Tag Archives: Niobrara Chalk

Fossil tells a new tail

Mosasaurs lived in the world’s oceans during the Late Cretaceous, the last Period from the Age of Dinosaurs (see the geologic time scale). They are close relatives of modern snakes and lizards, and during the Cretaceous they become fully aquatic sea monsters, growing to tremendous sizes, and were the top predators of their environments.

Their fossil remains occur in great numbers in the marine chalk deposits of the Central Plains, and numerous specimens have been preserved in museums all over the world (see posts on the chalk formation and on rock formations in general). Yet despite the great numbers of specimens collected, we still have much to learn about these great beasts.

For example, examination of their bones shows that they are elongate animals, with enlarged tails for propelling their bodies through the water. Their limbs are modified into flippers, useful in controlling the direction and orientation of their bodies in the fluid medium. So, it is clear that they are primarily tail-swimmers.

Early restorations based upon this evidence imagined a tail sort of like a modern crocodile, a thick tail that was slightly compressed laterally, making it taller than thick, but remaining relatively snake-like. Early restorations of the skeleton articulated the tail as a long chain of vertebrate, continuous from base to tip without any remarkable difference along the way.

Here is an illustration of the skeleton of the mosasaur Platecarpus from a classic work on mosasaurs (Williston 1898). Note the rod-like straightness of the back.

Mosasaur Platecarpus from Williston

Mosasaur Platecarpus from Williston

And here is an artist’s illustration of Tylosaurus, the largest of the mosasaurs, from Mike Everhart’s Book, Oceans of Kansas, showing the tail with a slight thickening near the end, but mostly being straight (Everhart 2005, recommended in the Boneblogger store).

Mosasaur Tylosaurus

Mosasaur Tylosaurus from Oceans in Kansas by Mike Everhart

However, frequently the skeletons of mosasaurs were found preserved in the rock with the last third of the tail bent downward, away from the main axis of the base of the tail. And this was not just found in a few skeletons, but it was found frequently enough that scientists speculated, at least in conversations with each other, that perhaps the down turned tip was not an artifact of preservation, but maybe meant something.

Well, a newly described mosasaurs fossil, which has exceptional preservation, provides the answer. This specimen collected in Kansas and now at the L.A. County Museum, preserves not only the bones, but also impressions of skin, impressions of internal organs, and even some of the body outline. The bones of the tail are clearly down-turned, giving the authors of this new study enough confidence to state what has been quietly talked about before—mosasaurs had a bi-lobed tail fluke (Lindgren et al. 2010).

Mosasaur Platecarpus

Mosasaur Platecarpus showing revised body outline

It only takes a single fossil to help overturn past notions about prehistoric life. The next big discoveries are out there, in the rocks and sitting in the museum drawers, waiting to be examined in detail. What will we find next?

Everhart, M. J. 2005. Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Indiana University Press, Bloomington.

Lindgren, J., M. W. Caldwell, T. Konishi, and L. M. Chiappe. 2010. Convergent evolution in aquatic tetrapods: insights from an exceptional fossil mosasaur. PLoS ONE 5(8):e11998.

Williston, S. W. 1898. Mosasaurs. University of Kansas Geological Survey 4(1):81-347.

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My National Geographic moment

“A photographer from National Geographic wants to talk to you.” These words, or words to those effect, met me as I came into the museum office one day back in 2001, and they definitely caught my attention.

It was 2001 and I was Assistant Director of the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. We had just reopened the museum in its new location in Hays, Kansas, a few years before in 1999. The museum had enjoyed some tremendous success at attracting visitors and media attention from across the state. And now someone from National Geographic wanted to talk to us? Wow. I returned Jonathan Blair’s call and began an unusual week of activity.

It turns out that the magazine was going to run a story on pterosaurs, the flying reptiles from the Mesozoic, and they hired Jonathan to get pictures to illustrate it. He had already traveled to some of the great museum collections for pterosaurs in Europe and the United States, but he wanted to visit Sternberg. The Sternberg’s collection of pterosaur material is about the third or fourth largest in the nation, and very significant.

The Sternberg Museum, on the campus of Fort Hays State University, was managed for many years by George F. Sternberg, famed fossil collector. He spent his free time out in the chalk, the Niobrara Formation of western Kansas, collecting the fish and swimming and flying reptiles that left their remains millions of years ago. Sternberg supplemented his salary at the museum by selling specimens to other museums, but if he collected something really nice it went into “his” museum. Over the years, the museum’s collection grew in size and quality.

Besides our amazing collection of fossils, Jonathan had heard about our life-sized pterosaur models we had just installed in our walk-through Cretaceous exhibit. And he had a crazy idea—let’s take a life model of the beast and “fly” it over the very rocks where its remains can be found. He wanted to take one of our life-sized model and photograph it over the chalk beds.

Well, I can bend over backwards for National Geographic, but taking one of our brand new models down from the ceiling, which had not been easy to install in the first place, and which since had walls built up around them, and truck them 70 miles to hang from a crane in the chalk sounded a bit risky to me.

But I did offer to help in any way we could, so I did the next best thing—I found him another pterosaur model.

Over the next several days we made plans and preparations for the big event. We needed to get the model that I was able to find shipped to the museum. It had been kept in storage and was a little beaten up, but the company that supplied it sent a staff member to clean, fix it, and touch up the paint for its big moment. The model, being life-sized, had a twenty foot wing span, flimsy neck with a large head at the end, and feet that stuck out the back, giving the whole thing a cross shape, making it too long in any direction. Not exactly the easiest thing to get into a truck and ship!

We scouted a location for the big photo shoot. I took Jonathan to the Castle Rock area, a well-known outcropping of the chalk that has easy access and grand vistas. We needed to secure special permission as we were going to bring in a crane and another truck to transport the pterosaur model.

We needed to arrange for a crane to make the 70 mile one-way trip from Hays to the chalk beds. On this, and on so many other occasions, I marveled at the “can do” spirit of western Kansas people. You want something done just ask a former farm kid. While he might look at you funny, he will get it done.

In between all this activity, I remember some spectacular meals shared with Jonathan, listening to his many adventures from around the world while taking photographs. He also shot pictures around the museum, and he took a couple of photos of me that I have cherished ever since.

Greg dusts the life-sized models of Pteranodon sternbergii in the Sternberg Museum of Natural History

Greg dusts the life-sized models of Pteranodon sternbergii at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. Photograph by Jonathan Blair.

The big day arrived and all was going well. The weather cooperated, the truck was loaded with its ungainly cargo, and the crane made it to the site. We had also brought along a number of crew members to help hold the model. We wanted to lift it into the air for the photograph, but if you know anything about western Kansas, you know it is windy. I was not sure what would happen when you lifted such a thing into the gusty winds, and how hard it might be to control. The only control we had were guy-wires coming down from the wing tips to hold it against unruly behavior.

With trepidation we gave the signal to the crane operator to lift, and the hundred pound model took to the air. And in the end, the wind was no issue—the model, like the animal it represented, was built for the air. It found a comfortable equilibrium and settled into the wind easily. Jonathan snapped his pictures, and just like that we had what he had come after.

Life-sized model of a pterosaur, an ancient flying reptile, soars onces again over western Kansas

Life-sized model of a pterosaur, an ancient flying reptile, soars once again over western Kansas

We took more photos at a few other locations, all of which could have made fantastic desktop images, but he knew he was done. We packed up and came home, and all those days preparation resulted in the lead image for the story. It was all Jonathan’s photo and idea, and I enjoyed the part I played in making it happen—one of the perks for working at a museum.

See the National Geographic story.

Jonathan Blair’s web page

Related Posts
Geologic Formations

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Niobrara Chalk

One of the most famous formations is the Niobrara Chalk. This formation is exposed in northwest Kansas and southern Nebraska. Formations are sometimes divided into members, subsections of the formation based upon its rock type. The Niobrara Chalk has two members: the lower Fort Hays Limestone and the upper Smoky Hill Chalk. It is the Smoky Hill Chalk which is best known for its fossils.

The sediments that comprise the Niobrara Chalk were deposited in the Western Interior basin during the Late Cretaceous. At that time sea levels rose and the interior of North America was inundated by a shallow sea, the Western Interior Sea. The sea cut North America in half by spreading from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian Arctic. Volcanoes to the west, in what is now Utah and Nevada, spewed ash into the sea and sediments eroded from mountains along the western coast were washed into the sea by rivers. What is today Kansas was much closer to the eastern shore of the sea, a low alluvial plain, also gently washing sediment into the sea basin.

Block diagram of the Western Interior Sea

Image from Hattin, 1982.

The upper member, the Smoky Hill, was deposited from 87 to 82 million years ago, so it preserves a five million year window into the past. Elsewhere we discussed that the Cretaceous sea had a wealth of planktonic organisms. Many of those organisms had calcium carbonate-based shells and body parts, which furnished a steady supply of material to sink to the sea floor. The consistent supply of sediment, both from land and sea, and conditions at the sea floor allowed for the excellent preservation of animals. Those that died and sank to the bottom were rapidly covered by the rain of sediment and entombed until today.

And the diversity of organisms preserved is amazing. In almost every museum with fossils that I have been in, I recognize fossils from Kansas. Giant marine reptiles (mosasaurs and plesiosaurs), flying reptiles (pterosaurs), great toothy fishes, large turtles, and toothed diving birds have all been found. Each of these groups has a very interesting story to share, and we will explore many of them here. An extensive website on fossils from the Niobrara Chalk can be found at OceansofKansas.com.

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In modern oceans, the very largest organisms specialize in filter feeding, or living on the very small plankton in the water. (Read more about the filter feeding niche). Up until now, it has appeared to researcher that during the Age of Dinosaurs, when the oceans were dominated by large, toothy reptiles, there were no marine animals specializing in the niche of large-bodied filter feeding, despite ample evidence that the oceans were rich in planktonic resources.

However, this niche was in fact filled during the Mesozoic as demonstrated in a recent paper in the journal Science (Friedman et al., 2010). Turns out that several species of fish did specialize in filter feeding, and they too grew quite large. Most of the specimens were already sitting in drawers in museums, having been misunderstood for many years, until Friedman and his colleagues re-evaluated them.

For example, one species has been known for over 100 years—having been named by E. D. Cope in 1873 as ‘Portheus’ gladius from a specimen collected from the Niobrara Chalk formation in western Kansas. The Niobrara Chalk was deposited during the Late Cretaceous period (see a geologic time scale). The species has a long and complex taxonomic history, mostly of interest to professionals, but it does clearly show that many scientists reviewed the fossil material and scratched their heads in wonder about this strange set of fossils.

Friedman and his colleagues have finally put the pieces together, and it fills in much about the history of life in the oceans. They have created a new genus in which to place the species, so now it is known as Bonnerichthys gladius. The genus was named for the Kansas fossil-collecting family that collected the most complete specimen found to date.

Bonnerichthys would have been about 20 to 25 feet in length with a huge, gaping mouth. You can see an artist’s reconstruction of Bonnerichthys at Oceans of Kansas. And you can listen to an interview with Matt Friedman at NPR.

This discovery opens up a whole new understanding of the paleoecology of the Mesozoic oceans, and shows that filter feeding was utilized for at least 100 million years longer as a major life strategy than previously recognized.

FRIEDMAN, M., K. SHIMADA, L. MARTIN, M. J. EVERHART, J. LISTON, A. MALTESE, AND M. TRIEBOLD. 2010. 100-million-year dynasty of giant planktivorous bony fishes in the Mesozoic seas. Science, 327:990-993.

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