Interpretation – Connecting Audiences to Science and Culture

As an interpretation and outreach assistant, I’m working with visitors at the park to explain the geology, paleontology, and history of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument, FLFO in an engaging and understandable way. While teleworking, I search for ideas I can use for Latino outreach on behalf of the park. In my next post, I will describe in detail what types of projects I’m currently working on. First, I want to focus on what interpretation is and what that looks like in the park during these times.  

I recognize that I’m fortunate to be at my site in-person for at least two days of the week. Yet, at that same time I must be cautious, especially since FLFO gets at least 100 and up to 300 visitors per day. On average, there are about 70,000 visitors per year. Due to the pandemic, the number of visitors has decreased, but for my position I still encounter dozens of people. During my days at the park I greet visitors on the front or back patio. At both interpretation stations, we’re geared with our masks, hand sanitizer, sanitation spray and disinfectant wipes. Masks have recently become mandated by Colorado Governor Polis, yet we cannot enforce the use of masks to visitors. Luckily, the majority of people who visit wear their masks and social distance. 

Unfortunately, many of FLFO’s summer programs had to be cancelled. This includes the annual geology/paleontology in-person day camp, and the Fishing, Fossils y Familia program. Following COVID-19 mitigation procedures, we’re able to do informal interpretation and small pop-up programs. In front of the visitor center and at the back patio underneath the stump shelter, we have a small set-up displaying fossilized insects and leaves along with chunks of petrified wood and laminated figures that provide supplementary information. 

Informal interpretation display of fossils set-up in the back patio 

According to the Interpretive Development Program: Forging Connections through Audience Centered Experiences (ACE), the purpose of interpretation is to enrich people’s lives through meaningful learning experiences and recreation to protect natural and cultural resources by collaborating with the public to raise social awareness and community building.    

When I first started interpretive work, Jeff let me shadow him for a bit to learn the basic park “spiel” which is our short introduction to the park. It wasn’t long before I was on my own giving my version of the spiel to visitors. Since my educational background is in geology, I caught on quickly. I also enjoyed learning about the history of the region and FLFO.  

Astrid explaining the permineralization process to visitors

Now for my favorite part…the geology and paleontology of the park! When visitors, particularly children ask questions about how the fossils formed, I enjoy conveying that information to them in the form of a story. I’m an imaginative person, so I like getting creative. Without further ado, I’m about to take you back in time…let’s hop into our time machines to travel 34 million years into the past to visit Eocene Florissant!

Now, we’re in a temperate and moist forest environment. Redwood trees (Sequoia Affinis) tower over us, as they’re thriving along Lake Florissant and the stream valley. It’s warm and humid, how about we check out the lake. Eck, it’s really slimy, so we won’t want to go swimming in that. Plus, there’s tons of bugs everywhere, including these huge mosquitoes, so we have to swat them away! Through the forest, we see these large mammals that stand over 8-feet tall and look like rhinoceros with two horns protruding from their face. Scurrying past us, are these two-and-a-half feet tall, three-toed horses. As we continue exploring our surroundings, the ground starts to rumble. In the distance we can see ash spewing from the Guffey volcanic center, which is roughly 18 miles southwest of us. We need to find cover because it’s raining hot ash! Wait, now it’s actually raining. That’s not good because when the ash mixes with heavy rainfall that forms a lahar, which is a volcanic mudflow. Uh oh, there’s one coming straight towards us from the slopes of the volcano at a speed over 150 mph! We have to run, otherwise we’ll turn into fossils! 

FLFO Visitor Center pictured in the distance across a grassy meadow, just imagine ancient Lake Florissant spanning across this area

Okay, we’re safe now…we’re back to the present. During the late Eocene, Florissant Valley was completely different compared to what we see today. The ancient Redwoods that once thrived in this region became preserved by a massive lahar, that likely originated from the Guffey volcanic complex within the Thirty-nine Mile volcanic field. The lahar rapidly buried the trunks of these trees while the force of the impact broke off the tops and ultimately suffocated the ancient Redwoods. The parts that weren’t buried decayed away over time. Groundwater percolated through into the buried trunks carrying minerals and silica from the ash, which slowly precipitated out into the cells of the trees maintaining their internal structure. This process is called permineralization AKA petrification. This process also applies to any bones buried. Fossils of now extinct mammals have also been identified in this area. For example parts of the small three-toed horse, the Mesohippus, and the rhinoceros-looking Brontotheres, which weighed over two tons have been excavated in this area. 

Astrid posing in front of a partially excavated petrified stump that has modern grasses and lichen growing on it 

Credit: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, FLFO

Part of a Brontothere vertebra 

Credit: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, FLFO

Lower jaw of Mesohippus

In slimy ancient Lake Florissant, insects, leaves, fish, birds, and small rodents that were unfortunate enough to drown in the lake became preserved in paper shale. This sedimentary rock forms in slow moving waters and is a result of compaction, consisting of consolidated mud, clay, volcanic ash, diatoms, and other minerals that were deposited in the ancient lake. This layered rock splits easily along parallel layers, and the paper shale of the Florissant Formation is very thin, hence the name. Many of these fossils exhibit delicate features, and there’s different types including carbon compressions and imprints. 

Credit: U.S. Dept. of the Interior, National Park Service, FLFO

Bowfin fish, Amia Scutata

Overall, these fossils tell us a story of Eocene Florissant and how different the climate and vegetation was in the past for this region. From what can be observed, a global cooling across the entire Earth likely happened. Now, modern Redwoods (Sequoia Sempervirens) are found only in certain parts of the world such as the coast of California and Oregon.

The FLFO mission is to protect and preserve these fossils, paleontological, geological, and scenic resources to provide for scientific research and interpretation for public understanding and stewardship. I hope you enjoyed traveling through time to explore Eocene Florissant. 

To give you a better idea of modern Florissant Valley versus Eocene Florissant, FLFO recently released an 18-minute film titled Shadows of the Past on our website, which I highly recommend.


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