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Dinosaur footprints, fossils discovered 'in our own backyard'

Elizabeth Hernandez, The Denver Post on

Published in Lifestyles

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — Past fields of yellow wildflowers, tall grass and prairie dog burrows, an Adams County geology teacher, four of his students and the Broomfield mayor huddled around the fossilized footprint of a horned dinosaur that roamed this land some 70 million years ago.

“To have this in our own backyard,” Mayor Guyleen Castriotta said. “You can’t beat it.”

The Friday afternoon field trip was the result of Northglenn High School geology teacher Kent Hups stumbling across dinosaur fossils about three years ago while out scouting.

Hups is a researcher with the Denver Museum of Nature and Science who has excavated fossils throughout the West for decades. During the height of the pandemic, he stayed closer to home and took his high school geology students on virtual walks around his community hunting for natural treasures he could share with them over Zoom.

That’s when he first found dinosaur fossils on Broomfield open space, adjacent to a suburban neighborhood. To help preserve the area, Hups doesn’t want to disclose the exact location.

“I’m excited as hell,” Hups said. “You do a lot of whooping and hollering by yourself when you find these things. When you find footprints, you’re looking at something that was left by a living animal. To be able to touch that — it’s like 70 million years ago, this thing was alive and stepped right here. I’m stepping in the same place. It’s an amazing feeling.”

Traversing through thick grasses and shimmying up and down steep hills, Hups led the class to three dinosaur footprints, but said there were surely more in the area. The fossilized footprints looked like garden stepping stones jutting up from the grass, a little larger than a basketball with ridges and indentations that Hups explained were the dinosaurs’ toes.

Based on the toe patterns, Hups said it was a horned dinosaur — possibly a Triceratops.

It took a while working with the city of Broomfield to get the proper permits, but on Friday, Hups was finally able to take some students to investigate the area. He handed out plastic bags to the teens — some who had trekked out in Doc Marten boots and Converse sneakers — and showed them how to crouch low to inspect the dirt for bones.

Alanna Santa Cruz, 15, whipped a magnifying glass out of her back pocket as she squatted on the ground, her knees touching the earth through the ripped holes in her jeans.

Alanna is in Hups’ school paleontology club.

“When I was a kid, I was obsessed with dinosaurs,” she said. “I knew all about them and had a bunch of the toys and watched all the movies. I wanted to see what it would be like to be a paleontologist.”

The area they visited Friday was ripe with small fossils and bones sticking out of the ground among rocks, cacti and dirt. Some were more obvious to the untrained eye — shaped like vertebrae, for example — while others could be confused for stones and debris. The pieces of creatures were small enough to fit in the palm of a hand and scattered everywhere, broken into bits after years of exposure.

Students approached Hups with cupped palms full of objects. Sometimes Hups told them they had just found a mineral, but other times, his eyes lit up as he announced they had found bone.

 

“If you’re not sure, lick it,” Hups said, bringing an object from the ground to his lips and grazing it with his tongue. “If it sticks to it like ice, that’s a fossil.”

Hups’ students looked at their teacher with disgusted grimaces.

“Try it!” he said with delight.

“No, thanks, mister,” Alanna said.

When Hups turned his back, Alanna marveled at an object in her hand, turning it over and over trying to determine its value. She brought it to her mouth and snuck a quick lick.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” she said, declaring it a fossil and popping it into her bag.

The class wrote down the GPS coordinates of their finds so they can bring them back later in the year after they’re done investigating them, so as not to disturb the natural resources, Hups said.

Jonah Rotert, 17, was quiet and reserved at the start of the trek, but he couldn’t help but grin as his bag filled with tiny bones belonging to prehistoric creatures. Hups said he was sure Rotert had found a crocodile bone.

“It’s a really cool feeling,” Rotert said. “I’m the first person to touch these in millions of years.”

Millions of years ago, these massive creatures walked where the class stood, Hups said, pointing toward cars speeding down U.S. 287 in the distance.

“I love seeing the modern on top of ancient life,” Hups said.

Next school year, the students will present their findings to the city of Broomfield and come up with ideas on how to educate the public about the land, the fossils and how important it is to report findings, Hups said.

“What did this environment look like all these years ago?” Hups said. “Until we find fossils, we don’t know. What’s most important about them is the story they tell.”


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