Fossil discovery near Bells helps fill prehistoric holes |

Fossil discovery near Bells helps fill prehistoric holes

Visitors to the Maroon Bells visitors center will find information about the area's very distant past. (Courtesy White River National Forest)

About 290 million years ago, lizardlike creatures about the size of a pig roamed the landscape that would become the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness.A hiker discovered their tracks in 2001 and then shared photos with officials at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. The discovery created a stir among paleontologists because no bones had ever been found and tracks were rare in the Maroon formation. “This was the first major find,” said Bryan Small, preparator of fossils at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.After five years of studies, the U.S. Forest Service is now preparing to share some of the information about the beasts of the Bells with the hordes of humans that now roam the area.Small and others who visited the site were amazed to find not just one set of tracks but hundreds. Conditions were just right to preserve the footprints at that particular spot in the Ancestral Rockies, which eroded before the modern Rocky Mountains arose.

The tracks and other fossils provided evidence of what roamed the area that became the Maroon Bells and what was happening with the Maroon formation itself during the Paleozoic Era.”We had no knowledge of what was going on in the Maroon formation,” Small said.Research yielded evidence of four animal species in the tracks around the Maroon Bells. About 90 percent of the tracks came from Diadectes, a prehistoric creature that roamed the world 70 million years before the first dinosaurs, Small said. The species was a tetrapod, which means it was four-legged, and a herbivore. It left tracks about 5 inches long.With a turtle head and a lizard body, Diadectes had qualities of both amphibians and reptiles, Small said. Rather than a missing link, it was an “odd mixture” remaining after amphibians and reptiles split into two distinctive groups, he said.Diadectes was doomed, either through further evolution or death of the species. It was extinct shortly after it left the tracks near Aspen.”They didn’t leave any descendants,” Small said. “They were a dead-end species.”

Fossils of insects and conifer trees have also been found in the Maroon formation since the discovery of the Diadectes tracks. Those discoveries allowed scientists to determine that the land that became the Maroon Bells was once much closer to the equator, when it was part of the supercontinent called Pangea. The climate was more like India and parts of Africa, with monsoonal rains and dry conditions.The place near the Maroon Bells where the hundreds of tracks were found probably wasn’t a superhighway for Diadectes. Small’s guess is that the sliver of land just happened to be preserved. Tracks were likely everywhere.Since that discovery in 2001, Diadectes tracks have been found in the Maroon formation near Glenwood Springs and State Bridge. It appears the herbivore proliferated. “They were the elk of the Permian,” Small said, referring to a period in the Paleozoic Era marked by an increase in diversity of land plants and animals.The Forest Service will erect a sign in the visitors center near Maroon Lake featuring information and a painting of Diadectes. Artist Gary Staab of Golden painted Diadectes making its way through a mudflat in a landscape dominated by ancient conifers and eroded mountain ridges.

The Denver Museum of Nature and Science helped the Forest Service prepare text for the sign.But don’t expect to learn the location of the tracks within the wilderness area, not even a hint. The Forest Service fears multitudes of curious tourists tromping through the backcountry seeking the tracks, according to Martha Moran, a recreation manager for the Aspen-Sopris Ranger District.”We do not want that. It’s definitely a no-no,” Moran said.The agency has even asked paleontologists to cloak the location in their technical papers on the findings.Small hopes the painting at the visitors center is enough to spark the imagination of people to study more about the Paleozoic landscape and creatures like Diadectes.Scott Condon’s e-mail address is

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