Fossils of prehistoric creature found near Aspen |

Fossils of prehistoric creature found near Aspen

John Colson
Vail CO, Colorado
Special to the Daily/Aspen TimesMike Gordon holds the fossilized remains of a fin of a plesiosaur he discovered last year.

ASPEN ” Approximately 200 million years ago, a large marine reptile, perhaps foraging along the shoreline of an inland sea in what would one day be Colorado, died and sank into the gathering silt and organic debris to ultimately become a fossil.

Fast-forward through the eons to just about a year ago ” a man out for a day of hunting with a friend spies a strip of bluish stone embedded in the ground that he thinks might be petrified wood, but which turns out to be the remains of that long-dead reptile.

So it is that Mike Gordon, 21, of Old Snowmass, is the proud possessor of what he hopes is a nearly intact skeleton of a beast known as a plesiosaur, one of a family of marine reptiles that ate mostly fish and roamed the coastal waters of the inland ocean that once covered much of the Rocky Mountain region, as well as a number of other regions around the globe.

“Most of it is still in the ground,” said Gordon, a graduate of Aspen High School and a senior at Colorado State University in Fort Collins, studying mechanical engineering.

He stumbled upon the find about a year ago and has been keeping its location secret ever since, to prevent curious or greedy scavenging of the site. In the meantime, he has been carefully exposing and removing the skeletal remains, using a spoon and a toothbrush for the initial delicate stages, with the help of his mother, Jessica Bramson.

So far they have unearthed parts of a rib cage, some vertebrae and pieces of one of the reptile’s four large “paddles” that propelled it through the water, and they are hoping that a university or some other professional paleontological agency will take over for them soon.

The skeleton is buried in a ridge of mancos shale, which was formed by sedimentary deposits along the shore of that inland sea over the intervening eons.

“This kind of plesiosaur, I’m pretty sure, is early to middle Jurassic,” Gordon said. Plesiosaurs are believed to have first appeared at the very start of the Jurassic Period, about 204 million years ago, and thrived until the “K-T extinction,” at the end of the Cretaceous period about 165 million years ago. While they were Mesozoic reptiles that lived at the same time as dinosaurs, they were not dinosaurs, scientists say.

Gordon recalled that he plucked a few of the bluish rocks out of the ground and took them to a friend, Simon Hmani, proprietor of the Columbine Aspen shop and something of an amateur paleontologist.

“He’s got a lot of stuff,” Gordon said of Hmani’s basement collection of ancient artifacts, “including a Saber-toothed Tiger skull. He knows the difference” between petrified wood and, say, dinosaur bones. And what Gordon had found, Hmani said, was definitely a collection of fragmented skeletal remains, perhaps of a dinosaur. Hmani also agreed to put some of Gordon’s find on public display at his shop over the next 10 days, Gordon said.

Gordon next went to a certified expert he knew from lectures at CSU, paleontologist Brent Breithaupt of the University of Wyoming, who confirmed that the fragment were, indeed, bones. Thinking they could be the remains of a plesiosaur, Breithaupt send Gordon to yet another expert, Kenneth Carpenter, curator of vertebraic palentology at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who said the bones appear to be those of a plesiosaur.

Neither Breithaupt nor Carpenter could be reached for comment for this story.

But according to information gleaned from research on the Internet, there are a number of different types of plesiosaurs.

“A typical plesiosaur had a broad body and a short tail,” states the Web reference, Wikipedia. “They retained their ancestral two pairs of limbs, which evolved into large flippers [paddles]. Plesiosaurs evolved from earlier, similar forms such as pistosaurs or very early, longer-necked pliosaurs. There are a number of families of plesiosaurs, which retain the same general appearance and are distinguished by various specific details,” such as the fact that some have quite long, almost serpentine necks where others have short, thick necks.

“The first plesiosaur skeletons were found in England by Mary Anning, in the early 1800s, and were among the first fossil vertebrates to be described by science,” the Wikipedia entry continues. “Many have been found, some of them virtually complete, and new discoveries are made frequently.”

But Gordon, based on his conversations with Breithaupt and Carpenter, believes his is the first plesiosaur to be found in the high country of the Rocky Mountains.

According to The Plesiosaur Site Web site, which gives its purpose as being “to give serious and detailed information on the order plesiosauria,” the creatures’ remains have been found on every continent, including Antarctica, and in several Western U.S. states including Colorado. But the Colorado finds have been either in the Front Range area or in the western reaches of the Western Slope.

Noting that dinosaur footprints were recently discovered in the Maroon Bells wilderness area, Gordon said, “Other than that, I don’t believe there’s anything this old in the valley,” at least nothing that’s been found so far.

Support Local Journalism