Fossil found near Colorado Springs identified as new mammal species

A fossil of a newly identified animal found east of Colorado Springs has revealed new information about life on Earth after the mass extinction of dinosaurs.

Skull and jaw fragments from what is now known as the Militocodon lydae were excavated in Corral Bluffs Open Space in 2019 and 2021.

A new study published in the Journal of Mammalian Evolution says the tiny omnivore the size of a chinchilla belonged to a group of mammals that eventually gave rise to all ungulates, known as ungulates.

Journal of Mammalian Evolution

A screenshot of the fossilized lower jaw bone and teeth of the Militocodon Lydae found in Corral Bluffs in 2021 from the study recently published in the Journal of Mammalian Evolution.

“Rocks from this time interval have a notoriously poor fossil record, and the discovery and description of a fossil mammal skull is an important step forward in documenting the earliest diversification of mammals after Earth’s last mass extinction,” said Tyler Lyson, curator of the paleontology of vertebrates. at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science (DMNS).

Lyson co-authored the study and is part of the team that found the fossils. He said the discovery happened in 2021 while walking in Corral Bluffs with his family. He found a small concretion, a type of rock that forms around fossils.

“And the way we find out if there are fossils in there is to crack them open. So I picked up this little peanut-sized one,” he said. “I broke it open and I saw some very tiny teeth sticking out towards me and I knew it was a remarkable find because I could see that it was both the skull and both lower jaws. From a small mammal, that’s really quite rare.”

Courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Researchers examine preliminary computed tomography results from a Corral Bluffs fossil at Northglenn Veterinary Hospital.

Adding to the rarity of the find is the fact that Corral Bluffs has been home to archaeological efforts for at least 100 years. Lyson said it was pure luck. He said the team found fossils of at least two species of crocodilians at the site, as well as more than 20 different species of turtles and a dozen different mammals – all new species.

“We’re just now starting to publish a lot of papers about them because science takes time,” Lyson said. “We will be doing a lot of work here in the future and there will be many more exciting announcements in the coming years.”

Courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

From left to right: Sharon Milito, Tyler Lyson and Ian Miller at Corral Bluffs. Lyson and Miller are paleontologists at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and are leading the research at the Corral Bluffs site. The Militocodon lydae, a new mammal found in Corral Bluffs, is named in part after Milito. She is a volunteer who discovered the first small mammal fossil in 2019.

Lyson and his team used detailed X-rays from CT scans to examine and digitally reconstruct the fossil species found and “bring these animals back to life.”

“We can use that to look inside the skulls or skeletons of these animals. Based on that data, we can look at the size of the brain, the size of the olfactory bulb, the organ of smell, and look at the inner ears, that is the organ of balance,” he said.

Lyson also mentioned the mammal. The gender – Militocodon – honors Sharon Milito, a volunteer from Colorado Springs who found the first fossil of the new mammal. His kind – lydae – refers to local philanthropist and DMNS donor Lyda Hill.

Courtesy of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science

Lyda Hill and Tyler Lyson at an event in Colorado Springs. Lyson chose to name the Militocodon Lydae after Hill in part to honor her contributions to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the Colorado Springs region.

Paleontological work in the area will continue with the help of a recently awarded research grant from the National Science Foundation’s Frontier Research in Earth Sciences. It includes 12 scholars from various institutions, including Colorado College, Smithsonian National Museum of History and the University of Colorado Boulder. Lyson said the nearly $3 million award is the largest research grant ever received by the Denver Museum of Nature & Science.

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