Tag Archives: Sternberg Museum

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

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SuperCroc at Sternberg

The Sternberg Natural History Museum at Fort Hays State University is featuring a new exhibit, The Science of SuperCroc from now until August 5.

The star of the show is the African crocodilian species Sarcosuchus whose remains have been found in the modern Sahara, in the Elrhaz Formation. This Early Cretaceous (~112 million years ago) crocodile had a long, slender snout with a prominent down-turn or hook at the tip. When fully mature it is estimated to have been between 37-40 feet in length, and weighed as much as 17,000 pounds.

The largest living crocodile is the saltwater croc, and the largest confirmed individual was just over 20 feet in length and weighed a mere 2,600 pounds.

Restoration of Sarcosuchus, the SuperCroc

Restoration of Sarcosuchus, the SuperCroc

Sarcosuchus had its eyes placed high upon its skull suggesting that it spent most of its time submerged in the water. Like so many other things in paleontology, the question of what Sarcosuchus may have eaten is not agreed upon by researchers. Some suggested that the size of Sarcosuchus and its overhanging upper jaw made it able to wrestle large prey items, even massive long-necked sauropod dinosaurs. Others point to the slenderness of the muzzle and it not looking stout enough to withstand the forces that would be required to bring down large prey. There were plenty of lobe-finned fish in Sarcosuchus’s environment. I see a fish-eater in this skull myself.

Also on display with the large croc is Suchomimus, a theropod dinosaur whose remains have been found in the same geological formation as Sarcosuchus. Suchomimus, whose name means crocodile mimic, was a forty-foot long beast which also had a long slender muzzle. Its forelimbs were armed with very long sickle-curved claws. This animal is thought to have eaten fish and probably other sorts of meat, but its skull also does not appear equipped for biting and holding very large struggling prey.

Super Croc Sarcosuchus skeleton at Sternberg Museum

SuperCroc Sarcosuchus skeleton at Sternberg Museum

The presence of both of these animals, and many others found with them, show that the Sahara area of today was a lush, swampy habitat in the Early Cretaceous. The effect of climate change and plate movements over millions of years can turn a wet verdant habitat into a harsh, dry desert. My how times change.

Go see SuperCroc at the Sternberg Museum if you have a chance.

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Fossil ‘discovery’ rewrites history

Originally published in the Hays Daily News 21 February 2010

By MIKE CORN
mcorn@dailynews.net

For nearly 40 years, it’s been tucked away in a storage room at the University of Kansas, little more than a bag of bones that at the time it was collected struck even the most experienced as unusual.

The late Marion Bonner was right: The discovery in 1971 by his son Chuck then 21, was indeed unusual.

On Thursday, scientists announced that it was deserving of its own genus, proving to be something of a missing link between the oceans of 100 million years ago and today.

The announcement was made Thursday in Science Magazine.

The fossil, representing a massive filter-feeder much like the blue whale of today, was named Bonnerichthys, in honor of the Bonner family — responsible for outstanding fossil discoveries in the chalk bluffs of northwest Kansas.

Several of those discoveries are on display at Sternberg Museum of Natural History, as well as other museums.

The Bonnerichthys discovery came not from a recent collection, but from one that Chuck Bonner discovered in 1971 in Logan County while on a fossil-collecting expedition with his family.

“That was pretty nice,” Bonner said Friday. “Pretty nice to have a genus named after us.”

Several individual species have been named for Marion Bonner, who collected fossils alongside George Sternberg, founder of the Sternberg Museum.

While it was discovered by Chuck Bonner, the excavation work fell to his father.

“Dad knew when he was digging on it, it was something different,” Bonner said.

“I tell you what, I wasn’t too excited that day. Actually, I was more excited about Dana finding a turtle up above me.”

While the Bonner discovery — once it was cleaned up — was responsible for the naming of a new genus, there’s another and more complete specimen being prepared.

That discovery, coming from land owned by Mahlon and Carolyn Tuttle, has been donated to Sternberg and will provide even richer detail about the fish.

The Gove County specimen was discovered by Kenshu Shimada, an FHSU alumnus now at DePaul University in Chicago, and excavated by Mike Everhart, adjunct curator of paleontology at Sternberg.

Everhart has been thrilled with the credit given to the Bonner family, as well as the fossil that was collected in Gove County.

The trouble with plankton feeders is they are too much like sharks, in that they have little skeletal structure to fossilize. Much of it is cartilage and tissue.

Bones in the skull, for example, were connected by cartilage.

That made it big, but difficult to find, 100 million years later.

“It is the biggest bony fish feeding in the Cretaceous sea,” Everhart said. Generally, the Kansas variety, which makes up the largest percentage, would have been about 30 feet long.

The discovery, that it was a huge fish that fed on plankton, “filled in the blanks.”

Early on, the fish had been classed as a swordfish, but neither sword nor skull had been found.
Everhart said they have now determined that the fish lived from 170 million to 85 million years ago, dying out at the same time the dinosaurs.

“At the end of the Cretaceous, for some reason, the plankton died off,” Everhart said. That spelled doom for the filter feeders as well.

The chain of events have thrilled Everhart and Bonner.

“It’s very exciting to me,” Everhart said of the discovery and its publication in Science Magazine. “It’s not everyday you get a chance to be published in Science. It’s a pretty prestigious publication.”

Determining the fish was a filter feeder was just as significant.

“It was just an ‘aha’ moment,” he said. “We figured out what was going on.”

“He would have been swelling with pride,” Bonner said of his father.

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