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Ad Astra: Kansas has long history when it comes to finding fossils

By Beccy Tanner

March 16, 2014 07:51 PM

Kansas politicians may be in the process of adding another symbol to the list of state iconic images – Kansas fossils.

Although Senate Bill 2595 has yet to be approved by the Senate and signed by Gov. Sam Brownback, it has met with little to no opposition in a tumultuous year of Kansas politics. So far, it is on an automatic path for approval on the consent agenda at the Senate and is expected to pass Wednesday.

In the world of wheat, planes and beef, why bother listing creatures that lived millions of years ago?

The tylosaurus and pteranodon were picked as state fossils because some of the first discoveries of these creatures were made in Kansas, said Mike Everhart, adjunct curator of vertebrate paleontology at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, who is helping to champion getting the fossils listed.

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The tylosaurus was a marine lizard that grew to be about 45 feet. And with a skull 4 to 5 feet long and equipped with large teeth, it could eat anything it wanted. Its closest living relative is the Komodo dragon.

The pteranodon, a massive 25-foot flying reptile, is one of the best-known fossils around the world, Everhart said.

The first recorded discovery of a tylosaurus was made in 1868 near Monument Rocks. The first pteranodon fossil was found in 1870 in Logan County.

“The pteranodon comes from Kansas and no place else, and yet it is one of the world’s most recognizable flying reptiles,” Everhart said. “This is a real neat opportunity to recognize something good from Kansas.”

Also, Everhart said, most Kansans may not realize that among the most well-known museums in the world, Kansas is known for its rich, diverse fossils found in the state’s chalk beds.

The Smoky Hill chalk beds of western Kansas are seen by paleontologists as one of the most prolific producers of marine vertebrate fossils in the world, dating back to the Cretaceous period nearly 87 million years ago, Everhart said.

But beyond the fossils themselves are the legendary stories associated with how they were discovered.

There are stories about O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope, rival fossil hunters who came to Kansas in the 19th century, and the Sternberg family, which made some of the most important paleontological discoveries in the world – in Kansas.

First was George M. Sternberg, who in 1866 was an Army surgeon assigned to Fort Harker in Ellsworth County. He later became surgeon general of the U.S. Army. He was a bacteriologist and is most famous for demonstrating the causes of yellow fever and malaria. In the same year Louis Pasteur did so, Stenberg announced the discovery of pneumococcus, which was later linked to pneumonia.

As Sternberg traveled the trails of Kansas, he collected fossils, then took specimens with him when visiting officials on the East Coast. Those were among the first fossils collected in Kansas.

His younger brother Charles H. Sternberg began collecting fossil leaves taken from the sandstone formations around Ellsworth County.

Charles Sternberg was about 17 when he started his career in paleontology, studying prehistoric life forms as recorded in fossils. He sold fossils to museums around the world and collected for some of the world’s foremost paleontologists, such as scientific rivals E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh.

Charles Sternberg invented creative techniques to extract the crumbling fossilized bones from the Earth and ship them by train or boat around the world.

George F. Sternberg, who discovered the legendary “fish-within-a-fish” of Xiphactinus audax, was the son of Charles H. Sternberg. The Sternberg Museum is named for George F. Sternberg.

Everhart said there are many more Kansas fossils in museums such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Field Museum in Chicago and the British Natural History Museum than there are in Kansas.

“Most people don’t realize anything about our fossil heritage. We’ve been exporting these things for the last 153 years, and now it is nice to get recognition,” Everhart said. “To me, it is recognition to Kansas’ contributions to science and paleontology.”