Florissant Fossil Beds
National Monument
Colorado
Logo
Park Photo
NPS photo



Below Your Boots The Past is Present

To leave a record of our experience is a very human desire. Early humans painted cave walls and etched in rock the events of their lives. In Colorado some of these historic stories in stone date back 4,000 years. But the picture-perfect wasp records events even 10,000 times older than that. Here, beneath pine covered hills and grassy meadows in south central Colorado, lies one of the world's richest fossil deposits. Remnants of an ancient world lie just below your boots.

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument has yielded over 50,000 museum specimens from fossils of over 1,700 species—1,500 insects, 150 plants, and one of the world's only known fossil records of the tsetse fly, now found only in equatorial Africa. Here, no big bones stick out of the ground, but delicate fossil insect wings and finely veined leaves lurk beneath your feet, deep time's secrets locked in paper-thin shale. This world-class snapshot records Eocene Epoch life here 34 million years ago (mya).

WHAT WAS THE EOCENE? Keep in mind: here didn't look like here 34 mya, and what was here was vastly different. Redwood trees in Colorado, you ask? Similar redwoods now grow only in a thin belt on the California and Oregon coasts but exist here as fossil stumps, many still beneath the valley floor. No doubt the tsetse fly thrived because here was warm-temperate then, not today's cool-temperate highlands. In the Eocene Epoch—55 mya to 33.8 mya—warm-temperate forest reached the Arctic. And these fossil plant communities are much like today's plant communities in northeast Mexico, southern Texas, southern Appalachia, and eastern Asia. They represent the end of the Eocene, with global climate set to cool dramatically over millions of years. For planetary life this would be the biggest event since the extinction of dinosaurs 65 mya.

STRATIGRAPHY In 1669 the Danish geologist Nicholas Steno described how younger rock layers—strata—usually lie over older rock layers. Stratigraphy is the study of rock layers and layering and can show sequences of events like volcanoes or how lakes come and go over time. Shale formed from very fine volcanic ash and diatoms (microscopic algae) settling to a lake bottom, which cemented our wasp's great legacy.

Mudflows and Streams of Stone

A massive volcanic area—the Guffey Volcanic complex—existed 15 miles to the southwest 34 mya. The eruptions mixed ash, water, and possibly snow to create massive mudflows called lahars. They covered today's Florissant. The volcanic sediments broke down to soil, in which forests grew. Streams flowed in the forests. Mammals of the forest died near the streams, became buried in stream deposits, and were fossilized. The stream deposits were covered by more mudflows.

Volcanic Lahar Layer

Powerful, destructive, and creative, lahars are mud flows from the slopes of volcanoes. They can move 150 mph down the slopes and carry car-sized boulders. A lahar from the Guffey volcano entombed ancient redwood trees in up to 15 feet of mud and volcanic debris. Eventually the parts of trees encased in mud would become petrified. A later Guffey lahar dammed a stream, creating Lake Florissant. In its bottom sediments many insect, leaf, and fish fossils began to form.

And Paper-thin Shale

Fragile, paper-thin shale that formed on the bottom of Lake Florissant preserves delicate fossils. The shale formed from repeated microlayers of clay and volcanic ash—finer than talcum powder—overlain by films of the skeletons of dead diatoms. Sticky, surface mats of the dead algae trapped insects and leaves, then sank. The shale's delicate, fine-grained layers preserve tiny features in great detail. Many Florissant fossils look like realistic paintings or exquisite drawings.

EOCENE Eos=dawn + cene=new: The Eocene Epoch (55 mya-33.8 mya) is named for the dawn of small mammals. The climate was warm, sea level high, oceans warmer than now, and continents on the move. Glaciers began to form in Antarctica. In the late Eocene, global climate was set to cool significantly.

34 MYA a different world Florissant Fossil Beds may give clues about how an ecosystem responds to climate change. Soon after fossil beds formed here 34 mya, just as the Eocene gave way to the Oligocene Earth's climate cooled rapidly, by geologic measures. Where relatives of fossil plants and insects now live may show response to changing climate. We can compare this fossil site to others formed after climate cooled. So, even something "as old as a fossil" can be relevant and full of information today.

HOLOCENE Holos=entirely + cene=new: The Holocene Epoch is recent time, the last 10,000 years. An important thing these fossil beds can show us is how life adapted to the rapid climate change that took place soon after 34 mya. Compare: Eocene North and South America did not have a land bridge—today's Central America.

"We get all tangled up with the present. . . .

The present is just a little flick in time between the past and the future. Things keep going on and on. . . .

We are just in this particular little time interval, and it seems so important to us."

—Harry D. MacGinitie, 1979

Stone Secrets of Deep Time

Humans are curious, exploring outer space, ocean depths, and even our own genes. Untold discoveries remain here at Florissant. Beneath this valley and rolling hills lies an ancient world, a 34-million-year-old ecosystem. Remarkably, scientists can describe the ecosystem in detail—despite such deep time—because so many of its working parts survive in stone. These fossils are not for burning for fuel. These fossils fuel our understanding and imagination. Their high biotic diversity tells of a warm-temperate past in a place that is now cool-temperate. They show organisms whose relatives still live here. They show others that no longer exist. Still others now exist only in other parts of the world. Tsetse flies fossilized here but don't live in North America. They live in equatorial Africa. Some secrets do remain: No fossils of reptiles or amphibians have been found here. Discovery goes on and on, with an active paleontology program.

THE BEECH FAMILY
Broadleaf plants, not conifers, were most diverse here 34 mya. A now-extinct member of the beech family, Fagopsis longifolia, was common. Its fossils have different plant organs attached, showing stages of the tree's reproductive cycle. This is very unusual and therefore significant. No fossils of its wood have been found with organs attached, so its wood is a mystery.

A VARIED ENVIRONMENT
Fossilized horsetails and cattails probably grew near ancient Lake Florissant or near streams. By contrast, fossil oak tree leaves show that hillsides may have been comparatively drier—as they are today.

Fir pollen suggests that cooler conifer forests may have existed on the upper slopes of the nearby volcano. The biologically diverse fossils show that the ancient environment was diverse.

ANOTHER CONTINENT
Like the tsetse fly, the golden rain tree no longer lives on the North American continent. It now lives only in eastern Asia—providing a clue to how plants dispersed in the past.

park map

topo map
(click for larger maps)

ENJOYING THE NATIONAL MONUMENT TODAY

Today's park landscape features mountain meadows and rolling hills forested with ponderosa pine, spruce, fir, and aspen. These trees stand in stark contrast to petrified giant sequoia stumps from the ancient ecosystem these fossil beds preserve. And those petrified stumps stand in massive contrast to the delicate insect and leaf fossils.

It took 50 years of advocacy by many scientists and other people to get the fossil beds protected in 1969, in order to prevent irreplaceable loss. You can help protect this precious national heritage. Do not collect or damage the fossils, petrified wood, or other natural or historical features. And please report any violations you see to a park ranger.

Fossils from Florissant are in over 20 U.S. and U.K. museums and universities. Harvard University houses 8,000 fossil insects that paleontologist Samuel Scudder found in the late 1800s. T.D.A. Cockerell of the University of Colorado, Boulder, and Harry MacGinitie, of the University of California, Berkeley, later studied fossils here.

Park staff inventoried and photographed over 5,000 significant fossils at 17 museums to create a virtual museum and research database. To explore it go to www.nps.gov/flfo.

Fossils are best seen here in the visitor center, in the outdoor exhibit area behind the visitor center, or on the onemile Petrified Forest Loop. Get out on the park's 14 miles of trails (get a trail brochure at the visitor center). You may see an elk, black bear, coyote, badger, porcupine, tassel-eared Abert's squirrel, golden eagle, red-tailed hawk, or mountain lion. The altitude is 8,500 feet above sea level, so pace yourself, drink lots of water, and use sunscreen.

The wheelchair-accessible Ponderosa Loop starts behind the visitor center outdoor exhibit area. This half-mile walk goes through montane forest. On the one-mile Petrified Forest Loop you can see a fossil excavation site, the Big Stump (38 feet in circumference), and other massive stumps.

Schedules of ranger programs and hikes are posted in the visitor center, open daily except Thanksgiving, December 25, and January 1. Exhibits there show how fossils form. Find out more in books, videos, DVDs, and other items sold there. Also check on educational programs, field seminars, and the Junior Ranger program.

The 1878 Hornbek Homestead recalls pioneer life. Adeline Hornbek and her children farmed and ranched here. See their original cabin and root cellar and three historic buildings moved here from local ranches.

Services are available two miles north of the park in the town of Florissant: gasoline, restaurants, and convenience stores. Lodging is available in Woodland Park and Colorado Springs east of the park. Public and private campgrounds are nearby.

Source: NPS Brochure (2013)


Establishment

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument — August 20, 1969


For More Information
Please Visit The
Link to Official NPS Website
OFFICIAL NPS
WEBSITE


Brochures ◆ Site Bulletins ◆ Trading Cards expand section

Documents

A History of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument: In Celebration of Preservation (April 1994)

A new talpid from the late Eocene of North America (Karen J. Lloyd and Jaelyn J. Eberle, extract from Acta Palaeontologica Polonica, 53(3), 2008)

A Report on Some Miocene Diptera from Florissant, Colorado (Axel Leonard Melander, extract from American Museum Novitates, No. 1407, February 3, 1949)

A Review of the Fossil Plants in the United States National Museum from Florissant Lake Beds at Florissant, Colorado, with Descriptions of New Species and List of Type-Specimens (F.H. Knowlton, extract from Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum, Vol. 51 No. 2151, 1916)

Adephagous and Clavicorn Coleoptera from the Tertiary Deposits at Florissant, Colorado, with Descriptions of a Few other Forms and a Systematic List of the Non-Rhynchophorous Tertiary Coleoptera of North America Monographs of the United States Geological Survey Volume XL (Samuel Hubbard Scudder, 1900)

American fossil mosses, with description of a new species from Florissant, Colorado (Elizabeth Gertrude Britton and Arthur Hollick, extract from Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club, Vol. 34 No. 3, March 1907)

Article IV. — An Enumeration of the Localities in the Florissant Basin, From Which Fossils Were Obtained in 1906 Bulletin American Museum of Natural History Vol. XXIII (T.D.A. Cockerell, 1907)

Article IV. — The Fossil Flora of Florissant, Colorado Bulletin American Museum of Natural History Vol. XXIV (T.D.A. Cockerell, 1908)

Assessment of the Trails and Entry Area Around the Visitor Center, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (January 2004)

Colorado A Million Years Ago The American Museum Journal (T.D.A. Cockerell, 1916)

Contributions to the Fossil Flora of the Western Territories. Part III: The Cretaceous and Tertiary Floras Report of the United States Geological Survey of the Territories (Leo Lesquereux, Volume VIII, 1883)

Final General Management Plan and Development Concept Plan, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado (1985)

Florissant: A Miocene Pompeii (T.D.A. Cockerell, extract from Popular Science Monthly, Vol. 73, August 1908)

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (Mike Viney, 2012)

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument: A Proposal (April 1962)

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Oral History Project, Phase One Report (Nichelle Frank and Ruth Alexander, December 2011)

Fossil Coleoptera from Florissant in the United States National Museum (H.F Wickham, extract from Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum, Vol. 45 No. 1982, 1913)

Fossil Flora and Stratigraphy of the Florissant Formation, Colorado (Emmett Evanoff, Kathryn M. Gregory-Wodzicki and Kirk R. Johnson, eds., Proceedings of the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Series 4 No. 1, October 1, 2001, ©Denver Museum of Science & Nature, all rights reserved)

Introduction (Kirk R. Johnson and Emmett Evanoff)

Stratigraphic Summary and 40AR/39AR Geochronology of the Florissant Formation, Colorado (Emmett Evanoff, William C. McIntosh and Paul C. Murphey)

Florissant Leaf and Pollen Floras of Colorado Compared: Climatic Implications (Estella B. Leopold and Scott T. Clay-Poole)

Palynology of the Uppermost Eocene Lacustrine Deposits at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado (F. H. Wingate and D. J. Nichols)

Update on the Megafossil Flora of Florissant, Colorado (Steven R. Manchester)

Paleoclimatic Implications of Tree-Ring Growth Characteristics of 34.1 Ma Sequoioxylon pearsallii from Florissant, Colorado (Kathryn M. Gregory-Wodzicki)

Fossil Dicotyledonous Woods from Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado (E. A. Wheeler)

A Review of the Paleoelevation Estimates from the Florissant Flora, Colorado (Herbert W. Meyer)

Fossil Hymenoptera from Florissant, Colorado (T.D.A. Cockerell, extract from Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, Vol. L No. 2, June 1906)

Fossil Parasitic and Phytophagous Hymenoptera from Florissant, Colorado (Charles T. Brues, extract from Bulletin American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XXII, Article XXIX, 1906)

Fossil Plants of the Florissant Beds, Colorado Carnegie Institution of Washington Publication 599 (Harry D. MacGinitie, 1953)

Fossil Remains of What Appears to be a Passerine Bird from the Florissant Shales of Colorado (R.W. Shufeldt, extract from Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum, Vol. 53 No. 2215, 1917)

Foundation Document, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado (January 2016)

Foundation Document Overview, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado (March 2016)

Geologic Resource Evaluation Report, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument NPS Natural Resource Report NPS/NRPC/GRD/NRR-2006/009 (K. KellerLynn, March 2006)

Geology of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (©Annabelle Foos and Joseph Hannibal, 1999)

Junior Ranger Activity Book, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Official (2007)

Junior Ranger Activity Book, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Official (Date Unknown)

National Register of Historic Places Nomination Form

Hornbek House (Mary Shiver Culpin, April 19, 1980)

Native Peoples of the Florissant Valley: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Ethnographic Overview and Assessment Final Report (Sally McBeth, November 22, 2019)

New Miocene Coleoptera from Florissant (H.F. Wickham, extract from Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zo├Âlogy at Harvard College, Vol. LVIII no. 11 December 1914)

New Species of Fossil Beetles from Florissant, Colorado (H.F. Wickham, extract from Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum, Vol. 52 No. 2189, 1917)

Newsletters: Friends of Florissant Fossil Beds (2003-2021)

Phylogenetic Distribution and Identification of Fin-winged Fruits (Steven R. Manchester and Elizabeth L. O'Leary, extract from The Botanical Review, 76(1), March 9, 2010)

Plants of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument Pikes Peak Research Station Bulletin No. 2 (Mary E. Edwards and William A. Weber, 1990)

Some Fossil Insects from Florissant, Colorado (T.D.A. Cockerell, extract from Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum, Vol. 44 No. 1955, 1913)

Some Insects of Special Interest from Florissant, Colorado and Other Points in the Tertiaries of Colorado and Utah USGS Bulletin No. 93 (Samuel Hubbard Scudder, 1892)

Some Old-World Types of Insects in the Miocene of Colorado (T.D.A. Cockerell, extract from Science, Vol. 26 No. 666, October 4, 1907)

Statement for Management — Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (June 1990)

Structure and Relations of Mylostoma Bulletin of the Museum of Comparative Zoölogy at Harvard College Vol. L. No. 1 (C.R. Eastman, May 1906)

The Friends of the Florissant Fossil Beds: Partnership support of education and research in geology and paleontology (Steven Wade Veatch, New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science Bulletin 34, 2006, ©New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, all rights reserved)

The Tertiary Insects of North America United States Geological Survey of the Territories Report No. 13 (Samuel H. Scudder, 1890)

The Tsetse Flies of Florissant, Colorado Pikes Peak Research Station Bulletin No. 1 (F. Martin Brown, May 31, 1986)

Travels in Geology: Florissant fossil beds: An Eocene time capsule (Terri Cook and Lone Abbot, extract from Earth, July 2011)

Two Fossil Insects from Florissant, Colorado, with a Discussion of the Venation of the Aeshnine Dragon-Flies (T.D.A. Cockerell, extract from Proceedings of the U.S. National Museum, Vol. 45 No. 2000, 1913)

Using a relational geodatabase to manage paleontological resources at Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (M.A. Barton, B. Frakes and H.W. Meyer, New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science Bulletin 34, 2006, ©New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science, all rights reserved)

Vascular Plant Inventory, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument (Susan Spackman Panjabi and Sharon J. Anderson, December 30, 2002)

Visitor Education and Research/Museum Facility Environmental Assessment, Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, Colorado (August 2007)



Handbooks ◆ Books expand section

Videos

Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument



flfo/index.htm
Last Updated: 28-May-2022