Fossil talks: Snowmass discoveries offer clues to ancient past |

Fossil talks: Snowmass discoveries offer clues to ancient past

Janet UrquhartThe Aspen TimesAspen CO Colorado
Janet Urquhart The Aspen Times

SNOWMASS VILLAGE – While the Denver Museum of Nature & Science gears up for a second season of fossil discovery near Snowmass Village, a couple of local organizations will help whet the public’s appetite for the Roaring Fork Valley’s prehistoric past.The Aspen Center for Environmental Studies and Aspen Historical Society will both host speakers from the museum this month. The historical society will bring Dr. Kirk Johnson, chief curator at the museum, to Snowmass Village for a March 22 presentation.”Now that the smoke has cleared, what have we learned?” said the charismatic Johnson, who has spent plenty of time in Snowmass Village since the first Ice Age bones were found at Ziegler Reservoir in October.But first, Ian Miller, paleontologist and chairman of the museum’s Earth Sciences Department, is scheduled to give a March 10 presentation at the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies. He’ll examine the evolution of elevation and climate in the Colorado Rockies over the last 100 million years, as scientists understand it through the window of fossils found throughout Colorado, including some 80 million-year-old specimens from the Roaring Fork Valley.”There are more fossil stories to the valley than just Snowmass,” Johnson said.In fact, one of them will be on display at the Snowmass Ice Age Discovery Center, scheduled to open March 10 on the Snowmass Village Mall. The museum has just completed a new cast of a giant predatory fish, an Xiphanctinus, found near Old Snowmass in 1967 and now housed in the museum’s collection. The cast will go on display at the center, which will be open until October.The fish is curled in a C shape, but unfolded, it would stretch out 13 feet, Johnson said. “It’s a great fossil,” he said.Video and photographic exhibits are also planned for the center, but the display of bones that have been uncovered at the reservoir isn’t likely. This year’s excavation work will occur between May 15 and July 1, but bones that are uncovered will be transported to the museum in Denver more quickly than they were last fall, Johnson said. Last year, they remained in Snowmass Village for an extended period and were displayed frequently to an enthralled public.”That’s their major delicate moment,” Johnson said of the fossil extraction. “We’ve definitely seen the effects of too-rapid drying in some of them.”Some 600 bones and fragments collected last year are now being slowly dried, each in its own containment, at the museum. A few fragments have cracked and shattered, according to Johnson, but no significant fossils have been lost. The dense tusks from mammoths and mastodons are among the most difficult pieces to dry properly, he said.”We have individual staff members basically baby-sitting each tusk,” Johnson said.Work under way this winter, while crews await the opportunity to return to the dig site, has also included an ongoing $1 million fundraising effort to cover costs incurred last fall and the additional cost of fossil excavation this year. There has been progress on that front, Johnson said. An announcement may be the offing, he added.While the museum and Snowmass Water and Sanitation District spent about $250,000 last fall, this year’s expenses will amount to an estimated $750,000, Johnson said.”The scale of the effort is going to be pretty epic this spring,” he said. Thirty-four scientists from 15 universities will be among the experts trying to piece together the history of the Ice Age lake that once existed where a reservoir was later created and is now being enlarged. The site has yielded large quantities of preserved plant matter as well as fossils from various Ice Age animals.In addition, artist Jan Vriesen is at work on a series of five paintings depicting the site – before, during and after the lake filled up with sediment. Johnson said he hopes there is an opportunity to display the paintings in Snowmass Village at some point.Johnson’s talk, “Snowmastodon: A Tale of Ice Age Discovery,” will take place in the Hoagland/Anderson Room of the Snowmass Conference Center at 5:30 p.m. Advance tickets are available for $5 from the historical society’s Wheeler/Stallard Museum and Sundance Liquor in Snowmass Village. It’s $8 at the door.His appearance, arranged by the historical society, is oddly coincidental, to say the least.Society President and CEO Georgia Hanson heard Johnson speak at a meeting of the Mountain Plains Museum Association in Rapid City, S.D., last September. His topic was the effect a fossil discovery has on a small town.Hanson was interested in having him speak locally – a month before the first fossil was discovered at the reservoir.”I was so enthralled,” Hanson said. “He was so fabulous. He took a subject that none of us had thought about since third grade and turned it into a fascinating new discovery that was fun.”Miller’s talk at ACES, at 7:30 p.m. on March 10, is titled, “High Times in the Colorado Rockies: Old Leaves Tell New Stories.” Admission is