Kirk Johnson grew up in Seattle. His mom was from Casper, Wyoming and his dad was from Fresno, California. Childhood road trips to these places put him in front of fossils at the tender age of 6 and he never looked back. As a teenager, he was befriended by NW artist and amateur paleobotanist Wes Wehr. Kirk and Wes hunted fossils in Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia in the 1970s. In 1977, the re-discovered the fabulous fossil site in Republic, Washington. This site is now a small museum and active open-to-the-public dig know as the Stone Rose Interpretive Center.

Kirk studied geology and fine art at Amherst College, obtained a Master’s Degree at the University of Pennsylvania, and completed his Ph D. at Yale University. In between his degrees, he studied walruses and gray whales for the US Geological Survey in California and Alaska’s Bering Sea, and participated on two National Geographic expeditions to the Canadian High Arctic in search of fossils from the warm world of the Eocene. After obtaining his Ph. D., he mapped tropical rainforest in northern Australia for 18 months before moving to Denver to become a curator of paleontology. He has been at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science since 1991 where he studies fossil plants, terrestrial stratigraphy, geochronology and dinosaur extinction and works in a museum environment where good science and public communication of science are equally valued. Between 1990 and 1995, he led a team that planned, and built the Museum’s award-winning exhibition Prehistoric Journey. He and Richard Stucky wrote the accompanying book, Prehistoric Journey, A History of Life on Earth.

Kirk Johnson mucking around in the leaf litter of the Rio Negro river in Brazil.

Kirk  has published many popular and scientific articles on topics ranging from fossil plants and modern rainforests to the ecology of whales and walruses. He is best known for his research on fossil plants that is widely accepted as some of the most convincing support for the theory that an asteroid impact caused the extinction of the dinosaurs. His search for the K-T boundary has taken him to the rainforests of New Zealand, the Gobi desert, India, China, France, Spain, Italy, Patagonia, and the American West. In 2008, Cambridge University  published a world summary of this work entitled, Plants and the K-T Boundary. This book was the result of a 27 year collaboration between Kirk and the late Doug Nichols, a specialist in fossil pollen.

Since 1997, he has supervised the Denver Basin Project, a multidisciplinary effort to understand and interpret the paleontology, geology, and hydrology of the rocks beneath Denver. This work has led to the discovery and analysis of a 64 million-year-old tropical rainforest in Colorado. This has resulted in the sorry fact that much of his primary research now occurs within an hour’s drive of his office in Denver.

This prehistoric plant certainly caught my attention but Kirk insists it’s, “ just a weed!”

Kirk loves to work with closely with artists to create accurate paintings, murals, and dioramas of prehistoric landscapes. The Ancient Denvers series of 14 images (by artists Jan Vriesen, Gary Staab, Donna Braginetz) can be seen at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science and the Ancient Colorado series of ten paintings (by artist Jan Vriesen) can be seen in the Colorado Convention Center.

 Kirk has known about Ray Troll’s work since the early 1980s and owned original copies of Humpies from Hell and Spawn ‘til you Die. He finally met Ray in 1993 and lured him to the Amazon in 1997. Together the produced the award winning book Cruisin’ the Fossil Freeway and are hard at work on a follow-up to that one entitled Cruisin’ the Eternal Coastline about West Coast fossil from “Baja to Barrow”.

 They have collaborated extensively since meeting in 1993, a scientist who collects artists and an artist who collects scientists.

Kirk R. Johnson
Vice President & Chief Curator
Research and Collections
Denver Museum of Nature & Science
2001 Colorado Blvd.
Denver, CO 80205
Kirk.Johnson@dmns.org

Ray Troll and Kirk Johnson at the Junior Blind of America home in Los Angeles. We showed the kids some cool fossils while we were there. Photo by Randy Olsen.
Ray Troll's BioBrad Matsen's BioKirk Johnson's BioSean Duran's Bio

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