Pharyngula

Niobrara

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What do you think of when someone mentions the word “Kansas”? Maybe what leaps to your mind is that it is a farming state that is flat as a pancake, or if you’ve been following current events, the recent kangaroo court/monkey trial, or perhaps it is the drab counterpart to marvelous Oz. It isn’t exactly first on the list of glamourous places. I admit that I tend to read different books than most people, so I have a somewhat skewed perspective on Kansas: the first thing I think of is a magic word.

Niobrara.

Late in the 19th century, there was a stampede to the American West to search for fossils of those spectacular beasts, the dinosaurs. Entrepreneurs everywhere were in on it—P.T. Barnum bought up old bones for his shows—and even scientists got caught up in the bone fever. Edward Drinker Cope of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale were famous rivals in the bone wars, sending teams of men to Wyoming and Utah and Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states to collect the bones of the extinct terrestrial behemoths of the Mesozoic. Kansas was also a target, most famously by the Sternberg family, but it had a different reputation: Kansas is the place to go to find sea monsters.

There is a geological formation in Kansas called the Niobrara Chalk. Actually, it’s not just in Kansas; it extends all the way up into Canada, but the Niobrara has been exposed by erosion over much of northwestern Kansas, making it easy to dig into. And this is where the Sternbergs and Cope and Marsh went hunting for sea monsters.

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via ESA

Chalk is interesting stuff. It’s made of a mineral calcium carbonate, that is formed into the shells of microscopic, one-celled golden brown algae. These Chrysophyceae are photosynthesizing organisms that float in large numbers at the surface of the sea, gather sunlight for energy and scavenging calcium dissolved in the water to build their protective shells. They occasionally shed the the minute calcium plates, and when the plants die, their skeletons drift slowly downward. The seas have a slow, soft, invisible rain of tiny flecks of calcium carbonate that very, very slowly builds up at the bottom.

The Niobrara Chalk formation is 600 feet thick.

It was building up for a long, long time, tens of millions of years. The exposed chalks of northwestern Kansas are also old, dating to between 87 and 82 million years ago, near the end of the Mesozoic era and deep in the Late Cretaceous (not up on your geological time scale? Here’s a simple chart of geological eras.)

The inescapable conclusion is that Kansas was under water during the age of the dinosaurs. During the Mesozoic, the world was warm and the oceans were at a high level, and the entire central part of North America was a great, shallow, inland sea, a warm soup rich in microorganisms that were busily living and dying and slowly accumulating into deep dense chalk beds on the bottom. The world looked a bit like this:

It wasn’t just coccolithophores living there, though. Shallow seas are fertile places for life, and there were vast shoals of fish and nautiloids, dense layers of bottom-dwelling molluscs and echinoderms, and amazing predators. Here’s a bulldog-jawed, snaggle-toothed Xiphactinus—over 20 feet long and 800 pounds of ferocious muscle.

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Xiphactinus

There were also snaky-necked plesiosaurids feasting on the smaller fish. These are genuinely weird animals—we have nothing comparable to them today—yet they were diverse and successful and found in numbers in the Niobrara Chalk.

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Elasmosaurus

The predatory king of the Niobraran Sea was this fellow, Tylosaurus, a mosasaurid that reached lengths of up to 50 feet. It’s a giant, air-breathing reptile, and is probably most comparable to a killer whale.

I’ve only briefly visited modern Kansas, but the Kansas of my imagination is a fiercely exotic ocean, a warm and savage sea richer than any place still extant. Try mentioning the magic word “Niobrara” to a paleontologist, or any enthusiast familiar with Mesozoic reptiles…their eyes will light up as it conjures visions of the world of 85 million years ago, a world well documented in the incredible fossil beds of Kansas. It’s a powerful, evocative word that links us to a wealth of evidence and a complex, fascinating history.

Reading about the ridiculous anti-evolution trial going on there was rather depressing. It isn’t just that the creationist arguments are so poor, but that they are making them in Kansas, where beneath their very feet are the relics of an ancient world that show them to be wrong. Don’t schoolchildren there take pride in the paleontological wealth of their home? Do the people bury their imaginations and avoid thinking about the history that surrounds them?

During the course of the hearings, the lawyer on the side of science, Pedro Irigonegaray, asked several of the witnesses for Intelligent Design creationism what they thought the age of the earth was. It’s a simple, straightforward question with a simple answer: about 4.5 billion years. The Intelligent Design creationists found it difficult. Some answers were ludicrous, such as Daniel Ely’s and John Sanford’s assertion that the earth was between 10 and 100 thousand years old. Others were evasive: Stephen Meyer and Angus Menuge refused to answer. Some of these “qualified witnesses” were embarrassingly ignorant: William Harris could only say, “I don’t know. I think it’s probably really old.”. All of this is in line with the intellectually flaccid position of the godfather of the Intelligent Design movement, Phillip Johnson, who has bravely announced that “I have consistently said that I take no position on the age of the earth”.

Mention “Niobrara” to these people and their eyes will not light up. At best you might get dull-eyed incomprehension, and more likely you will see shifty-eyed evasion. Yet these are the characters who want to dictate the scientific content of our children’s educations. I swear, if there were any truth to their metaphysical codswallop, the shades of Cope and Marsh and the Sternbergs would have manifested in that courtroom to denounce them, and the floor would have cracked open beneath their feet to allow a spectral tylosaur to rise up and gulp them down.

There are greater truths in the stones of Niobrara than in the dissembling and ill-educated brains of the fellows of the Discovery Institute. We need to teach the evidence, not this phony, ginned-up controversy from a gang of poseurs and theocrats.

Comments

  1. #1 MissPrism
    March 8, 2006

    So very well said.
    Speaking of palaeontology words that make the eyes light up, a few years ago, I was in a rural part of Wales where the local newspaper is the Cambrian Times. Wonderful mental images.

  2. #2 Mike
    March 8, 2006

    We know sweeps are over, PZ has gone into reruns. 🙂 Reruns of Pharyngula are better than new content most places though.

    I just hope we don’t have to wait until May sweeps for new stuff. And I hate cliffhanger endings that make you wait until September to find out what happened.

  3. #3 PZ Myers
    March 8, 2006

    Nah, don’t worry. I usually bring back a couple of old posts every week, and now I’ve used up my quota. I’m just stuck in St. Cloud, waiting for some mechanics to finish tuning up my car, which kind of limits my ability to do much for now.

  4. #4 KeithB
    March 8, 2006

    Carl, of course, has some great pictures:
    http://olduvaigeorge.com/2005/12/21/oceans-of-kansas/

    Somehow, I don’t think a day at the beach on *that* sea would be much of a picnic!

  5. #5 pablo
    March 8, 2006

    It isn’t all that flat really. The Flint Hills, for example, are wonderfully hilly.

  6. #6 CanuckRob
    March 8, 2006

    “Somehow, I don’t think a day at the beach on *that* sea would be much of a picnic!”

    I guess it would depend on who is having the picnic. If Tylosaurus did behave like a killer whale it could come right up on the beach with you for a quick bite:)

    Carl’s pictures are wonderful.

  7. #7 J-Dog
    March 8, 2006

    PZ for Poet Laureate… Thanks to your descriptions, I can see the animals… to me it’s poetry. Maybe you could be like Buffalo Bill Dembski (in a good way!) and get 2 doctorates?

  8. #8 Francis
    March 8, 2006

    Kansas may be flat as a pancake, but it’s positively rolling compared to California’s Central Valley.

  9. #9 KeithB
    March 8, 2006

    And, given typical predator-prey ratios and the preference for the big ones to deep water, I am pretty sure *most* people would make it home after a day of body surfing. In fact, it would probably be much like today. I am more worried about sea-jellies and stingrays than I am about Great Whites and Orcas.

  10. #10 Miguelito
    March 8, 2006

    I’m doing my PhD on some sediments from this seaway, although they are from Alberta, another home of Christian fundamentalism. I’ve seen bedding planes the size of city blocks that were trampled by dinosaurs, where the dimpling of the trackways is far more denser than that on a golf ball. Spectacular.

    My fiance’s uncle has a farm in Manitoba. On that farm he has a marvelous outcrop where you can extract immaculately preserved Cretaceous-aged fish and large fragments of marine reptiles, including ribs and vertebrae. It also has ash beds from which radiometric age-dating can be accurately obtained. The supreme irony is that my fiance’s uncle is a devout Baptist and keeps asking me why those rocks couldn’t have been buried over a few thousand of years or over the “great flood”. It’s amazing: he’s really well educated otherwise and is the principal of the local high school. He’s smart enough, however, to keep his religious beliefs out of the school (for which I admire him).

    With this world of evidence at our feet, it truly amazes me how people can still deny that evolution occurs and that the earth might be ludicrously young.

  11. #11 Rocky
    March 8, 2006

    Well said and thank you PZ. I very much enjoyed when this was first written. I also get swept up in my “minds eye of the past”. The newer finds in China have had me really daydreaming of late….

  12. #12 P J evans
    March 8, 2006

    One thing that I’ve heard about ID/creationist types is that they don’t seem to understand that the same natural laws that make their lightbulbs and computers and microwave oven work are the ones that say that Earth is 4.whatever billion years old. (Of course, if you ignore little things like the laws of physics and chemistry, you can make the universe do anything you want, like have dinosaurs and humans be contemporaries.)

  13. #13 Dior
    March 8, 2006

    Oddly enough in Utah, the elementary age children are required to learn of the Dinosaur National Monument and the work going on there. To bad that at the high school level where the cool evolution teaching could take off, most of the state educators let it die off.

  14. #14 chuko
    March 8, 2006

    Wow, that’s a beautiful post, PZ.

    This only relates to the first paragraph, but I ran across it today. Dadaism in Kansas< \A>

  15. #15 Coragyps
    March 8, 2006

    I’m reminded of the book *PrairyErth, a Deep Map* by William Least Heat Moon. Maybe 20 years old now, but wonderful writing about the Flint Hills – geology, people, and all.

  16. #16 Mouse
    March 8, 2006

    I’ll have try and visit that area when I’m liberated from my parents and financially stable.

  17. #17 Bradley
    March 9, 2006

    Nicely written. We need more publicity for these formations. The Niobrara Chalk really is amazing. Plus several of those creatures look positively ferocious on their own. Such wonders almost outweigh the embarrassment of having my state’s education board hijacked. Almost.

    I have visited sites up by the Sternberg Museum. The Niobrara really lives up to its reputation. Similar to other sites mentioned, you can hike down small, winding gullies lined with outcroppings. In particularly good spots 15 or more vertical feet can be examined; well-eroded sections are analogous to weathered concrete packed with fossils of varying sizes. Truly wonderful stuff.

    The fight is long and hard down here. Good for morale to hear anything good and decent about Kansas!

  18. #18 jc.
    March 9, 2006

    Oddly enough I always think of “bloody Kansas” of John Brown fame first.

  19. #19 djlactin
    March 9, 2006

    miguelito shook this thought out of my head with his comments about the limestone beds in manitoba (canada).

    whether he is referring to “tyndall stone” or not, what follows is some cool stuff. tyndall stone is a limestone of ordovician age, which is widely used as building facades on the canadian prairies. it’s literally impossible to look at a tyndall stone facing and NOT see a fossil within 10 seconds. (and these aren’t little twinky things either — most of them are the size of your hand or bigger!)

    my ex-father-in-commonlaw is an invertebrate paleontologist who amassed a large collection of photos of ordovician fossils in building facings in regina, saskatchewan. (he also took me on an impromptu tour of the post office walls in lethbridge (a smallish town in southern alberta)and blew me away with the stuff he spotted, so i hope he keeps up his hobby.

    he has started a website of photos and annotations of fossils that he found. have a look… it’s mind-bending.

    http://dfp.mediacooks.com/fossils/

    and click on Fossil Photos.

    and if you have any comments for him, tell him derek sent you!

  20. #20 djlactin
    March 9, 2006

    sorry, that should have read:

    ..and click on Fossil Images…

    and here’s the missing final parenthesis:
    )

  21. #21 outeast
    March 9, 2006

    Damn. Now I want to go diving in Kansas.

  22. #22 Rocky
    March 9, 2006

    djlactin, thank you!
    Beautiful fossils, I’ll have to add that area to my travel list.

  23. #23 Smart_Cookie
    March 9, 2006

    Mr. Myers: I guess you’ve heard of the ‘Canadian Fossil Discovery Centre’? It’s a small museum in southern Manitoba. We went to visit it last summer. Their most notable item is a 40 foot long Mosasaur skeleton – named Bruce.
    They have a website – http://www.discoverfossils.com.
    While we were there, the curator mentioned that they just purchased another 100+ acres of land on the edge of the escarpment – where artifacts are almost just lying there for the taking.
    I ran across this story on your site a while ago, and at first thought Gee, in Manitoba we have no problem with the creation/evolution debate (like they do in Kansas). But our museum is right in the middle of the Manitoba “bible belt”. It actually has references to creation in the museum, to mollify the local religious folk. Arrgh.
    Cheers.

  24. #24 Rupert
    March 9, 2006

    Just one tiny complaint – “The world looked like this” should really be “The North American continent looked like this”. There was quite a lot going on elsewhere at the time…

    Incidentally, my school in Plymouth (Devon, UK – a place with no little paleontological history of its own) is built like many local buildings out of limestone composed of crinoid, coral, bryozoan and shell fragments in a fine fine-grained, light-grey calcite matrix. I spent many happy hours poring over the outside of the walls.

    Some of the fossils who taught us were a bit fragmented too – the head of the biology department was a creationist who refused to teach embryology. Everyone just thought of him as eccentric, though; I don’t think it occured to anyone in my class that he might have been right.

  25. #25 deang
    July 14, 2008

    That’s one of the two things I think of when I hear “Kansas”, too! The other is prairie. The state has some of the finest tallgrass prairie remnants on the continent, especially Konza Prairie in Manhattan, Kansas. Bet the Christers aren’t aware of that either, probably think it’s all “weeds” that the Lord wants them to mow to keep His house in order. I heard a sermon in our Methodist church as a child where the preacher interpreted something about the Garden of Eden myth as meaning that God wants us to keep our lawns mowed and our hedges trimmed. And he was serious. And the wealthy, suburban congregation nodded like it was the wisest statement they’d ever heard.

  26. #26 Longtime Lurker
    July 15, 2008

    Nice to see this up again. I am currently wearing my uber-nerdy, yet totally macho, “Oceans of Kansas” T-shirt. Mike Everhart of the eponymous (there’s that word again!) website is an extrememly nice guy. I wrote him a short letter when I ordered it, and he sent me a couple of journal articles he’d written, along with the shirt.

    http://www.oceansofkansas.com/

    His new book is very attractive, a really nice coffee table book for folks of our ilk (there’s that word again!).

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