Three former CC students involved in an extraordinary fossil discovery

Ben Lloyd ’19 working with the NOVA team in the field.

Three Colorado College alumni – one of whom won CC’s Spirit of Adventure award in 2017 – are part of a team that announced the discovery near Colorado Springs of a remarkable collection of fossils that reveal in great detail striking how the world and life recovered after the catastrophic asteroid. impact that wiped out the dinosaurs 66 million years ago.

Ian Miller ’99Curator of Paleobotany and Director of Earth and Space Sciences at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Gussie Maccraken ’11, a doctorate in paleontology. candidate for the Department of Entomology at the University of Maryland College Park, and Benjamin Lloyd ’19recent graduate of Colorado College and currently a paraprofessional in the CC Geology Department, helped research and write the article published in the October 24 issue of Science magazine.

“It was an incredible experience to work with such a prestigious group of scientists, including friends and Colorado College alumni, says Maccracken. “Between Miller and Lloyd, we span 20 years of CC graduates.”

Described in a peer-reviewed paper titled “Exceptional continental record of biotic recovery after the Cretaceous-Paleogene mass extinction,” the discovery – thousands of exceptionally preserved animal and plant fossils from the first million years after the catastrophe – sheds a telling light on how life emerged from Earth’s darkest hour.

The exceptional new record of the first million years after the impact of the asteroid combines plants, animals and precise dates – a paleontological trifecta – painting a portrait of the emergence of the modern world.

In addition to the article published in Science magazine, the story of the discovery is the subject of a new NOVA production, “Rise of the Mammals”, which will be broadcast online from October 24 on PBS platforms and mobile applications (https://www .pbs.org/nova/video/rise-of-the-mammals/) and will air nationally on PBS on October 30.

As explained in the documentary and accompanying exhibit, “After the Asteroid: Earth’s Comeback Story,” which opens Oct. 24 at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, a moment of serendipity paved the way for the fossils, which lurked in plain sight.

Tyler Lyson, curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, is lead author, along with Miller, who received CC’s Spirit of Adventure Award two years ago, of the article in Science magazine. The two led the team of 16 authors, which includes alumni CC Maccracken and Lloyd, on the paper.

Although Lyson avidly searched for fossils, vertebrate remains after the asteroid impact had largely eluded him – until 2016. That summer, inspired by a fossil that lay in a drawer and hunting techniques to the fossils used by some of his South Africans. colleagues, he stopped looking for shiny bits of bone in the Denver Basin and instead focused on egg-shaped rocks called concretions.

Opening up the concretions, Lyson and Miller found wonders. Inside were skulls of mammals from the first 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 time is based on tiny fossil fragments, such as bits of mammalian teeth.

“You could go your whole career and not find a skull from that period. It’s so rare that they are,” says Miller.

Still, he and Lyson found four in a single day and more than a dozen in a week once the fossil-finding code was cracked. “It was crazy the way it turned out,” Miller says. So far they have found fossils of at least 16 different species of mammals.

The paleontological “trifecta” at the site called upon the expertise of the Colorado College contingent. Maccracken is a paleoecologist specializing in ancient plant-insect interactions, who has also worked on the site’s paleobotany.

Lloyd completed a summer internship in 2017 excavating dinosaur fossils in North Dakota before interning at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science with Miller the following year. Lloyd’s area of ​​concentration at the site outside of Colorado Springs was paleobotany, in which he searched for leaf fossils and other plant material – essential to reconstructing the environment at the time.

“It was so cool working with the people at CC,” he says. “They were really helpful and understood the knowledge base I had. They knew where I was coming from.”

The Denver Basin site also adds powerful evidence to the idea that the recovery and evolution of plants and animals were intertwined after the asteroid impact. Combining the fossil plant record with the discovery of fossil mammals has allowed the team to link millennial periods of warming to global events, including massive amounts of volcanism on the Indian subcontinent. These events may have shaped ecosystems on the other side of the world.