Sea Turtles in Kansas?!

Juvenile (4 year old) Protostega sea turtle skeleton mount with a Megacephalosaurus plesiosaur skull mount behind it.

Protostega was a large sea turtle the lived in the ocean that covered Kansas and central North America 80 million years ago. New research by FHSU paleontologist Dr. Laura Wilson shows that the bone tissue microstructure (osteohistology) of Protostega reveals growth patterns similar to modern leatherback sea turtles (the largest sea turtles alive today) with rapid growth to large body size. Leatherbacks don’t have a typical reptile metabolism; they have high resting metabolic rates and can hold a body temperature higher than their surroundings. If Protostega had similar bone growth patterns to leatherbacks, it’s hypothesized they had a similar metabolism.

What’s more, for sea turtles rapid growth to adult body size also means rapid growth to reproductive maturity. Growing quickly and reproducing early are great survival strategies in an ocean filled with big bony fish, bigger sharks, and even bigger mosasaurs.

Comparing Protostega to its more basal relative Desmatochelys shows that not all protostegid sea turtles had the same growth patterns. Desmatochelys had a slower growth rate more similar to living green and loggerhead sea turtles. Rapid growth to large size evolved late within the lineage, perhaps in response to the evolution of large tylosaurid mosasaurs. Given uncertainties in the phylogenetic placement of protostegids relative to living sea turtles, it is unclear if the evolution of rapid growth rates and possible elevated metabolism is convergent with modern leatherbacks or if the two are more closely related.

Image collage of Protostega sea turtle histologic thin section showing spongy bone and large gaps between lines of arrested growth.

This resaerch was publised in the open-access journal PeerJ and can be read for free:

Digging deeper into fossil seabirds from Kansas

Eighty-five million years ago, a seabird called Ichthyornis (which means “fish bird”) lived and died over the ocean that covered Kansas and much of central North America. With well-developed wings, hollow bones, and a body roughly the size and shape of a tern’s, Ichthyornis looked like modern birds and was clearly capable of flying. However, odd features like teeth illustrate the bird’s dinosaurian ancestry. A new study featuring Sternberg Museum fossils collected in western Kansas (and co-authored by the Curator of Paleontology, Dr. Laura Wilson) reveals just how similar and different Ichthyornis was to living birds. This research sheds new light on the details of its skeleton and supports previous hypotheses that Ichthyornis is very closely related to modern birds. The bones of forty different fossil specimens were studied, making these birds one of the better-known fossil bird species. With so many individual specimens, paleontologists can now start answering questions about how Ichthyornis lived its life and evolved as the Age of Dinosaurs came to a close.

Reconstruction of Ichthyornis seabird highlighting which bones were not previously known/described prior to the study, as well as bones with new information added.

This research was published in the open-access journal PeerJ and is available to anyone interested in reading more.   

FHSU Paleontologists visit Toronto!

Every fall, vertebrate paleontologists from around the world come together for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology annual meeting. This year’s conference in Toronto, Canada provided an opportunity to share research, catch up with colleagues, and build new connections. Ten FHSU faculty, staff, students, and alumni were able to make the meeting, including three current students and two museum staff members. Sternberg Camps Director David Levering organized an education symposium entitled “International Community Connections” in which he co-authored a presentation about teaching high school summer campers science skills using online platforms. Curator of Paleontology Dr. Laura Wilson also presented in this symposium with two FHSU Geosciences undergraduate students, current senior Kaiden O’Dell and recent graduate Riley Sanford. Their presentation shared experiences teaching and learning science communication skills in the classroom. Geosciences graduate student Shyla Davison gave a talk to fellow museum professionals on “Examining data collection, archiving protocols, and data accessibility in fossil preparation labs”. Alec Zaborniak, also a second-year graduate student in Geosciences, presented on his research reconstructing mosasaur paleoecology in the Western Interior Seaway that covered central North America ~80 million years ago.

FHSU and the Sternberg Museum made a splash this year, growing our reputation as a leader in Western Interior Seaway research, museum studies, and science education. We are immensely proud of all our students and alumni!

FHSU Sternberg Museum paleontology on the radio!

Paleontologists and science educators at Fort Hays State University’s Sternberg Museum of Natural History were recently in the news for their contributions to Kansas paleontology. Reporter David Condos of High Plains Public Radio and Kansas New Service wrote a wonderful piece (audio and text) on Kansas paleontology featuring stories and quotes from Curator of Paleontology Dr. Laura Wilson, Paleontology Collections Manager Dr. Aly Baumgartner, and Camps Director Mr. David Levering. Check it out!

UPDATE: Condos’s segment was picked up by NPR national and aired on Morning Edition!

Paleontologist looking for fossils on a hillside in the western Kansas badlands.

“If we didn’t have these sediments,” Fort Hays State University paleontologist Laura Wilson said, “we would just be looking at the dinosaurs on land. And that’s only half the picture.”

Are you a Paleo Nerd?

In case you missed it, Dr. Laura Wilson was featured on the popular paleontology podcast Paleo Nerds in Spring 2021. Check out her interview (and the incredible splash page the Paleo Nerds team put together). Laura talks to Ray and Dave about the geology and ecology of the Western Interior Seaway – the ancient ocean that covered central North America 100-66 million years ago. Much of the information known about the animals and ecosystems in this Seaway comes from Wilson Paleo Lab research and the Sternberg Museum’s paleontology collections.

Paleo Nerds is hosted by paleoartist Ray Troll and ventriloquist David Strassman. Ray and David never lost their childhood enthusiasm for science and all things paleontology, and now share their enthusiasm through engaging interviews with paleontologists and science educators from around the world. Check out past podcasts for a spectacular line up!