Sunday Snapshot: Fossils at the KU Natural History Museum

This cranky fish, Xiphanctinus (Portheus) Molossus, once swam in the sea that covered much of present-day Kansas.

If you live in Kansas, especially if you live in northeast Kansas, find some time to explore the KU Natural History Museum. The museum does a wonderful job of exploring today’s plants and animals as well as the flora and fauna of Kansas’ prehistoric days. It’s also free (with a suggested donation). The museum offers events and programming throughout the year, too.

What fascinates me most are the fossils of the creatures that used to roam and swim in the area that is now Kansas. Gigantic land mammals that dwarf our modern buffalo and cows. Large, sharp-toothed fish that swam the seas in places that are now high plains and chalk beds. Some of the fossils on display at the KU Natural History Museum were found only a few miles away from Lawrence.

The complete skeleton of a 45-foot long mosasaur, which once swam in the sea that covered much of Kansas, greets you when you walk in the museum’s main entrance.

Found in Kansas, this skull, complete with tusks, belonged to a mammoth.

The short-legged rhinoceros wandered Kansas between 10 million and 5 million years ago.

23 thoughts on “Sunday Snapshot: Fossils at the KU Natural History Museum

  1. Rachel Creager Ireland

    Incredible. I was once marveling to a friend that I had just found out that roly-polies are not insects, but crustaceans. Why on earth would a crustacean be in the middle of the prairie? Then she pointed out to me that this was once an ocean. I guess that Xiphanctinus may have eaten the many-times-great-grandparents of the roly-polies crawling around my house.

    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      I had the same experience with roly-polies! I remember the first time I began to realize how dry areas today were at some point covered in water. My parents had to dig around the foundation of the house to install a sump pump and french drain. About four feet down, we hit sandstone, and the sandstone was full of shell fossils. Not part of the ocean – too far east – but clearly, water had covered the area at some point!

      If you have the opportunity, you might really appreciate a visit to Monument Rocks in Western Kansas. The rocks are created from thin layers of chalk, and the chalk is created from compressed aquatic animal bones. The area is full of fossils. Then visit the Sternberg Museum at Fort Hays State University. Sternberg was an early collector of the fish fossils in the chalk beds of Western Kansas, and the Sternberg has a fabulous collection.

      I’m blown away by how big these fish were. It really tells us how big the inland sea must have been in order to support such large animals. The mosasaur is 45 feet long; my house is 50 feet long. That’s just mind-blowing.

      1. Mr. V.

        I took my son to this museum and we had a great time. Monument Rocks is one my list of places to see here in Kansas. Sometime maybe this Fall or perhaps the Spring of next year we’re going there.

      2. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

        Monument Rocks is worth the trip. It’s one of the few places where I felt like I could kind of understand what it must have been like traveling across the state in the 1800s…there’s very little out there to break up the landscape, very few signs of people. The rocks themselves are majestic. Even the ground there is special. When you step on it, it thuds as if you were walking on packed flour instead of soil. Spring will be a good time to go.

      3. Mr. V.

        We’re definitely going. I also plan on going to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and the Konza Prairie sometime this fall, and maybe even winter. I would love to get some shots of the prairie in the winter time covered with snow.

      4. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

        If we get a good rainy spring, the Tallgrass will be awesome in mid-June because the wildflowers will be in full bloom. The grasses will be at their peak (big bluestem can get to be eight feet tall) in the fall and will give your pictures a totally different, rippling effect, which is also beautiful.

    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      Oh, wow! It’s practically the same fish! Funny you should bring up the Far Side cartoons…my husband also commented on the resemblance between the creatures I photographed and Gary Larson’s work!

      1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

        He was definitely up there…though Calvin and Hobbs might edge him out for me.

  2. Veronica

    I didn’t know about this museum! Wow, so neat–I too love seeing historic/prehistoric stuff about our area! (P.S. Did you survive the oatmeal candy adventure? :))

    1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

      Definitely check out the KU Natural History Museum and/or the Sternberg Museum in Hays, Kansas. Both are fabulous. As for the candy…I haven’t yet mustered up the courage, but I will. You’ll be the first to know. πŸ™‚

      1. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

        You’re much too kind! Oatmeal candy sounds like the kind of thing you should have around the house in the fall. You know, to balance out the pumpkin.

      2. Veronica

        haha, totally! I’m already doing my fall baking but have not fallen into the pumpkin trap yet. I bought 10 cans but so far, I’m making things like praline sweet potato bread and spiced applesauce bread. But I feel the pumpkin coming on… BTW, if you ever make it to Wichita, you can purchase my breads at The Flying Pig Gift Boutique on weekends (at least right now, that will probably change come December when I have less free time), though my guess is that you will be more attracted to my sister’s handmade soaps. I posted about her shop here if you want to see how cute it is:

      3. Diana Staresinic-Deane Post author

        If I’m ever in the area, I’ll try to stop in! I’m super allergic girl when it comes to scents and ingredients, unfortunately, but the store looks fun!

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