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NOVA: Rise Of The Mammals

Stream now or tune in Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Dr. Ian Miller (Left, Curator of Paleobotany at the Denver Museum of Nature &...

Credit: Courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

Above: Dr. Ian Miller (Left, Curator of Paleobotany at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science) and Dr. Tyler Lyson (Right, Curator of Paleontology at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science) look for fossil concretions at the Corral Bluffs site. (undated photo)

Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid slammed into Earth, bringing the dinosaurs' reign to a fiery end. But from this catastrophe, tiny mammal survivors were able to emerge from the shadows and flourish.

Today we live in the age of mammals, with a staggering array of species, from lions to bats to whales, occupying nearly every habitat on Earth.

But how did our predecessors evolve so rapidly and diversify into the range of creatures we know today? An astonishing new trove of fossils is finally providing some answers.

NOVA: Rise Of The Mammals: Preview

Sixty-six million years ago, an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs in a fiery global catastrophe. But we know little about how their successors, the mammals, recovered and took over the world. Now, hidden inside ordinary-looking rocks, an astonishing trove of fossils reveals a dramatic new picture of how rat-sized creatures ballooned in size and began to evolve into the vast array of species — from cheetahs to bats to whales to humans — that rule our planet today.

On "Rise Of The Mammals," NOVA takes you to Colorado, where fossils hidden inside ordinary-looking rocks provide a dramatic picture of how life rebounded in the first million years after the asteroid impact.

Mammal Fossils Fill in Missing Piece of the Timeline of Life

Paleontologists analyze concretions — hard orbs of minerals that can collect around material like bone — and discover fossils of mammals that lived on Earth just after an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.

They show how plants and animals evolved together, and how rat-sized mammals — safe from dinosaurs’ jaws — ballooned in size at an astounding rate.

How Fossilized Plants Tell Us About the Evolution of Animals

Vertebrate fossils can help scientists better understand evolutionary timelines. But plant fossils give paleontologists and paleobotanists a more complete story.

What the fossils tell us may transform our understanding of our fellow mammals — and how life can recover after a mass extinction.

Paleontologist Makes "Game-Changing" Fossil Discovery

At Corral Bluffs, Colorado, paleontologist Tyler Lyson discovers rare mammal fossils that paint a picture of the first million years after an asteroid killed the dinosaurs.

“This story about the recovery of life reminds us of the incredible tenacity of life on Earth. It also reveals a different kind of tenacity — that of the dogged persistence of the scientists and volunteers who worked so hard to make this discovery,” said NOVA Co-Executive Producer Chris Schmidt. “Now, thanks to them,we have a vivid picture of how our scorched planet came back to life.”

Photo credit: Courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

An overhead shot of selected plant fossils retrieved from Corral Bluffs. More than 6,000 leaves were collected as part of the study to help determine how and when Earth’s forest rebounded after the mass extinction event.

Photo credit: Courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

An overhead shot of the prepared mammal skull fossils and lower jaw retrieved from Corral Bluffs.

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Photo credit: Courtesy of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios

CGI rendering of ancient Taeniolabis mammal taken from the PBS NOVA special, "Rise Of The Mammals."

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Credits:

A NOVA production by HHMI Tangled Bank Studios for WGBH Boston. Writer, Director, and Executive Producer is Geoff Luck. Executive Producers for HHMI Tangled Bank Studios are John Rubin and Sean B. Carroll. Executive Producer for NOVA is Chris Schmidt. NOVA Series Co-Executive Producers are Julia Cort and Chris Schmidt.

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