Lyson, curator at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. "Blasting our planet, an asteroid triggered the extinction of three of every four kinds of organisms. While it was a really bad time for life on Earth, some things survived, including some of our earliest, earliest ancestors."

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Dr. Tyler Lyson

Dr. Tyler Lyson, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, photographed on location at the Corral Bluffs fossil site. Photo courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

Inspired by a fossil that had been sitting in a Museum drawer and fossil hunting techniques used by some of his South African colleagues, Lyson stopped looking for glinting bits of bone in the Denver Basin and instead zeroed in on egg-shaped rocks called concretions.

 

Cracking open the concretions, Lyson and Miller found wonders. Inside were skulls of mammals from the early generations of survivors of the mass extinction. Finding even a single skull from this era is a coup. In fact, most of what is understood from this era is based on tiny fragments of fossils, such as pieces of mammal teeth. “You could go your entire career and not find a skull from this period. That’s how rare they are,” said Dr. Ian Miller, the Museum’s curator of paleobotany and director of earth and space sciences.

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Dr. Ian Miller

Dr. Ian Miller, Curator of Paleobotany and Director of Earth and Space Sciences at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. Photo courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

Yet he and Lyson found four in a single day and over a dozen in a week once the fossil-searching code was cracked. “It was crazy the way it happened,” he noted. So far, they’ve found fossils from at least 16 different species of mammal.

 

“Our understanding of the asteroid’s aftermath has been spotty,” Lyson explained. “These fossils tell us for the first time how exactly our planet recovered from this global cataclysm.”

 

The find is described in a paper published in Science magazine, and is told in a new documentary called "Rise of the Mammals" that will air on PBS October 30 (check local listings) The documentary is a NOVA production byHHMI Tangled Bank Studios for WGBH Boston. There is also an exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

Corral Bluffs is more than 700 acres of open space located near Highway 94 in Colorado Springs. Access to Corral Bluffs is limited to guided hikes. Visit www.corralbluffs.org for more information on these opportunities. Beyond this the property is not open to the public.

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