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.
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.
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.
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.
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.