Colorado, it turns out, has perhaps the best fossil beds in the world for discovering what happened in the million years after the asteroid collision wiped out all the large dinosaurs, leaving mammals to rise in dominance. As you can imagine, this being a column mostly about politics rather than science, I’ll have some broader lessons to draw from this in a bit.
Our story begins in 1999, when a teenager and rock-hound named Tyler Lyson made an extraordinary discovery on his family’s property in North Dakota. According to National Geographic, Lyson found a dinosaur fossil “with much of its tissues and bones still encased in an uncollapsed envelope of skin.” This find led Kirk Johnson, Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History and formerly a paleontologist at our own Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS), to call Lyson the “wunderkind.”
As you might predict, Lyson making national news for his “dinosaur mummy” didn’t hurt his college prospects, and he went from Swarthmore to earn his doctorate from Yale. After a stint at the Smithsonian, Lyson came to DMNS in 2014. There, he made another extraordinary discovery, not in the field, but in the storage lockers of the museum.
Years before, Sharon Milito, a volunteer with the museum working Corral Bluffs outside of Colorado Springs, had found a rock with mammal teeth sticking out of it. At the time, people thought it was so cool that it sat around collecting dust for years.
But when Lyson pulled out this ancient rock in 2016 he had an idea: Maybe more egg-shaped “concretions” in the area also contained interesting fossils. So Lyson and his paleobotanist buddy Ian Miller (now at National Geographic) went looking. “Seek and you shall find” applied in this case. Lyson described Corral Bluffs as the bed “that keeps on giving.”
As the paper summarizes, this “new record from the Cretaceous-Paleogene in Colorado . . . includes unusually complete vertebrate and plant fossils that describe this event in detail, including the recovery and expansion of mammalian body size and increasing plant and animal biotic diversity within the first million years.”
The asteroid killed almost all life on land and wiped out the majority of plant and animal species. Then, I gather, small mammals roamed around as ferns took over, then mammals got bigger as nut-bearing trees and then legume-bearing plants and trees took over. Basically, mammals got bigger as their plant proteins became easier to find. So Lyson and Miller complimented each other nicely as they pieced together the puzzle of coevolving plants and animals during this period. Now Lyson continues his work with the museum’s new paleobotanist, Gussie Maccracken.
Earlier this month, I attended a museum viewing of a new French-made documentary about work on this amazing fossil bed. Hopefully this film will become widely available in the U.S. soon. It was super-cool to see Milito, the volunteer who found the original fossil, in the audience, where she earned a round of applause.
The film contrasts the rapid changes in plant and land animal life with the slower changes among turtles and crocodilians. Lyson described the difference in terms of these water-based animals having a relatively easier time making it through the extinction event.
As promised, I’m going to draw some broader lessons.
First, a discovery such as this involves both individual initiative and great collaboration. Lyson said he and a colleague were looking to do something very important to science, and of course make a name for themselves in the process. Yet Lyson and Miller never could have completed this work alone; they worked with a large international team. The Science paper lists fourteen other contributors. As the new documentary recounts, they also worked with many others at the museum, land holders, an imaging team at Lockheed Martin, and a team of geologists who mapped the site with drones.
Second, the broader universe does not care about life on Earth. A larger asteroid might have wiped out mammals across the board. Much later, early humans nearly went extinct. But unlike other species, we have an extraordinary capacity to understand the world and universe around us. Hence, our future is largely in our own hands. But we are also capable of extraordinary delusion, and we have the ability to create our own extinction event, or at least make life very difficult for ourselves. So hearing Lauren Boebert and others joyously proclaim “we are in the last of the last days” makes me worry that such prophesies might become self-fulfilling.
Congratulations to Lyson and his team at DMNS and their many colleagues around the world for bringing to light these amazing Colorado discoveries. Go ahead and cheer on the Broncos and Colorado’s other sports teams. But save some applause for Colorado’s scientists who are advancing the ways we think about our world.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.
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