Thursday, October 24, 2019

Denver scientists make "unprecedented" fossil finds at Corral Bluffs open space

Posted By on Thu, Oct 24, 2019 at 3:02 PM

click to enlarge Dr. Ian Miller, left, curator of paleobotany at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and Dr. Tyler Lyson, the Museum's curator of vertebrate paleontology, look for fossil concretions at the Corral Bluffs open space on Colorado Springs' northeast rim. - PHOTOS AND COMPUTER GENERATING IMAGES BY HHMI TANGLED BANK STUDIOS
  • Photos and computer generating images by HHMI Tangled Bank Studios
  • Dr. Ian Miller, left, curator of paleobotany at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, and Dr. Tyler Lyson, the Museum's curator of vertebrate paleontology, look for fossil concretions at the Corral Bluffs open space on Colorado Springs' northeast rim.
Colorado Springs' and El Paso County's Corral Bluffs open space has opened a new world of ancient discoveries for a pair of scientists with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

As the museum said in a release, Dr. Tyler Lyson, curator of vertebrate paleontology and lead author of a Science magazine paper on the discoveries, and Dr. Ian Miller, the Museum’s curator of paleobotany and director of earth and space sciences, led the team that announced the discovery.

The team reveals in striking detail how the world and life recovered after the catastrophic asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago. The findings are described in a peer-reviewed scientific paper in Science. It outlines the unprecedented find, which includes thousands of exceptionally preserved animal and plant fossils from the critical first million years after the catastrophe and "shines a revelatory light on how life emerged from Earth’s darkest hour," the release said.
click to enlarge A computer generated image of an ancient Loxolophus mammal taken from the PBS NOVA special, Rise of the Mammals. In this recreation, Loxolophus scavenges for food in the palm dominated forests found within the first 300,000 years after the dinosaur extinction.
  • A computer generated image of an ancient Loxolophus mammal taken from the PBS NOVA special, Rise of the Mammals. In this recreation, Loxolophus scavenges for food in the palm dominated forests found within the first 300,000 years after the dinosaur extinction.
From the release:
In addition to the paper published in Science magazine, the story of the discovery is told in a new documentary, ”Rise of the Mammals,” a NOVA production by HHMI Tangled Bank Studios for WGBH Boston, that will stream online beginning today at (https://www.pbs.org/nova/video/rise-of-the-mammals/) across PBS platforms and mobile apps and will broadcast nationally on PBS Oct. 30 at 9 p.m. EDT/8 p.m. CDT (check local listings).

“Thanks to the expertise, vision and grit of the scientific team, we are gaining a clearer understanding of how our modern world of mammals arose from the ashes of the dinosaurs,” said George Sparks, the Museum’s President and CEO. “We hope that this story inspires people – especially future generations – to follow their curiosity and contemplate the big questions our world presents to us.”

“The course of life on Earth changed radically on a single day 66 million years ago,” said Lyson. “Blasting our planet, an asteroid triggered the extinction of three of every four kinds of living organisms. While it was a really bad time for life on Earth, some things survived, including some of our earliest, earliest ancestors.”

“These fossils tell us about our journey as a species – how we got to be here,” said Dr. Neil Shubin, a paleontologist at the University of Chicago who was not involved in the discovery.
During the summer of 2016, dinosaur-hunter Lyson stopped looking for glinting bits of bone in the Denver Basin and instead zeroed in on egg-shaped rocks called concretions.
click to enlarge A computer image of an ancient Taeniolabis mammal taken from the PBS NOVA special, Rise of the Mammals.
  • A computer image of an ancient Taeniolabis mammal taken from the PBS NOVA special, Rise of the Mammals.
“It was absolutely a light bulb moment. That was the game changer,” he said in the release.

When the concretions were cracked open, Lyson and Miller found skulls of mammals from the early generations of survivors of the mass extinction, the release said, noting that finding a single skull from this era is unusual, but in a single day, the pair found four and more than a dozen in a week. So far, they've found fossils from at least 16 different species of mammal.

More from the release:
The Denver Basin site also adds powerful evidence to the idea that the recovery and evolution of plants and animals were intricately linked after the asteroid impact. Combining a remarkable fossil plant record with the discovery of the fossil mammals has allowed the team to link millennia-long warming spells to global events, including massive amounts of volcanism on the Indian subcontinent. These events may have shaped the ecosystems half a world away.
click to enlarge A cranium of a new species of Loxolophus uncovered at the Corral Bluffs fossil site.
  • A cranium of a new species of Loxolophus uncovered at the Corral Bluffs fossil site.
“It was only after the meteor impact wiped out the dinosaurs that mammals explode into the breathtaking diversity of forms we see today,” says Professor Anjali Goswami, a paleobiologist at the Natural History Museum, London, who was not involved in the discovery.

“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.”

Additional collaborators include:
David Krause, James Hagadorn, Antoine Bercovici, Farley Fleming, Ken Weissenburger, Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Stephen Chester, Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY)
William Clyde and Anthony Fuentes, University of New Hampshire
Greg Wilson, University of Washington
Kirk Johnson and Rich Barclay, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution
Matthew Butrim, Wesleyan University
Gussie Maccracken, University of Maryland
Ben Lloyd, Colorado College

The Museum worked with the United States Geological Survey’s National Unmanned Aircraft Systems Project to gather high-resolution images.

The NOVA program is slated to air Oct. 30, but check local listings for the exact time or visit pbs.org/nova.

Corral Bluffs is open for scheduled hikes but is not open to the public on a day-to-day basis.

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