Folks, some years ago, when I heard Kansans in the legislature were looking for a new State Symbol to recognize fossil life in Kansas, I was excited. In fact, old fossil that I am, I thought I might be in the running. Then I found out Kansas lawmakers were thinking Cretaceous. More specifically, the Tylosauras and the Pteranodon.
The Tylosaurus, a mosasaur, was an air-breathing reptilian swimmer in the ocean that covered Kansas 85 million years ago. The Pteranodon was a reptilian flier that cruised the Inland Sea and nested along the Kansas coastline. I’m sure the Kansas State Reptile, the Ornate Box Turtle (our only concession to fashion), welcomes these new reptiles, even if they move so differently than the trudging turtle: one in the sea, the other in the air. Both new state symbols would have been impressive to encounter.
The Pteranodon could have a wing span of up to 26 feet, with a hatchet-like head nearly 10-feet long, but with a body no bigger than an ordinary housecat. The Tylosaurus was the largest of the mosasaurs, and could reach 40 feet in length. A dangerous predator, the Tylosaurus swallowed its prey whole. Even though a reptile, the Tylosaurus probably gave live birth to young. The Pteranodon laid eggs in rookeries along the great shores of Kansas.
Folks, I’m happy we finally have state fossils, even if I’m not one of them. I remember, and not too fondly, the State Board of Education hearings about evolution and creationism and intelligent design back in 2005. A change in state science standards de-emphasized the teaching of evolution in the classroom. But now, we have tipped our hats to the Cretaceous, a period between 145.5 and 65.5 million years ago, give or take a few years, when dinosaurs ruled the earth. We’re certainly beyond “Biblical” time. And, we’re featuring one of our most unique connections to Great Plains prehistory.
Folks, I’ve been to Monument Rocks, those Kansas pyramids. In 1968, the site was one of the first National Natural Landmarks to be selected by the National Park Service. Huge chalk formations, they tower up to 70 feet above the Kansas Plains, and yet they were once the sea floor. They are what is left standing after water and wind eroded those deposits of organic materials, and they are full of fossils. This is where the great Sternberg, of museum fame, worked. And the Bonner family of Keystone Gallery fame. These pyramids, with their towers and arches, are certainly monuments. They were not built to honor a king, nor to house the dead, though they contain the mighty and the dead, all made of the same elements, the same stuff as the air, the earth, and even our own bodies.
Folks, when we make state symbols from creatures of the Cretaceous, of the Great Inland sea, we expand the Great Plains story, we trumpet our part in the long history of the earth, we contemplate our moments in eternity. Just as some of us old fossils do around the Here, Kansas, Co-op on starry nights.