One of the few dinosaur fossils ever discovered in Kansas returned home today when Niobrarasaurus coleii (NYE-oh-BRAIR-a-saw-rus KOH-lee-eye) was officially welcomed to the collections of Fort Hays State University's Sternberg Museum of Natural History at a news conference in the collections area of the museum.
"We are proud to be able to add this extremely valuable fossil specimen to the collections of the Sternberg Museum," said university President Edward H. Hammond. "It is appropriate that it should be here, because it was discovered in Gove County in 1930, and it is gratifying that after so many years out of state it should return to someday go on display at our fine museum of natural history."
This specimen, which was only recently identified as a new genus of armored dinosaur, is the "type specimen" for this genus, meaning it is the fossil complete enough for scientists to tell that it is a new animal, one not previously discovered.
"I am also happy to have this opportunity to showcase the Sternberg Museum for its scientific value to the world," said Hammond. "The Sternberg Museum is known around the world as a tourist attraction, but it is even more widely known as a scientific resource for its large and, in many cases, unique specimens."
Dr. Jerry Choate, professor of biological sciences and director of the Sternberg Museum, introduced Mike Everhart, adjunct curator of paleontology for the museum, who was responsible for finding and studying the Niobrarasaurus fossil and in getting the specimen moved to the Sternberg Museum.
"Mike's true love is paleontology," said Choate, who said Everhart is one of the world's leading experts on mosasaurs.
"He has collected fossils in the chalk of western Kansas for about 35 years and has earned an international reputation as an authority on the Smoky Hill Chalk and its vertebrate fauna," said Choate.
Everhart, who founded and is webmaster for OceansofKansas.com, one of the largest paleontological Web sites and which focuses on the marine fossils of western Kansas, gave a brief history of the fossil.
The fossil was discovered in early 1930 by Virgil Cole in southeastern Gove County. Cole thought that he was collecting a plesiosaur, an aquatic reptile, but then concluded that it was, in fact, a dinosaur when he found an articulated hind limb. He sent the remains to the University of Missouri at Columbia where they were described by M.G. Mehl in 1936 as a new "aquatic" dinosaur. The specimen consists of vertebrae, parts of the skull, the pelvis, limb bones, and dermal scutes (skin armor).
Mehl identified this dinosaur as a nodosaur, a group of armored dinosaurs that sort of look like overgrown armadillos. He named this new dinosaur Hierosaurus (HYE-roh-saw-rus) coleii. Recently, the specimen was studied again, and it is now thought to be a different kind of nodosaur dinosaur not belonging to the Hierosaurus group, so a new genus name was created and it is now called Niobrarasaurus coleii.
Everhart, studying a specimen collected in 2000 by Shawn Hamm of Wichita State University, compared Hamm's find with the specimen at the University of Missouri, and he and Hamm concluded that Hamm's find was the same species. These two are also the only known specimens. Both are housed at the Sternberg Museum.
In this process, Everhart learned from Dr. Raymond Ethington, professor emeritus of geology at Missouri, that the university there had no plans to display the fossil in their collection. Recognizing the fossil's value to science and the people of Kansas, the University of Missouri agreed to transfer the specimen to Sternberg.
Dr. Richard Zakrzewski (zak-SHEF-ski), professor of geoscience and chief curator of the Sternberg Museum, highlighted several paleontology research projects now under way, including a dinosaur dig in southeastern Colorado and an international research project in Meade County, Kansas, with scientists from Spain and Italy, on several million years of rodent evolution.
The Sternberg Museum's holdings include more than 3 million specimens, including more than 2 million fossils. The paleontology collections contain some of the finest Cretaceous era fossils ever found. Its collection of flying reptiles is recognized as the third best in the world and its collection of mosasaurs and plesiosaurs have some of the most complete specimens of those animals in any museum.
The famous Fish-Within-a-Fish is unique.
Altogether, the museum houses collections representing the disciplines of paleontology, geology, history, archaeology and ethnology, botany, entomology, ichthyology, herpetology, ornithology and mammalogy.
The news conference ended in a tour of the museum's rooms containing the various collections and areas where specimens and displays are prepared. The tour also included the recently completed permanent geological exhibits on the museum's main floor.