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Arts & Life

Colorado's Earliest Residents Prove Front Range Was Always A Popular Place To Live

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Courtesy of Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Denver Museum of Nature & Science's curator of dinosaurs Joe Sertich digs up a triceratops in Thornton.

UPDATE: In December 2017, officials with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science announced that the fossils actually were that of a rare torosaurus, not a triceratops as originally believed.

It started out as just an ordinary Friday for construction inspector Dan Wagner, who was working on the City of Thornton’s new public safety building.

“I just started kicking around the dirt underneath my feet, and I found another couple fragments of it,” Wagner said. “And then I dusted off the area, and found a -- kind of a plate bone -- ended up being what was the horn.”

That horn led to a skull, and that skull led to a frill. That frill belonged to a triceratops 66 million years ago. Joe Sertich, curator of dinosaurs at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, is leading the dig to unearth the dinosaur.

“The biggest bones so far are part of the frill -- so the big shield behind the head -- and those are almost four feet long,” Sertich said.

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Credit Courtesy of Denver Museum of Nature & Science

The triceratops looks to have been about 20 feet long and seven feet tall, he said. He (or she -- they’re not sure yet) could be the most complete triceratops skeleton they’ve found in this region. It’s an exciting find for Sertich, who has spent most of his life digging in the dirt.

“I was just one of those kids who never grew up,” he said. “I always loved dinosaurs and I still do.”

Part of that love comes from growing up in Colorado, where dinosaurs played a big role.

“What’s really neat about this area is it captures that last moment of dinosaurs,” Sertich said. “So it has what we call the K-T boundary (the point between the Cretaceous and Tertiary periods). That’s when an asteroid hit off the coast of Mexico and basically wiped out all the dinosaurs -- except, of course, birds -- and the whole front range of Colorado sits right on that layer. It’s one of the best places in the world to study it.”

But Coloradans don’t necessarily have to be a scientist to search for dinosaurs.

“The whole front range of Colorado is what’s known as the Denver Basin, and this was a pile of rocks that was basically deposited when the Rockies were first starting their uplift,” Sertich said. “So you have the beginning of the Rockies, you have erosion sending mud and other debris down the east flank and that was a time when you were basically burying dinosaur ecosystems from Wyoming all the way to Colorado Springs.”

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Credit Courtesy of Denver Museum of Nature & Science
Volunteers help dig up a triceratops on the construction site of the City of Thornton's new public safety building.

There’s a lot of new construction happening at sites like this along the Front Range and with it, new opportunities to find some very old bones. This isn’t the first time a construction site has suddenly turned into a dinosaur dig.

In 1992, a partial skeleton for a T-rex was found on a new home development site in Littleton. In 1994, a dinosaur egg was found at the site of the then-under-construction Coors Field. That led to the Rockies mascot -- a triceratops named Dinger.

“There’s so much construction going on along the Colorado Front Range, it’s really neat to think that dinosaurs are being found really continuously,” Sertich said.

He hopes people will keep an eye out for dinosaur bones and call the museum if they think they’ve found something.

“We’re waiting for these finds all the time and we’re willing to come out and dig,” he said. “It really is a big deal, and it really fleshes out the story of Colorado.”

So how do you know if you’ve found an actual dinosaur bone?

Size, for one. That initial bone that Dan Wagner found was 4-and-a-half inches wide.

“You know, I’m thinking to myself, ‘Well, this is either a dinosaur or a really big cow, and I’m pretty sure cows don’t get that big,’” Wagner said.

This experience has changed how he sees his job.

“Every time I go on one of these job sites now, I’m going to be thinking of that,” Wagner said. “Every time I see them digging or excavating, I’m going to wonder, you know, is there any bones in there?”

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