Sunday, December 26, 2010

Paleontological Frontiers at the Florissant Fossil Beds: Princeton Expedition of 1877

I am very pleased and honored to be a part of the Western Interior Paleontological Society's Founders Symposium in 2011.  The symposium's theme is: The West that Was: Exploring Colorado's Fossil Past. The symposium will take place February 12 and 13 on the Colorado School of Mines Campus in Golden. I will present a paper that will look at Florissant's contributions to paleontology, which are enourmous.

The early days of scientific discovery at the fossil beds are amazing. One interesting story of the early days of exploration at the fossil beds is about the Princeton Expedition to Florissant in 1877. 

Early (1874) photo of a petrified stump at Florissant.

On Wednesday, July 11, 1877, the Princeton Expedition arrived at the fossil beds and later that day wrote in their journal: “We camped at Florissant —Judge Castello’s.  In the morning we set to work, all the department finding something to do . . . Dr. Brackett with Scott, Osborn, and Potter paid Mrs. Hill a visit and gained quite a lot of fossils, bugs, leaves, etc.  Lynde and Speir worked at the fish beds discovered the day before.  The fruit of the labor of the day was shared in the evening along with the mineralogists spoil.  A few petrified wood pieces were found in a gully. . . and some pretty specimens of chalcedony were the afternoon's spoil. The old Judge was quite a character and by his kindness our stay at Florissant was rendered pleasant as well as profitable.” The Princeton students collected and shipped plant fossils to Leo Lesquereux, insects to Samuel Scudder, and vertebrates to E.D. Cope. At least 180 of the plant and insect specimens the students collected became type specimens. Charlotte Hill, an early homesteader who lived at the site, provided specimens to the Princeton Expedition and then later that year to Scudder when he arrived.

Osborn on left, Scott on right. Both about 16 years old.
Prior to the expedition’s departure from New Jersey, two of the student organizers, William Berryman Scott and Henry Fairfield Osborn, met with Cope for advice on where to hunt for fossils.  From that first meeting, Osborn and Scott built a lasting friendship with Cope. Cope’s friendship and mentoring persuaded both Osborn and Scott to specialize in paleontology. Osborn and Scott maintained their professional relationship with Cope over the years.

Both Osborn and Scott returned from Florissant and their expedition completely committed to paleontology. Scott went on to be a professor of geology at Princeton, a post he held for the rest of his life. Osborn held a professorship at Columbia University and then headed the American Museum of Natural History from 1908-1933. Through Osborn’s efforts, the work of paleontologists reached world-wide expression in the museum where he balanced exploration, research, public exhibition, and publication. 

Florissant is one of the most taxonomically diverse fossil sites in the world. The lacustrine shales of the Florissant Formation have yielded around 1,700 described species of plants, insects, and spiders, as well as a few vertebrate fossils. These fossils range in size from tiny impressions in paper-thin shale to massive petrified tree stumps preserved by a lahar or volcanic mudflow. The petrified stumps are among the world’s largest in circumference. Florissant has one of the few known instances in the fossil record for the tsetse fly. Although butterflies are extremely rare in the fossil record, Florissant has yielded 12 species—more than any other fossil insect site.

USFS photo of the "big Stump" date 1900
The geology of the Florissant area is linked with the nearby Thirtynine Mile volcanic field (16 km west and southwest of Florissant), which included the coalescing stratovolcanoes of the Guffey volcanic center. Eruptions from the Guffey volcano produced lahars, ash, and pumice, all of which influenced the deposition of the Florissant Formation.

The Florissant fossil beds have been collected and studied for more than 130 years. Historic collections of Florissant fossils can be found in no fewer than 20 museums located world-wide. After years of tourist operations at the fossil beds, a large portion of the fossil deposits were protected from further exploitation by the establishment of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in 1969. 
Colorado Midland Railroad Depot moved from Florissant to the fossiil beds where it served as a hotel for tourists.
Florissant’s fossils, with their high biotic diversity, preserve a latest Eocene ecosystem that existed in this area prior to the significant cooling event associated with the Eocene-Oligocene boundary. The plant and insect fossils provide information about the evolution of North American biotic communities and their response to major climate change.

A fossil record in the overlying Quaternary sediments is emerging that aids in assessing the local terrestrial paleoecology prior to the last glacial maximum. An active paleontology program at the park continues to produce new discoveries.


  1. Steve, It was great to work with you again last Saturday at the Mining Museum! You know how much I love this great history you have discovered about the Princeton Expedition. It’s terrific that you’ll be presenting it at Mines and I’ll tell everybody I know about it! Take care, Professor, and I’ll be look forward to seeing you in 2011.

    Brad Poulson

    P.S. Steve Berry has a blog and I know he’d like to know about yours. Here is his url: