Fossil Beds National Monument
Settlement, Scientific Pioneers, and
The small town of Florissant Colorado is located along U.S. Highway
24 just 56 km west of Colorado Springs. Judge James Castello
(1814-1878) emigrated from Florissant, Missouri following his
interest in gold during the mid 1860s to what is now Fairplay,
Colorado. In 1870 he moved to a mountain valley just west of
Colorado Springs, building a home and hotel. Two years later,
Judge Castello added a trading post, general store, and post
office. He christened his new settlement Florissant, a name
derived from the French word for “flowering” (nps.gov
The grassy mountain valley just south of Florissant held treasures
past and present. Summer wildflowers, a petrified forest, and
shale containing fossil leaves and insects attracted the attention
of both tourists and scientists. Scientific interest in Florissant
Pioneers of Florissant
For nearly 140 years scientists have been studying Florissant.
If, on average, a career spans 30 years, then over 4 “generations” of
scientists have worked at this fossil site. This scientific
work, accumulated over lifetimes, has illuminated the changing
geology and ecology of Florissant during the late Eocene,
approximately 36-34 Ma. The rich fossil assemblage allows
scientists to estimate the paleoclimate and paleoelevation
at the time of deposition. Studies on the microscopic structure
of Florissant lake shales have revealed the possible role
of biofilms in fossil preservation. Volcanic sediments and
key mammalian fossils allow scientists to test and corroborate
multiple techniques for determining the age of the Florissant
Formation. Comparisons between younger and older fossil deposits
provide insights into paleoclimates, biogeography, and the
evolution of plants and animals during the Paleogene.
This summary will highlight the work of key individuals to
gain an appreciation for the important work accomplished by
people past and present. A more complete and in-depth history
of the scientific work at Florissant can be found in The
Fossils of Florissant (Meyer 2003) and History of
paleontology at the Florissant fossil beds, Colorado (Veatch and Meyer, 2008).
Saved in Time: The Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil
Beds National Monument (Leopold and Meyer, 2012) and A
History of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument: In Celebration
Preservation (McChristal, 1994) also provide some interesting
perspectives on the history of Florissant.
Albert Charles Peale
(1849-1913), a geologist working with the Hayden Survey,
explored the Florissant Valley in 1873.
Peale mentions the fossil lake deposits and notes the existence
of 20 to 30 stumps of silicified wood, known to the locals
as “Petrified Stumps.” Members of the Hayden Survey
collected vertebrate, insect, and plant fossils that would
later be described by other scientists.
Three students from
the College of New Jersey organized what is now known as
the Princeton Scientific Expedition
The goal of the expedition was to collect vertebrate fossils
in Colorado, Wyoming, and Utah. In 1877, the three students,
William Berryman Scott (1858-1947), Henry Fairfield Osborn
(1857-1935), and Frank Speir Jr. (?) spent two days in July
collecting fossils at Florissant. These two days would prove
to be very fruitful. At least 180 of the expedition’s
plant and insect fossils became type specimens. A new species
of fish was also discovered. Charlotte Hill (1849-1930) and
Adam Hill (1834-?), homesteaders who lived near the Big Stump,
shared some of their fossil finds with the three students.
The Princeton Scientific Expedition of 1877 marked the start
of an important relationship with the Hills and scientific
investigators. Charlotte Hill was the first person to find
a fossil butterfly at Florissant--the first of its kind to
be found in America. This butterfly would latter be described
by Samuel H. Scudder.
Leo Lesquereux (1806-1889)
was a watchmaker, bryologist and paleobotanist. Lesquereux
initially pursued a teaching
which was cut short after suffering hearing loss. Lesquereux’s
hearing loss was the result of an illness during the 1830s,
just two years after getting married. Treatments for the hearing
loss left him deaf. Lesquereux gave up teaching and joined
his father as a watchmaker. In his spare time he collected
mosses, which would eventually lead to a scientific career.
To read a more detailed account of Lesquereux’s life,
visit the Leo Lesquereux Autobiography on the American Philosophical
Lesquereux is best known for his work on the origin of peat,
the study of living mosses, and Carboniferous fossil flora.
Lesquereux was the first to describe fossil plants from Florissant,
naming over 100 new species sampled from the Hayden Survey,
the Princeton Scientific Expedition of 1877, and fossils purchased
by Scudder from Charolette Hill. Lesquereux described a rose
plant found by Mrs. Hill, naming it Rosa hilliae (Lesquereux
1883) in her honor. Lesquereux was the first person to write
a scientific paper on Florissant and in 1883 he published Contribution
to the fossil flora of the Western Territories, which included
his work from Florissant.
Samuel Hubbard Scudder
(1837-1911), F.C. Bowditch (?-1927) and Arthur Lakes (1844-1917)
arrived in Florissant in August
of 1877, just weeks after the Princeton Scientific Expedition.
The trio collected for 5 days. Scudder, an American entomologist
and paleontologist, made the first measurements of Florissant
lake deposits near the Big Stump. Arthur Lakes, a geologist,
often captured his fieldwork with sketches and watercolors.
Lakes made the first sketch depicting the geology of Florissant
during this trip. He later made a watercolor of his sketch
entitled “Map of Sedimentary Lacustrine basin at Florissant
near South Park, Supposed to be Upper Miocene, drawn by A.
Lakes, Colorado, Feb 20, 1878” (Meyer, 2003, p. 9). Scudder
acquired many excellent specimens from the Hills and would
later visit the area two more times.
Scudder became very
familiar with the insects of Florissant, working with specimens
collected as part of the Hayden Survey.
During his career, Scudder described roughly 600 species
and produced 23 papers on Florissant. Much of Scudder’s
early work on Florissant was included in his 1890 monograph
Insects of North America. Scudder was the first person to
use the insect fauna to interpret a warmer paleoclimate for
Scudder described and
named possibly the finest butterfly compression fossil known
to exist, which was found by Charlotte
Hill. The butterfly, Prodryas persephone (Scudder 1878), is
now housed at the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard
University (Pick & Sloan, 2004, pp. 64 & 65). The name
persephone alludes to Persephone, the daughter of Zeus. As
a ninth grader, Frank M. Carpenter, saw a picture of P.
persephone in Scudder’s book Frail Children of the Air, which inspired
his career studying insect fossils (Brosius, 1994, p. 120).
Frank Morton Carpenter (1902-1994) became one of the most influential
paleoentomologists of his time, working as the curator of fossil
insects at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology for over
T.D.A. Cockerell (1866-1948)
of the University of Colorado organized expeditions to Florissant
from 1906 to 1908. Cockerell
studied both plants and animals and published more articles
on Florissant than any other paleontologist. Cockerell was
the first to document the different collecting sites at Florissant.
He was also the first person to describe tsetse fly specimens
from Florissant, the discovery of which was a great surprise
as living species are restricted to sub-Saharan Africa. S.H.
Scudder described Palaestrus oligocenus in 1892 believing
it was in the family Oestridae. Flies in this family are
known as botflies, warbler flies, heel flies and gadflies.
The larvae of all of these flies are internal parasites to
mammals. At the turn of the century better preserved specimens
showing a clear proboscis were discovered. Cockerell recognized
the new fossils and Sudder’s earlier specimen as belonging
to the genus of tsetse flies Glossina. Tsetse flies are sanguivores,
feeding on the blood of vertebrates. Glossina oligocena (Cockerell
in 1908) is twice the size of living species (Gimaldi and
Engel, 2006, p. 545).
Harry D. MacGinitie (1896-1987) was a paleobotanist who spent
most of his career teaching at Humbolt State College in northern
California. Early in his career MacGinitie worked for the University
of Colorado where he was encouraged by Cockerell and Childs
Frick (1883-1965), an American vertebrate paleontologist, to
revise earlier work on the fossil plants of Florissant. MacGinitie
excavated new sites at Florissant in 1936 and 1937 to collect
additional specimens. In 1953 MacGinitie published the culmination
of this work in his classic monograph Fossil Plants of
the Florissant Beds, Colorado. MacGinitie revised the work of earlier
paleontologists and was the first to consider Florissant fossil
plants as a community, comparing them with modern vegetation.
MacGinitie also used the fossil plant community to make inferences
about the ancient ecology, climate, and elevation of Florissant.
The development of new technologies and techniques allow scientists
to collect empirical data not accessible to explorers of the
past. Thus, Florissant is a frontier that still has its modern
day pioneers. A few examples are in order. Fossil Flora
and Stratigraphy of the Florissant Formation, Colorado (Evanoff,
Gregory-Wodzicki, and Johnson, 2001) includes papers exploring
the stratigraphy, geochronology, paleoclimatic implications
of the leaf and pollen floras, updates on megafossil flora,
climatic implications from tree ring analysis of permineralized
Sequoioxylon pearsallii specimens, identification of fossil
dicots, and a review of paleoelevation estimates. This volume
extends the work of MacGinitie.
Papers exploring the history of scientific work on Florissant,
the role of biofilms in fossil preservation, paleoclimate,
biogeography, spider identification, mammal fauna, preservation
and conservation of fossil wood, as well as the development
of a web-based paleontological database, were published together
in Paleontology of the Upper Eocene Florissant Formation,
Colorado (Meyer and Smith, 2008).
Herbert W. Meyer is
a paleontologist with the U.S. National Park Service. In
addition to his scientific papers, he is also
author of The Fossils of Florissant (Meyer, 2003),
the most important and detailed book on Florissant. The book
is a true
gem. Meyer has a gift for making scientific work public. Over
a period of 130 years more than 1,700 fossil species have been
described in more than 300 publications and dispersed to roughly
15 museums. Meyer has been instrumental in developing an on-line
database, which digitally updates and archives this previously
dispersed work (Meyer, Wasson, and Frakes, 2008, pp. 159-177).
work at Florissant clearly revealed this site to be a paleontological “goldmine”.
One would think the site would have received national monument
status early on,
but this was not to be. Private owners used the fossil site
to attract tourists. I was one of those tourists and remember
visiting the Big Stump at the Colorado Petrified Forest as
a small child in 1964. Literature recounting the
commercial history of Florissant can be found in The Fossils
of Florissant (Meyer, 2003) and Saved in Time: The
Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (Leopold
and Meyer, 2012). In the late 1960s, real estate developers
mapped out a plan to build a subdivision of A-frame cabins
on the fossil beds. The Defenders of Florissant was formed
by concerned citizens and scientists including Estella Leopold
and Beatrice Willard. The battle between these two groups got
the attention of the U.S. Congress. In the end the area was
granted protection from private interests when President Richard
Nixon signed the act into law allowing for the purchase and
establishment of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument.
Colorado Petrified Forest, 1964
Wynona and Don Viney stand by the “Big Stump”
Peggy Ashworth holds Mike Viney age 2 ½
Establishment of a Monument
1969 Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was established
ha (6,000 acres) of land to preserve one of the
world’s most important Late Eocene fossil deposits.
The famous fossil site is situated in a mountain valley just
south of the town of Florissant in Teller County, Colorado.
At an elevation of 2,560 m Ponderosa Pine, Quaking Aspen, Douglas-fir,
and Englemann Spruce make up the dominant trees of this montane
life zone. Large mammals found in the area include elk, mule
deer, coyote, foxes, bear, and mountain lions. Birds, squirrels,
and mice live in the meadows and along the ridges. The Florissant
Formation provides a window into the Late Eocene, illuminating
an environment much different from the one we enjoy today.
Rocks that make up this beautiful mountain landscape hold clues
to the area’s geologic and biologic past.
Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Entrance Sign
L. (1994). In pursuit of Prodryas persephone:
Frank Carpenter and fossil insects. Psyche 101:
pp. 119-126. doi: 10.1155/1994/89176
E., Gregory-Wodzicki K.M. and Johnson, K.R. [Eds.],
(2001). Fossil Flora and Stratigraphy of
the Florissant Formation, Colorado. Proceedings
of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, series
4, number 1.
D. & Engel, M.S., (2006). Evolution of
the Insects. New York: Cambridge University
E.B. and Meyer, H.W. (2012). Saved in Time: The
Fight to Establish Florissant Fossil Beds National
Monument. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico
McChristal, J. (1994). A
History o Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument:
In Celebration of Preservation. Available as
a pdf on the National Park Service E-Library:
H.W. (2003). The Fossils of Florissant. Washington:
H.W., Veatch, S.W. and Cook, A. (2004). Field guide to
the paleontology and volcanic setting of Florissant fossil
beds, Colorado (pp. 151-166). In Nelson, E.P. and Erslev,
E.A. [Eds.] Field Trips in the Southern Rocky Mountains,
USA. Geological Society of America Field Guide 5.
H.W. and Smith, D.M., [Eds.], (2008). Paleontology
of the Upper Eocene Florissant Formation, Colorado.
Geologic Society of America Special Paper 435.
Park Service website for Florissant Fossil Beds National
Monument, Colorado. Homesteaders and Settlers page:
H.W., Wasson, M.S., and Frakes, B.J. (2008). Development of an
integrated paleontological database and Web site of Florissant
collections, taxonomy, and publications. In Meyer, H.W., and
Smith, D.M., [Eds.], Paleontology of the Upper Eocene Florissant
Formation, Colorado (pp. 159-177). Geological Society of
America Special Paper 435.
N. and Sloan, M. (2004). The Rarest of the Rare:
Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of
Natural History. New York: HarperCollins Publishers