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Prehistoric oceans in Kansas might maintain clues about the way forward for life : NPR


Scientists searching for to study prehistoric oceans have flocked to an unlikely place: western Kansas. And as we speak, the fossils embedded in these Nice Plains might maintain clues about the way forward for life.


For generations, scientists and college students desirous to study prehistoric oceans have flocked to a spot that is about as removed from an ocean as you may get – dry, dusty western Kansas. David Condos of the Kansas Information Service tells us why.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Simply south of Interstate 70, in western Kansas, there is a spot the place pillars of white and golden rock tower over the flat plains, the Fort Rock Badlands. At present, paleobiologist David Levering is main a gaggle from Fort Hays State College via the rock formations.

DAVID LEVERING: It is clearly fairly barren and rocky now, however within the Cretaceous, the place we’re standing would have been the underside of a sea.

CONDOS: It is onerous to think about, however 80 million years in the past, this dry, desolate panorama sat beneath the waves of the Western Inside Seaway, which stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Again then, sea monsters patrolled these waters – bus-length reptiles with razor-sharp tooth, large carnivorous fish, clams the dimensions of automobile hoods.

LAURA WILSON: My favourite description I might heard of the Western Inside Seaway is Hell’s Aquarium.

CONDOS: That is Laura Wilson, a paleontologist with the Sternberg Museum in close by Hays. She research prehistoric sea turtles that survived on what was a very popular greenhouse planet. And her analysis might inform conservationists about how as we speak’s turtles would possibly adapt to a warming local weather. Her work is simply the newest chapter in a surprisingly wealthy custom right here that formed our understanding of historical ocean life for greater than a century.

WILSON: I contemplate western Kansas the birthplace of American paleontology.

CONDOS: From swimming mosasaurs to flying pteranodons, discoveries from western Kansas now grace the halls of world-class museums in New York, London and Germany. Sternberg Museum collections supervisor Aly Baumgartner says most guests discover it onerous to consider that this typically ignored area performs such a pivotal function within the scientific world.

ALY BAUMGARTNER: It is enjoyable to inform individuals from Kansas how essential it’s because we are sometimes the butt of jokes, and it should not be the case. Like, the historical past of Kansas contains sea monsters. Like, how cool is that?

CONDOS: Within the museum basement, she slides open drawer after drawer of specimens. A lot of them can slot in your hand – shells, tooth, toes. In all, this assortment is dwelling to greater than 20,000 fossils. And that’s what continues to attract researchers right here from as distant as Japan, Brazil and Australia. So what makes dry-as-dust western Kansas so particular? Nicely, it is one of many few spots on earth the place the rock round these fossils is extra delicate than the fossils themselves. These badlands are made of sentimental chalk, so scientists can gently brush it away with out wrecking the delicate skeletons.

An hour west of the Fort Rock Badlands, Chuck Bonner flips via photographs from many years of household fossil expeditions. He remembers his dad placing collectively plesiosaur bones on the eating room desk and cleansing fossils by warming them up of their oven. On the wall hangs a childhood portrait of his sister at a fossil hunt, utilizing a white material to shade her head from the solar.

CHUCK BONNER: That is my diaper. In order that’s how lengthy I have been within the fossil biz. I used to be simply born into it.

CONDOS: He is given some to huge museums in LA or Chicago, however most sit proper right here within the Keystone Gallery in rural western Kansas, the place guests can gawk at his pizza-sized fish skulls and wall-length reptile skeletons. For Bonner, fossil searching is not about fame or cash. It is concerning the thrill of discovery, the possibility to unearth a brand new piece of weird aquatic historical past on this surprising place. And when individuals ask him which fossil is his favourite, he says the subsequent one. For NPR Information, I am David Condos in Gove County, Kan.

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