PBS’ long-running and much-loved science series NOVA will debut an episode spotlighting Denver Museum of Nature & Science researchers explaining how Earth came back to life following the immensely destructive asteroid impact that changed all of terrestrial existence some 66 million years ago.
The discovery they're talking about happened in Corral Bluffs, part of the Denver Basin just east of Colorado Springs, in El Paso County. There, thousands of fossils – plants and animals alike, all impeccably preserved from the critical first mega-annum following the fabled catastrophe that destroyed the dinosaurs – shine a bright and fascinating light on how life on Earth sprang anew.
The team that discovered the fossils was led by Denver Museum and Science Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology Tyler Lyson, and Ian Miller, the museum’s Curator of Paleobotany and Director of Earth and Space Sciences. Lyson was lead author of the Science magazine article sourced by the NOVA episode “Rise of the Mammals,” which is streaming now on PBS online and will premiere Wednesday, October 30, at 7 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS.
“The course of life on Earth changed radically on a single day 66 million years ago,” when, said Lyson, “…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.”
The Denver Basin find wasn’t about “glinting bits of bone,” but rather what are called concretions, oblong rocks that were “hiding in plain sight.” Inspired by a fossil that Lyson found stored away in the museum, and based on the findings of some of his South African colleagues, he focused his attention on finding concretions. “It was absolutely a light-bulb moment,” Lyson said. “That was the game changer.”
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Inside the concretions, Lyson and his team found the skulls of mammals from the early generations of survivors of the mass extinction. Finding anything from this era – a fragment of a skull, or a piece of a mammal tooth – is usually cause for celebration. Yet Lyson and Miller found four in a single day, and over a dozen in a week. They’ve now found fossils from at least sixteen distinct mammal species.
The Denver Museum of Nature & Science has an exhibit called “After the Asteroid: Earth’s Comeback Story” that pairs with the NOVA special to tell the full story of the Colorado discovery of this “unprecedented new fossil trove.” It helps detail the way Colorado has come to provide powerful evidence that the recovery and evolution of plants and animals were intertwined in the period following the impact of the asteroid, and its natural fallout.
“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.”
NOVA’s “Rise of the Mammals” is streaming now on the PBS website, and will air Wednesday, October 30, at 7 p.m. on Rocky Mountain PBS.