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Monday, December 22, 2003

A Day in the Kansas Badlands

I mentioned on a previous post that my daughter and I did a day of fossil prospecting in western Kansas this summer. Since it is a cold, wet, rainy December day I thought I'd give you a description of how it went.

We arrived at the Keystone Gallery at around 6:30AM and found Chuck Bonner and his wife Barbara Shelton ready to go. Chuck in his mosasaur shirt, Indiana Jones hat, and full beard looked exactly as I expected. The gallery is in the middle of open pasture land as far as the eye could see and I recall wondering just where these fossils might be hiding in the pastures. We were staying up in Oakley about 20 miles north along I-70. My daughter and I brought a small backpack and jumped in Chuck's 1949 Suburbun and were off while my wife and younger daughter headed to Scott City for a day in the local stores and parks.

I didn't have to wait long for my answer about the fossils. Chuck drove the Suburbun less than a mile north of the gallery and proceeded into a pasture and along the fence line. When we got out we could see that the pasture land was cut through with canyons (badlands) carved out by rainwater.

We disembarked and Chuck handed us our tools which consisted of a geology hammer and scraper made from a curved screwdriver. We started down the hill while Chuck gave us some last minute advice on what we were looking for. However, even with the instructions it was difficult to sort out the various shades of rock and I was not convinced we would find much. I was most amazed by the number and size of the crushed bivalve shells which were everywhere eroding out of the rock under our feet and pieces of which littered the ground.

After only a few minutes Chuck got my daughter's attention and told her to continue walking on her path and keep her eyes down. She proceeded to walk right over the tooth of a Cretaceous shark (possibly Cretoxyrhina juding from a book on Kansas Geology I picked up at Chuck's museum). With Chuck's help she eventually found it and we felt that the day might be a success after all.

We proceeded to head down into the first of the canyons with Chuck in the lead. As he rounded the first bend he stopped and noticed a vertebrae protruding from the soft chalky rock (known as the Smoky Hills Chalk and officially as the Niobrara formation). The bone was dark in color as opposed to the yellowish rock and so Chuck showed us how to cut the rock over the fossil back and then remove the upper layers to get the bone. Laura assisted with this process while I documented the find.

After a few minutes it was evident that there were more than a dozen vertebrae of a two to three foot fish known as Cimolichtyes, however the skull appeared to be missing but we could see lots of ribs and scales in the matrix.

While they continued working on the Cimolychtes I leaned against the outcropping to Chuck's left and as I turned my head was suprised to see a black tooth directly at eye level. Had it not been at eye level I doubt I would have seen it. The 3/4 inch tooth was still fairly sharp and Chuck informed me that it was the tooth of a mosasaur. After checking the area for other teeth we decided to mark the spot where the Cimolychtes was and continue on.

We continued moving through the side canyons, which were still cool in the shade and morning breeze, making our way to the bottom of the canyon where cows obviously found plenty of plants to eat and perhaps shelter. On the way I quizzed Chuck about the history of fossil hunting in the area, the work of Mike Everhart, the creator of the Oceans of Kansas Web Site and the bone wars of E.D. Cope and O.C. Marsh in the 1870s and 1880s. Chuck is of course very knowledgeable and his family has a long history in the area, during which both he and his father Marion have collected countless mosasaurs, fish, and invertebrates from the Kansas Chalk which are now in museums all over the country. Recently the Lawrence Journal World ran a biographical story on his work and he has been interviewed on PBS. This fall he also lectured on Kansas fossils in Cincinnati and at Yale.

As we walked along the base of the canyon Chuck once again noticed some bone protruding about 2 inches from the harder grey rock that underlain the yellow and softer rock. After chiseling away with his rock hammer for several minutes he was able to extract the lower jaw of a Cimolychtes, which after I had removed some of the rock proved to include a 5 inch section of both upper and lower jaws smashed together and 8 to 10 teeth, several of which were quite sharp. We added it to our bag of finds and headed on up the other side of the canyon. Near the top Chuck found a 6 inch mosasaur rib while my daughter and I prospected farther down the slope.

As we re-entered the side canyons on the other side we noticed round structures in the overhanging rock. Chuck pointed out that these were swallow's nests now abandoned for the season.

After a short rest we made our way into a tall and very narrow canyon of greyish rock and followed it for some time heading back in the direction of the first Cimolychtes and the Suburbun. As a testimony to the sharpness of Chuck's eyes, while trailing us he called for us to stop and had us examine a dark line not more than 2 inches long, a fraction of an inch wide, and a foot from the bottom of the canyon. Somehow he had spotted a tiny Enchodus jaw. Since the grey rocks at the bottom of the canyon were so hard, he simply cut out the section with the fish jaw and we went on our way.

We finally made back to the Cimolychtes where we worked on it for a few more minutes before deciding to simply cut out the bulk of it and take it home. More vertebrae continued into the hillside but Chuck was confident the skull had already eroded out.

So finally it was lunch time and with the heat steadily rising we enjoyed sitting in the shade of the Suburbun, eating sandwhiches, apples, and chips and drinking water and pop.

With lunch completed we decided to head out to prospect one more time. Chuck drove the Suburbun a bit east and south of where we had originally parked and we made our way down a slope to enter the canyons from the north. While heading down the slope, Chuck spied a few bones and was convinced they were not from a fish or mosasaur. He thought they might be from a pteranodon although with the heat at 100 degrees he marked the spot with a pile of rocks and said he would come back for them another day.

With our strength almost sapped at around 2pm I noticed two very round small rocks on a small ledge in some grey/white rock. Indeed they were vertebrae from a Pachyrhizodus (a fish about a foot long) and Chuck proceeded to cut several of them out along with the matrix which we added to our bag since once again the skull was nowhere in sight and the remaining vertebrae trailed back into the very hard rock.

By this point we were all hot and tired and so we jumped in the Suburbun and headed for the Monument Rocks. My daughter got a kick out of the staring cows as we passed.

We then headed back the gallery where we packaged up our finds, admired Chuck's museum, and shopped before heading back to Oakley, very tired but quite satisfied with our days work.

During our day in the Kansas badlands I was most struck by the sheer number of fossils that must still be buried in the numberless canyons just waiting for a strong rain to reveal themselves. It is truly mind boggling to think of a vast inland sea existing in the same place as a present day pasture and to be able to hold in your hands the remains of creatures now extinct but that once lived and thrived in that very different past.


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