The King of Prehistoric Kansas

Imagine a 40-foot predator roaming the Kansas landscape 80 million years ago, a lizard with huge jaws and menacing teeth. What probably comes to mind is a lumbering dinosaur that made giant tracks with its large, clawed feet, hungrily searching for prey.

But that landscape was actually a seascape, and that predator a marine lizard. During the Cretaceous period, most of Kansas lay under a shallow sea. This warm sea supported large fish and marine lizards that grew in biological diversity, becoming the most abundant group of marine reptiles. The largest of these were mosasaurs. These marine lizards are sometimes referred to as the "T.-rexes of the sea." Despite their similar appearance and size, mosasaurs are only distantly related to dinosaurs. Mosasaurs’ closest cousins are modern-day monitor lizards and snakes, with which they share many traits like large, flexible jaws and backward-facing teeth. 

 

A cast of the museum’s flagship specimen, the Bunker Mosasaur, hangs suspended above the main entrance on the 4th floor, snaking across the ceiling with jaws open wide. In 1911, Charles Bunker stumbled upon the 40-foot giant while he and a team were collecting birds and mammals near Scott City in Western Kansas. The find turned out to be the one of the largest mosasaurs known to science.

Kansas’ limestone formed from settled sediment and detritus in the shallow sea. When the sea receded, the limestone remained. The stone has proven to be quite important to its residents. It provides the greatest source of fossils in Kansas, called the Niobrara Chalk Formations. The chalk passively fertilizes native plants with calcium. Limestone barbed-wire fence posts can often be seen along highways, and Kansas has many limestone buildings. Plus, the “chalk” in KU’s famous “Rock Chalk" chant refers to the limestone beneath Kansan feet.