Skip to content

Breaking News

Joe Sertich, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, brushes away sand at the Earth Sciences Prep Lab in Denver on Wednesday.
Joe Sertich, Curator of Dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, brushes away sand at the Earth Sciences Prep Lab in Denver on Wednesday.

Some 66 million years ago, strange and formidable creatures heaved their final breaths and collapsed into the rapidly transforming Earth as part of a sudden, mass extinction event that killed some three quarters of the plant and animal species on the planet.

But their existence, where present-day Front Range inhabitants now build shopping centers, highways and subdivisions to house the thousands who migrate into the area yearly, has not been completely erased.

Joseph Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, said he continues to have people from throughout the metro area bring him chunks of fossilized remnants from some of the most remarkable specimens that ever walked the Earth. And later this year, he will be focusing his investigations on a plot of Boulder County open space.

That is because it was not too long ago that a homeowner in southeast Boulder County, whom Sertich would not identify, brought him several fragmented pieces of dinosaur bones found on that person’s property, which abuts county open space.

“We routinely look around what we call the Denver Basin, which runs from Wyoming to Colorado Springs, for fossils. Because Denver and the metro area sit on fossil-bearing rock,” Sertich said.

“We have had a couple of big discoveries, like the Thornton torosaurus and the Highlands Ranch triceratops, and every time there is a big discovery on the news, we get local landowners, or we get kids, or hikers, who send in reports of possible finds. So we go out and document that there are these fossil resources in the area.”

And so it was that the southeast Boulder County landowner came to Sertich with a shoebox containing a few chunks smaller than the size of his fist, which Sertich identified as coming from dinosaurs. He was not able to say what kind, other than that they were likely horned or duck-billed, “the two most common types of dinosaurs in that area, in that age of rock.”

Based on that recent discovery, Sertich has obtained a permit from Boulder County allowing him to go searching for more of the same near the property of the homeowner who brought his surprising find to him.

“I have targeted open space property that has the right type of rock, and good exposure, not covered in trees or parking lots,” Sertich said. As for timing, he added, “I’ve got regularly scheduled digs planned in Utah, so I don’t expect to get out there (on Boulder County land) until later in the fall.”

Rock found in association with dinosaur remains in western Great Plains, he said, typically dates to the late Cretaceous period, ranging in age between 66 and 69 million years old. By contrast, he said, fossilized dinosaur bones present in Boulder County’s first hog-backed ridges into the foothills date as far back as 150 million years.

It’s the “newer” remains on which Sertich will focus.

“He wants to look at a very large area down there and there is a lot of contiguous open space along that southeastern part of the county, surface areas that might be promising for more dinosaur finds,” said county cultural resource specialist Carol Beam.

Sertich’s county permit, issued Aug. 2, and effective through Dec. 31, named 18 specific open space properties of varying sizes, many of them very small. It forbids any permanent alteration of the landscape, and requires him to submit a project report to the county by Jan. 31, 2020. The targeted properties run roughly in a northeast-to-southwest swath of county holdings, sandwiched between Broomfield to the east and Lafayette/Louisville/Superior to the west.

Beam still has three dinosaur fragments she inherited from her former boss, which sometime prior to 2003 had been brought to county officials by an adjacent neighbor who found them on the Carolyn Holmberg Preserve at Rock Creek Farm — generally close to the landowner who brought his find to Sertich.

Dated to about 70 million years ago, those bones included a triceratops frill fragment, a hadrosaur vertebrae, and an occipital condyle —rounded knobs on the occipital bone that form a joint with the first cervical vertebra — from an unknown species.

Humans’ fascination with their majestic predecessors on Earth is something Sertich said is easy to understand..

“It’s a window into a time period that is really different from today, where the animals were completely bizarre monsters,” unusual, at the least, in our present day frames of reference. And in some cases, he said, it’s downright scary, “imagining your own backyard as home to these fantastic creatures.”

With a major population base perched directly atop dinosaur-bearing rock, Sertich said, “We’re really lucky to have these, right in our backyard.”

The mass extinction theory, which ties the dinosaurs’ disappearance to the strike of an asteroid 7.5-miles across that slammed into the ocean off the Yucatan Peninsula, is widely accepted by most paleontologists. But not all.

A lengthy piece in The Altantic last year, “The Nastiest Feud in Science,” shed light on an alternate theory that the die-off occurred far more gradually, and could be tied to prolonged extreme volcanic activity centered in a part of western India known as the Deccan Traps. The theory, according to The Atlantic, was first proposed in 1978, but was then abandoned by all but a small number of scientists.

“Most academic paleontologists (including myself) currently recognize the overwhelming data tied to the asteroid impact hypothesis,” Sertich wrote in an email. “… As scientists, we are open-minded and willing to shift that thinking should more evidence come to light that supports gradual extinction. Unfortunately, the fossil record is incomplete and not evenly distributed over the globe.

“Most of what we currently know comes from the northern Rocky Mountain region. Digs in more southern locations, like the Denver Basin, should help shed light on the mystery of dinosaur extinction.”

Join the Conversation

We invite you to use our commenting platform to engage in insightful conversations about issues in our community. We reserve the right at all times to remove any information or materials that are unlawful, threatening, abusive, libelous, defamatory, obscene, vulgar, pornographic, profane, indecent or otherwise objectionable to us, and to disclose any information necessary to satisfy the law, regulation, or government request. We might permanently block any user who abuses these conditions.