A celebration last week at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science unveiled some of what scientists found hiding east of Colorado Springs: thousands of fossils illustrating how life rose from the ashes of dinosaurs.
But the first celebration was Sept. 10, 2016. “A day I’ll always remember,” Tyler Lyson said in a phone call.
For the paleontologist at the Museum of Nature and Science, the day started glum. He was with Ian Miller, the museum’s expert on prehistoric vegetation. It started like many of their days roaming the windswept badlands of Corral Bluffs, the gated preserve out on the Springs’ plains.
It started with wondering. In a long history of research here, Lyson knew of three vertebrates of some of Earth’s earliest mammals to have been found.
“You find one, there has to be more,” Lyson recalled thinking.
And he thought back to some of his digs in South Africa. There, it wasn’t about following bits of bone — easy to do at Corral Bluffs — but instead about cracking concretions, particular egg-shaped rocks.
There amid the bluffs Lyson spotted one. He took his hammer to it.
“And I could see the cross section of a mammal skull staring back at me,” he said. “I was immediately yelling at Ian. ‘I just found a skull! Get over here!’
“And he and the volunteers came running over. We just had this moment where we were all just celebrating.”
That was only the beginning.
The full collection is being described as unprecedented in the journal Science and a PBS documentary set to air Oct. 30, “Rise of the Mammals.” The new exhibit at the Museum of Nature and Science is called “After the Asteroid: Earth’s Comeback Story.”
The fossils represent “a brand-new record from this super critical period,” Miller said.
“We’ve known a tremendous amount about the extinction of the dinosaurs and how the Cretaceous (period) came to its end,” he said. “And we just haven’t had a lot of good information right after the boundary, about how the age of mammals got its start, how the age of mammals emerged 66 million years ago.”
Corral Bluffs has been a known hotbed of the K-T boundary — the time between the two dominant species. Now the site has provided an impressive picture of the first millennium post-apocalypse.
Lyson has spent 20 years searching for animals from that interval, mostly traveling around the West. He found what many have: shards of jawbones, chunks of turtle shells, crocodilian teeth.
At Corral Bluffs, the remains he uncovered started with that cranium, belonging to the carsioptychus, a piglike creature. Smaller, like a raccoon, was the loxolophus. And biggest was the eoconodon, like a wolf. They are a few of the 16 mammals Lyson and Miller found.
While Lyson recorded the size differences over hundreds of thousands of years, Miller traced the regeneration of plants and proteins over similar lengths — linking the growing bodies to budding foods fossilized in some cases steps away at Corral Bluffs.
Observers believe the findings to be a window into the beginning of our modern era. Said the University of Chicago’s Neil Shubin in a news release: “These fossils tell us about our journey as a species — how we got to be here.”
And their announcement comes at a pivotal time for the ancient graveyard.
On Nov. 12, Colorado Springs’ City Council is to decide on a land purchase that could spell long-awaited public access to Corral Bluffs. While the site has been protected since 2008, visitation has been limited to guided tours while officials have yet to plot a master plan.
Before that, they’ve sought to connect the bluffs with adjacent Jimmy Camp Creek, which entered the public trust in 1988. Some say this could be it: 295 acres identified by the city’s Trails, Open Space and Parks program that would cost $3.1 million.
In the program’s 22 years of building funds from portions of sales tax dollars, that would rank just outside its top-five most expensive buys. But this would come with the baggage of real estate — a business TOPS wasn’t established for.
Eleven homes sit across the tract, previously bought by Colorado Springs Utilities for a since-abandoned reservoir plan. Of those, most are rented by people who could be pushed out by demolition, as outlined in TOPS’ proposal. One house could become a visitor center.
“It’s hard to say exactly what will happen with each structure because we have to do further evaluation,” said TOPS Manager Britt Haley.
But many of the city’s leading parks and open space advocates have endorsed the move. With City Council’s approval, they want to see master planning launched in the next two years.
It would be the culmination of one of the city’s biggest investments in a single outdoor space. Since 2008, when the initial, horseshoe-shaped acreage of Corral Bluffs was acquired, land has been filled in to the tune of nearly $3 million.
With more ground has come more discoveries on a side of town largely overshadowed by Nor’wood Development Group. For long, advocates have feared for the mosaic amid the company’s undisclosed plans.
“I’d like some more public involvement and participation from Nor’wood,” said Bill Koerner, vice president of the Corral Bluffs Alliance. “I think this is bigger than just building houses and doing another subdivision. This is big.”
In a statement to The Gazette, Nor’wood President Chris Jenkins said the company was “very excited about what has been discovered.”
He continued: “We are dedicated to being responsible stewards of our property and believe that continuing to partner with (the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) and the City will provide for amazing park, trail, open space and more scientifically significant discoveries.”
Of the conservation task, Haley said: “It’s an enormous responsibility, and we only get one chance to get it right.”
And before gates are lifted at Corral Bluffs, there’s more research to do, she said. “I think we’ve barely scratched the surface in terms of our knowledge.”
It’s true, Lyson said. This month, he was back out there with a team, searching.
“We had one of our best weeks ever.”
Contact the writer: 636-0332