Among the monuments that dot the American landscape, few have contributed more to paleontology than the Florissant Fossil Beds. It is a national park with both a rich geologic and a rich human history. A treasure trove of fossils and archaeological artifacts, the grand quarries yield invaluable information for scientific research.
Located near Florissant, Colorado, the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (FFBNM) are fixed in bedrock 1.5 billion years old. The oldest rocks, dated 1.46 billion years, are found in the Cripple Creek Granite. The Pikes Peak mountain range is just one part of the Rocky Mountain Range; the mounts of Florissant were formed by volcanic activity during the late Paleozoic Era, more than 300 million years ago (mya). The older sediments have long since eroded. Such erosion formed deep V-shaped valleys that by the late Eocene (35-40 mya) accumulated volcanic debris and sediments. The most prominent feature of the region is Wall Mountain Tuft.
A More Tropical Time
Thirty-seven million years ago, Florissant was much wetter and far more lush than it is today. Giant redwood trees and sequoias towered over lesser maples, Osages, palms (now extinct in North America), ponderosa pines, hemlocks, and ferns in the dense conifer forests. At the center of the forest there existed a mighty stream; the river flowed south into a deep mesotrophic lake. During the Eocene epoch the Earth recovered from the Cretaceous mass extinction that had wiped out sixty percent of the planet’s former biodiversity.
The biosphere had fully recovered by the end of the Eocene; a variety of new species roamed North America. Ancient Florissant’s lakes sheltered bowfins, catfish, suckerfish, bluegills, various perch species, and a myriad of invertebrates. Ostracods, bizarre planktonic crustaceans fed on Lake Florissant’s sediments, providing food for other bottom-dwelling organisms. Filter-feeders, like Sphaerium florissantantense (the only clam found in Florissant), sifted phytoplankton from waters in the photic zone. The fine-grained sands at the bottom of the pond became the final resting place for thousands of insects and plants. Ferns, cattails, and deciduous trees bordered the lake’s shoreline.
Florissant’s forests sheltered primitive mammals and birds. North America, after all, is the birthplace of most extant and extinct mammal lineages. Herpetotherium huntii, a didelphimorph (or pigmy opossum), acted like a marsupial primate, using its prehensile tail and opposable thumbs to plunder the canopy of insects and fruit. Browsers, like Mesohippus (a medium-sized forerunner of modern horses) and Hyracodon (running rhinoceroses smaller than modern ponies), foraged the understory and forest floor for fallen fruit and tender twigs.
Brontotheres, hoofed mammals larger than modern rhinos, were by far the biggest animals in the forest. The most massive members of this family weighed more than three tons, and were armed with horns made of bone, not ivory. They, too, feasted on fruits, shrubs, and ferns. Occasionally, browsers that ingested too much fermented fruit became drunk from alcohol, the product of fermentation.
Birds, too, occupied many niches in ancient Florissant’s forests. Ancient members of the Roller family, primitive cuckoos, and a species of shorebird prowled all levels of the forest. More than 1,100 species of insects inhabited the area. Some, like the tsetse fly, harassed the mammals and birds. Others—butterflies, moths, bees, ants, and wasps—pollinated flowers.
However, this paradise was extinguished by the eruption of Mount Princeton, a volcano located fifty miles west of Florissant. Enormous pyroclastic flows avalanched the sides of the mountain. In a period of minutes, a mixture of lava, rock, and sediment inundated the valleys below, preserving the grand forests in carbon and brimstone.
The Ute Nation
Thirty-seven million years later, Native Americans called Florissant, Colorado, home. There is archaeological evidence that suggests that Paleo Indians once inhabited the valley. The Ute, a nomadic hunter-gatherer society, built makeshift settlements from conglomerations of tepees made from wood and brush. Seven bands composed the Ute Nation—the Capote, the Mouache, the Parianuacs, the Uintahs (from them we get the name of the most famous brontothere, Uintatherium), the Uncompahgre/Tabegauche, the Weeminuche, and the Yampahs. Only after the Gold Rush was the Ute’s homeland disturbed by white settlers.
The Homesteaders Act of 1862 motivated caravans of prospectors to head west. There, they hoped, they could start a prosperous new life. The settlers’ true goal, though, was to claim as much land and gold for themselves as possible.
Judge James Costello, a primary settler whose origins belong to Florissant, Missouri, was instrumental in establishing the first town in what is now Fairplay, Colorado. He bonded with the Ute peoples to earn their respect (and their land), and eventually became an agent for the Colorado Superintendency of Indian Affairs.
In ten years, his village could no longer produce gold and was subsequently abandoned. In 1870, Costello decided to move his dream to the intersection of Oil Creek Trail and Ute Trail. At that crossroads, Costello built a trading post two years later. Over time, settlers from Fairplay trickled into the newly established town. He called it Florissant, derived from the French word for “flowering”, after his place of birth in Missouri.
In 1873, Reverend David P. Long was the first settler to claim the Petrified Forest; today known as Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.
In the 1920s, Florissant became a tourist attraction. A variety of commercial tourist sites enticed visitors to see the massive petrified redwoods and collect fossils from the hardened pumice and ash. The Colorado Petrified Forest, in particular, was privately owned and starred the Big Stump. The
enormous petrified redwood trunk measured twelve feet in diameter (38 feet circumference). Before Florissant was a national monument, someone tried to cut the stump into pieces using saws. The efforts were fruitless, and the saw blades are still stuck to the stump to this day (Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument). The Singer family owned the CPF until the area became a national monument.
Half a mile south of the Colorado Petrified Forest was the Pike Petrified Forest, home of the Redwood Trio. “The Redwood Trio” is a fossil vegetative clone, the only one of its kind ever found. Three identical copies sprouted from burls on a central stump. The clones diverted energy from the main plant, killing it. Each member of the trio grew independently until the Princeton eruption. Several families owned the Pike Forest until it became a National Park in the 1960s.
Forty years of tourism gave the Florissant region a notorious reputation as a quarry for rare fossils. Soon after the first scientists arrived at Florissant, it became clear that the location was a kind of Rosetta Stone to modern paleontology. For decades, there was talk of setting aside the land. During the 1960’s, the prospect of land development threatened the very existence of the Florissant Fossil Beds.
Esteemed government scientists, Dr. Estella Leopold and Dr. Beatrice Willard, and local Florissant Vim Wright ardently urged the government to protect the fossil beds under federal law. Paleontologists and concerned citizens won the legislative battle that determined the site’s future. On August 20th, 1969,
President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Congress granted national monument status to Florissant, ensuring the continual study of fossils, paleoclimate and climate change, and the mysteries of geologic time for decades to come (Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument). This has remained the case to this very day.
Although Florissant is drier than it was at the end of the Eocene, descendants of many of the ancient species call the national monument home. The brontotheres petered out during the Eocene Extinction Event thirty-four million years ago, as did Colorado’s grand redwood forests. The deciduous forests still exist, however.
The Florissant Fossil Beds span 6,000 acres of mountainous territory, a glorious blend of meadows, forests, and wildflowers. In these forests, many species of conifers—Ponderosa pines, Sitka spruce, aspens, spruce—continue to dominate. Descendants of the fossilized species are still present. Hardwoods—mountain mahogany, oaks, crabapples, and roses—grow along the boundary between the conifers and wildflower meadows. Elk, mule deer, coyotes, foxes, bears, cougars, and birds of prey are some of the larger vertebrates that inhabit Florissant. Rabbits, groundhogs, robins, and mice graze the meadows. Prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets were once common, but poachers nearly extinguished their enormous populations by the 1950s.
This thin skin of vegetation shields from the elements one of the richest fossil sites in the world. Currently, paleontologists have uncovered more than 1700 distinct species, 1500 of which were arthropods (most invertebrate fossils were found intact, untouched by time). Some fossils, so delicate, like the wings of butterflies and the plush bodies of caterpillars, have been exquisitely preserved. The other fossilized species were plants and vertebrates, also intact. The forests of Florissant were inhabited by a mix of plants whose closest living relatives inhabit China, India, the Southeastern United States, Mexico, and modern Colorado. These fossils are invaluable records of their time. They are memories of bygone ages.
The Eocene, in particular, was grand. It was the last time the Earth was free of ice, and also the last era dominated by tropical forests. Florissant is an even greater treasure. As a quarry of incalculable numbers of intact fossils, the Florissant Fossil Beds contribute to man’s knowledge of animal and plant evolution. It superbly chronicles a specific point in North America’s history—the age of mammal diversification.
All the major mammal lineages—perissodactyls, even-toed ungulates, whales, bats, and even primates—can trace their history back to the Eocene. As scientists continue to probe deeper into Colorado’s prehistory, it is up to the National Park Service to protect Florissant from the increasingly pressing pressures of population growth, excessive tourism, and even the government itself.
As interests and species change, the past will forever lay in stone. The “Big Stump” and “Redwood Trio” are testaments of this permanent, unequivocal fact.
Baars, Donald L. A Traveler’s Guide to the Geology of the Colorado Plateau. The University of Utah Press: 2002.
Florissant Fossil Beds Fossil Archive. http://www.nps.gov/archive/flfo/online_museum/rocks-fossils
Lillie, Robert J. Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores. W.W. Norton and Company:2005.
National Park Service/U.S. Department of the Interior. Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. http://www.nps.gov/flfo
USGS National Geologic Maps Database. http://ngmdb.usgs.gov/
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