Fossils give us a unique insight into what the world was like way before we ever existed. While movies can paint a picture of what the world was like back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, actual bones provide us a glimpse of the real thing.
Dinosaur fossils are not found that often, but for one group of construction workers, the bones quite literally stopped them in their tracks…
Something Was Buried Beneath The Ground
On August 25, 2017, a construction worker from Saunders Construction was scooping dirt, when an on-site geotechnical engineer (someone who reviews soil conditions) told him to stop. The engineer had noticed that there was something inconsistent with the surrounding sand and claystone.
Crews Stopped What They Were Doing
As he brushed off the dirt and cleaned the area with water, the crews knew that what they were seeing wasn’t normal. In fact, it was completely a once in a blue moon type of occurrence. Finding an underground storage tank or unmarked utility is more of what the workers are used to, but not this…
Saunders Construction, Denver’s premier construction company, was working at a site on 132nd Avenue and Quebec Street that day. Aaron Pollick, the company’s project manager was not on site at the time but he got a call about crews stumbling upon what looked like a dinosaur fossil.
This Wasn’t Something They Were Prepared For
While they couldn’t make out exactly what the fossil was (this would take experts), when crews found it, they were very excited. Pollick said, “Not necessarily knowing what the exact next step was going to be was a challenge…Certainly, it’s not a common occurrence for something like this to be found.” The only problem was, Saunders Construction didn’t have an action plan in place for something like this…
Quarantined The Area
The crews decided to quarantine the area, which will eventually be a weight room at the upcoming Fire and Police Substation, and they made sure construction equipment stayed clear. A biologist contracted by the city of Thornton recommended a local paleontologist, who stopped by to confirm that what they were looking at was dinosaur bones.
Confirmation That It Was A Triceratops
Then, a few days later, Joe Sertich, the dinosaur curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science quickly determined that the dinosaur fossil was a triceratops. Very soon, a crew was put together to excavate the area…
A Once-In-A-Lifetime Opportunity
Volunteers from Sanders Construction, museum personnel, and Thornton police and firefighters all pitched in to help. Pollick was among them, saying, “What are the chances that you ever have this opportunity?” “There’s a lot of excitement that you get to go do it, play around and be a kid,” he added.
The Energy Was Palpable
Slowly but surely fossils from the triceratops were being dug out of the ground and you could feel the energy and excitement among everyone participating in the excavation. Piece by piece, they began digging out both brow horns, part of the skull that surrounds the brain, parts of the frill (the shield behind its head), parts of the snout, the lower jaw beak, parts of the neck, vertebrae, and lots of ribs…
Piece By Piece
Day by day, they uncovered yet another piece of the triceratops, although, the legs and arms still remain missing. Sertich hopes they are still around, especially since this is one of the most complete Cretaceous-period fossils found on the Front Rage.
He believes that the fact that they noticed this was a fossil is a pure miracle in itself. “They [construction crews] are really the heroes of a dig like this.” Triceratops were some of the most common dinosaurs in the American West during the time that dinosaurs roamed the earth. So how old was this triceratops fossil known to be?
Dinosaur Fossils In Denver Are Smaller
The fossil is estimated to be around 66-million-years-old! At the time, the dinosaurs in the Denver area were smaller than those found in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Wyoming. Scientists don’t have a definitive answer as to why this is.
How Does A Triceratops Look?
However, Sertich said that the Thornton triceratops is likely the size of a rhino, while those in the Midwest are closer to a mid-sized elephant. Triceratops had two big horns over its eyes and a smaller nose horn. The dinosaurs themselves are somewhat of an icon today, often depicted as fighting a T-Rex in horror movies…
How Did It Remain In The Soil?
It’s likely the Thornton triceratops was a young adult and that it died on a dry land surface, which fell apart over time in a way similar to a cow laying in a field. Additionally, other feeding animals may have scattered its parts.
How Were The Bones Kept Together?
The triceratops sat there for a while until it was eventually covered in sand, from a river changing course or even a flood. This likely kept the big and little bones together…
Displayed At The Denver Museum of Nature & Science
The fossils discovered were brought to the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, where people visiting could see them through a window. Sertich described the experience of finding the triceratops like “Christmas.”
They Still Can’t Get Over It
“Were just opening all the presents right now,” he said. Sertich is fully away how lucky officials were that the bones were recognized as fossils. “A lot of times these will be plowed up and they won’t be recognized.”
Fossil Preservation Is Quite Difficult
Paul Murphy, the paleontologist with Paleo Solutions who first confirmed the fossils were dinosaur bones, said there are many factors involved with fossil preservation. It’s actually a difficult process.
How The Bones Were Kept
The bones could have been weathered by elements or scavenged and they need to be buried in sediment. Then, while all the bones are in there, all sorts of chemical processes need to occur. But, one question remains. Why does Colorado naturally have a lot of fossils? What makes them so common there?
Fossils In Denver, Colorado
The reason for this is that the soil in Denver is particularly acidic, however, it is still difficult to preserve bones. Even after 150 years of fossil collecting in Colorado, just like this triceratops one, fossil discoveries continue to be made.
Other Fossils Found In Colorado
In the past 30 years, scientists have found the world’s first articulated Stegosaurus skeleton, three of the world’s four largest dinosaurs, and the largest dinosaur trackway in North America. In 2010, a treasure trove of ice-age mammals and plants were discovered above Snowmass Village, and these are just to name a few. We’re glad Denver can add the Thornton triceratops to the list.