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Fossils from end of ice age found as crews dig up dirt for Central 70 Project

Ice Age camel in Colorado_bones found in I-70 Mile High Shift construction
Posted at 8:28 AM, May 18, 2021

As construction crews dug up dirt for the future westbound tunnel for the Central 70 Project, they came across something exciting, though not surprising — seven fossils.

The fossils included teeth of a camel-like creature called Camelops and an upper molar tooth of an ancient horse, plus some other bones that have not yet been identified.

Paul Murphey, vice president and paleontology program director for Paleo Solutions, said his company works with Kiewit Corporation, the contractor for the Central 70 Project. Should crews find suspected fossils, Paleo Solutions, a paleontological and cultural resources consulting service company, would send a paleontologist out to investigate.

The teeth found at the site, which are between 10,000 and 20,000 years old, are well-preserved and not as brittle as they could have been, Murphey said. He said while it's not surprising to find them, it's always fun and remarkable to find fossils.

The fossils were found in a relatively young geologic deposit called the Broadway Alluvium, Murphey said.

It's not uncommon to find fossils around the Front Range. For example, a triceratops was found in Highlands Ranch in 2019 and a torosaurus, a close relative of a triceratops, was found in Thornton in 2017. Both were unearthed during construction projects.

Murphey explained that his company was hired in case the project disturbed rocks in the Denver Formation, which — as the name suggests — surrounds the Denver area, but is deeper than the Central 70 Project has dug as of now. It includes bedrock ranging from the late Cretaceous period to the early Paleocene period. It contains records of the dinosaur extinction, Murphey said, and the rock typically holds a lot of plant fossils, an occasional dinosaur fossil, and some smaller mammals from the period after the meteor impact wiped out the dinosaur population.

The entire Denver Basin is a "great place for paleontology," Murphey said, but noted that there's one giant problem: Denver sits on top of it.

The only chance at recovering the fossils is when construction crews begin digging, he said, aside from a few places around Golden and Colorado Springs where fossils are still being found in natural areas.

After the dinosaur extinction, small mammals and then larger mammals evolved in Colorado, including lions, cheetahs, dire wolves, giant ground sloths, mammoths, mastodon, elephants, and bison. Only bison remain. The rest went extinct toward the end of the ice age. In total, about 75% of the large animals in North America died off during that time, Murphey said.

He said he wants to thank the crews at the project for recognizing the fossils and saving them.

As the work continues, Murphey said paleontologists will monitor the digging. They have ramped up their monitoring to full-time instead of once-a-week spot checks.

“It’s quite possible — I would say a good chance that they’ll unearth other fossils," he said.

All fossils discovered will go to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.

In addition to the fossils, Colorado Department of Transportation Central 70 Project Director Bob Hays said they also found an old school that was demolished and buried after a new one was built. They removed the material due to asbestos.

To learn more about this project, click here.

Denver7's Content Producer Deb Stanley and Traffic Expert Jayson Luber contributed to this report.