‘Stories in the rocks’
Paleontologists find 300-million-year fossil span at Red Rock Canyon
Red Rock Canyon Open Space is providing a treasure trove of fossils for a pair of trained paleontology volunteers.
According to the duo of Michael Poltenovage and Sharon Molito, who started combing the site for ancient secrets a few months ago, the park is special because it has fossils spanning a broad range of of time (300 million years) in an area that's relatively small (less than 800 acres).
“That's rather unique,” Poltenovage said. “Usually for that amount of time span, you have to travel somewhere.”
To give an idea of how long 300 million years is, there are fossils from two different sets of “Rocky Mountains” that uplifted in the area during that time, Poltenovage said.
Molito's biggest thrill so far has been discovering a dinosaur footprint. “I found it by accident,” she said. “We were taking a lunch break on our first sruvey. I looked up over my head, and there was a dinosaur footprint on one of the hogbacks.” So that in itself is an incentive for her. She hasn't found others yet, but she expects to: “I think if there is one, there should be more.”
She is doubtful about uncovering a full-bodied dino fossil. “It would be wonderful, but not likely,” she said. “They're usually in the Morrison formations, and a lot of that is under the landfill [the one that handled trash from most of the city for about 20 years].”
Adding to the appeal of Red Rock, the site has barely been studied till now - mainly because it was in private hands for about 80 years before the city purchased the property in 2003.
Molito and Poltenovage took separate but similar paths to their joint venture. Each has a professional career - she's a fourth-grade teacher, he's a software engineer - and each recently began studying paleontology on the side, taking a series of certification classes offered through the Denver Museum of of Nature and Science on weekends or at night.
Molito initially got her spark from a class she took at Colorado College. “I didn't know the stories rocks could tell,” she said.
Poltenovage said he's “always been fascinated with the creatures of the past.” When he read about the certification possibility at the Denver Musem, he decided, “here was an opportunity to really learn more about them.”
Another spur for him was his children, to help them understand volunteering and outdoor possibilities. “I wanted to show my kids there is more available out there than a corporate cube,” the engineer commented.
Last summer, Molito and Poltenovage participated in a two-day fossil Red Rock Canyon survey, led by a Colorado College professor, which revealed some of the site's possibilities. Afterward, both had similar reactions: They wanted to study it more. A lot more.
“We were so excited about it,” Molito said. “We thought, wouldn't it be great to go deeper with what we found.”
They couldn't just walk in and start poking around. They had to write a proposal that would meet the approval of City Parks' Cultural Services division and the Denver Museum - which eventually agreed to monitor their efforts and help them with complicated finds, if need be.
One more requirement was a collection permit from the state. But that does not mean they dig or remove finds very often. Mostly, what they're looking for is “stuff on the ground, and we leave most of it,” Molito said. The only times they take fossils is if they need to do more research on them, “or if they're really great,” she said.
The timing of the study worked out well for Cultural Services. According to its director, Matt Mayberry, “We are in the beginning stages of developing our interpretation at Red Rock Canyon. The kinds of research Sharon and Mike are doing will give us a huge leg up… To know what's there will help us protect it.”
With warmer weather coming, the two paleontologists expect to be out in the canyon at least twice a week. It's a painstaking effort. Gradually working their way across the open space property, they comb each rock formation, using their training to spot fossils and gauge their significance. Time in the field is followed by often longer periods indoors, analyzing finds for shape, color, markings, size and the like.
“Right now we're concentrating on seaway soils,” Poltenovage said in a recent interview. “We've found five different types of sharks from about 90 million years ago. “Some were shell-crushng sharks with rounded teeth that they used to crush the giant clams that were all over the place.”
When the two are finished - possibly by next December - they'll make a final report to the state archeologist with the Colorado Historical Society as well as to the museum and Cultural Services and “one or more scientific journals,” Poltenovage said.
Not that he or Molito is in a big hurry to leave. “There's just not enough time,” he said. “I can see why it can take years.”
Westside Pioneer article