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Kansas: Land of Famous Fossils

Go for a walk along a Kansas riverbed or a rocky outcrop and there's a good chance you'll find the fossilized remains of life from the distant past. For the past 150 years, numerous fossils have been discovered in Kansas. These discoveries have raised the state's profile in the world of paleontology. Some Kansas fossils have even become quite famous. Commentator Rex Buchanan tells us about one Kansas fossil that led to a recent scientific discovery.


Commentator Rex Buchanan is director emeritus of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas. He lives in Lawrence.  


Production assistance for this commentary comes from KPR News Intern Taylor Smith, a junior from Salina, studying news and information at the University of Kansas.


In early May, Kansas showed up in the prestigious scientific journal Nature. A group of authors, including scientists from KU and Fort Hays State, published an article about a fossil bird from the chalk beds of western Kansas.  

The bird, called Icthyornis, has been a big deal ever since it was discovered in 1872 out in Rooks County by geologist Benjamin Franklin Mudge. Icthyornis, about the size of a pigeon, was the first bird with teeth ever found. Most of the birds you know have smooth beaks made of a protein called keratin, not bone.

But Icthyornis had teeth, and that was big, not just because it was unusual, but because Icthyornis represented a transitional form. That is, an animal with the characteristics of several animals, in this case a bird and a reptile. And that’s factual evidence for evolution. Keep in mind that 1872 wasn’t far removed from 1859, when Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species. In 1880, Darwin himself wrote that Icthyornis was among “the best support for the theory of evolution” since his magnum opus was published.

The recent publication in Nature, based on a 3D scan of an Icthyornis fossil still embedded in chalky sediment, shows that the bird had a beak made of keratin that covered its toothy jaws. That beak could grasp things, like seeds. That means that beaks might have evolved earlier than previously believed.

Kansas fossils have long contributed to our knowledge of animals that lived in the ocean that covered western Kansas during the Cretaceous Period, from about 100 to 65 million years ago. But sometimes I think Kansans don’t appreciate those fossils as much as they should.

A few years ago, I led a field trip that included a stop at the Sternberg Museum in Hays. The Sternberg houses lots of jaw-dropping fossils from the Kansas Cretaceous.  

But the people on the trip, most of them long-time Kansans, seemed less than impressed. When I asked why, their responses harkened back to our good old Kansas inferiority complex. If these fossils are here in Kansas, folks wondered, how good could they be? The thing is, fossils from the Kansas Cretaceous are displayed in big-time museums all over the world, but some incredible specimens are right here in the state.

Now I think Kansas is generally well-regarded within the discipline of geology, in part because of the historic work of paleontologists, like the ones who published the Nature article. Tell people in geologic circles that you’re from Kansas, and you generally get treated with respect, not the usual “Wizard of Oz, it’s flat and boring, I drive through at night” clichés.

At least that was true until the late 1990s, when the Kansas Board of Education took on the issue of teaching evolution. We were once again forced to confront the caricature of Kansas as an intellectual backwater. Oddly enough, our own fossils help make the case for evolution.


Read the article in Nature.

Check out this related article, with 3D images, in National Geographic.