Saturday, May 11, 2013

A Dinosaur Highway Through Morrison, Colorado

Allosaur skull
Down near the entrance into Bear Creek Canyon a prominent landmark rises above historic Morrison, Colorado. Locals call it The Hogback but Paleontologists have named it Dinosaur Ridge because it's one of the most fossil rich locations on Earth. In 1877, some of the best known dinosaurs from the late Jurassic period were discovered there, including Allosaurus, Apatosaurus, Diplodocus and Stegosaurus. Later, in 1937, when Alameda Parkway was being constructed to provide access to Red Rocks Park, workers found hundreds of preserved, dinosaur footprints on the east side of the mountain. Scientists believe migrating Iguanadon and carnivorous theropods made the impressions about 100 million years ago during the Cretaceous period.

We were unable to examine the dig sites due to poor weather but we did unearth a wonderful, little place just south of downtown Morrison. The Morrison Natural History Museum is a tiny facility that houses some tremendous exhibits. Most of the artifacts are displayed out in the open and, remarkably, the staff encourages touching of the fossils and casts. It's very exciting for curious children to explore such an inviting, educational environment. Our son, Lukas, was allowed to handle a friendly bull snake and at the Paleontology Lab he was astonished to be given permission to put on goggles and assist in the preparation of real-life, dinosaur fossils.

Fossils from the Morrison Formation teach us that during the Jurassic, the environment here was so hot and dry that grasses and flowering plants did not exist. Conifers were the dominant flora along with ginko, cycads and tree ferns. It appears that a wide variety of the largest animals to ever walk the earth dominated the area. Long-necked sauropods like the Apatosaurus, Barosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Camarasaurus and Diplodocus gorged themselves on tree leaves. Mysteriously, these homogeneous giants somehow managed to co-exist within the same ecological niche. Experts believe the separate species must have implemented very different feeding strategies in order for them all to be so successful.

Fast-forward 50 million years and Morrison was an ocean beach that supported more familiar creatures like insects, frogs, salamanders, lizards, crayfish, turtles and even crocodiles. Towards the end of the Cretaceous, the seas retreated and the Rocky Mountains began to rise. Iconic dinosaurs like Triceratops and Tyrannosaurus ruled the Colorado landscape, which was covered by broadleaf trees and palms. Their reign was short-lived, though, because the catastrophic K-T asteroid devastated the region, obliterating all the large animals and most of the plants. We're planning to return this summer to further investigate the outdoor excavations and learn more about our foothills' ancient history.

A tiny museum with tremendous exhibits

T-Rex was first discovered in Golden, Colorado

The Stegosaurus holotype resides in Morrison, Colorado

Iconic Triceratops was first discovered near Denver

Cretaceous Colorado

Stegosaurus is the Colorado state dinosaur

8 comments:

  1. Flowering plants and grasses probably could have taken the environment just fine--but they hadn't evolved yet.

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    1. Okay, that makes sense. When they do arrive via "The Big Bloom", the flowering plants change everything. It's interesting that so many huge, leaf-eating longnecks were able to coexist. It would be fun to be able to go back in time and see what the earth was really like back then.

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  2. What a neat 'field trip'! My sons would love it! They love history and dinosaurs so this would be right up our alley! How great that your son was able to help out, sounds really cool. The dig sites would be an awesome day trip. I've said it before, you are so lucky to be close to all these interesting spots in Colorado! Love this post and the pics!

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    1. We had fun, it was perfect for my sons. My youngest is very curious and likes to get his hands on stuff. This little museum is very tolerant of that behavior and even encourages gentle touching of the open air displays. It was a pleasant surprise. We'll try to get to the outdoor sites when the weather is better.

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  3. I love that Colorado has a state dinosaur!

    Thanks for sharing your story. I read most of it out to my daughter, and now she's talking dinosaurs with hubby! So wonderful that they let your son help with preparing some of the fossils, how exciting for him.

    Rinelle Grey

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    1. I'm glad your daughter liked the story, my kids enjoyed the museum. The Morrison region has been a very productive place for finding dinosaur bones. The famous Morrison Formation was named after the small town of Morrison, Colorado. Most of the fossils found during the "bone wars" have been shipped back east but the museum still has some nice exhibits and it's a great place to learn about our area's natural history. We're one of the few states to have a state dinosaur.

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  4. We've hiked, camped and skied in several locations through out the years there in Colorado, but I didn't know about this or Morrison. Strange they permit touching the artifacts. That will destroy them over time, oils from hands etc. Many places that used to allow touching things learned the hard way that lots of hands or feet and pretty soon you don't have an artifact. I remember how we were able to do the first time we went to Mesa Verde vs the last time...huge difference. Very interesting post.

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    1. It's interesting that touching of the fossils and casts is encouraged. Most objects are not behind glass, everything is out in the open for visitors to see up close. Maybe because the museum is small and the attendance is so low they are able to have the philosophy that what people learn from unlimited access to the fossils is more important than the actual artifacts themselves.

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