a vote 65 million years in the making

– Marcella K. McCluskey
The writer is a student in Comm 240 News Reporting.

Staff at Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History have been urging western Kansans to lobby their legislators to pass House Bill 2595, which would make the pteranodon and the tylosaurus Kansas’ state fossils.

But even the Sternberg staff have been surprised by the speed at which the bill passed the House and a Senate committee. At press time, the full Senate was scheduled to vote on the bill on Friday, March 14.
The state of Kansas has a rich paleontologic heritage full of oceans and reptiles.

Mike Everhart, author of “Oceans of Kansas” and adjunct curator of paleontology at the museum, testified before the Vision 2020 Committee of the House of Representatives on Feb. 19, 2014. Everhart then spoke to the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee on March 11, 2014.
The goal of Everhart’s testimony was to get HB 2595 passed on to the rest of the Senate and ultimately made into a state law.

Everhart said, “I have been interested in paleontology all of my life and have collected fossils in western Kansas since the late 1960s.” This mission for education resonates deeply with Everhart, which is why he has lent his support to the bill. If it passes, Kansas will join 40 other states that have official state fossils.

The tylosaurus is an extinct swimming reptile called a mosasaur. Its closest relatives include monitor lizards. The tylosaurus had a long tail to propel itself in the water and paddles instead of feet.
“Pteranodon has no descendants or close living relatives. They died out with the dinosaurs,” Everhart said. “It’s a big flying reptile, and reptiles were actually the second group of animals to fly. Today we have bats and birds and insects. Insects were the first living animals that flew, and pterosaurs were the second group during the Triassic [251-200 million years ago] to launch into the air and fly with wings. Pterosaurs ruled the air for millions of years before the birds got there.” Pterosaurs are not dinosaurs, but flying reptiles in a different lineage from dinosaurs, he added.

The pteranodon and tylosaurus are fossils that are special to Kansas for many reasons. Everhart said, “It’s an important recognition of our deep paleontology history here in Kansas. These two fossils are representative of all of the great things that have come from Kansas. I think this is a great opportunity for school kids and adults to learn about our fossil heritage.”

Everhart believes that these two particular fossils are important to the state of Kansas. He said, “Tylosaurus is one of the biggest mosasaurs ever known. It is longer than a T-Rex. For kids that like big mean monsters, tylosaurus definitely fits the bill. Pteranodon have been portrayed in ‘Jurassic Park,’ ‘King Kong’ and Disney’s ‘Fantasia. ‘ They are slightly exaggerated in the films, but everyone recognizes our pteranodon,” he said, adding that “95 to 98 percent of all pteranodon specimens have come from Kansas.”

The bill would name the tylosaurus as the official marine fossil and the pteranodon as the official flying fossil. Everhart said one of the other reasons he supports the bill is the amount of tourism it will brings to Kansas museums.

“No one else in the U.S. has a pterosaur as the state fossil.”

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