FHSU's Sternberg Museum is home to characters from National Geographic movie
10/08/2007

Now that the movie is out, it is time to see the historical characters -- at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University.

"Sea Monsters -- A Prehistoric Adventure," the IMAX movie by National Geographic, tells two stories simultaneously. One is the life and times of a creature called Dolly and the great sea in which she lived a hundred million years ago over what is now the plains and prairies of central North America. The other tells of the paleontologists who are uncovering the stories of that lost world.

There is actually a third story involving the Sternberg Museum, adjunct curator of paleontology Mike Everhart, and the Sternberg family of 19th- and early 20th-century fossil hunters.

Everhart's specialty is the sea creatures of Kansas. He likes to say that, a hundred years ago, the dinosaurs had a better press agent than the marine animals. During the Cretaceous Period, from about 140 million to 80 million years ago, much more of the earth was ocean than now.

"The dinosaurs actually lived on the islands scattered around the world," said Everhart. "Most of the earth was ruled by marine animals."

Back in 2001, Everhart came across a forgotten publication about Charles Sternberg, patriarch of the Sternberg family for whom FHSU's Sternberg Museum is named. In it, Sternberg described a mosasaur he had found in 1918. The giant sea reptile had apparently died shortly after eating a plesiosaur of the genus Dolichorhynchops (pronounced dolly-ko-RING-cops, dolly for short, and eventually the star of a movie; more on that in a moment).

"In the publication, Charles was talking about this mosasaur he had found with the remains of a plesiosaur inside," said Everhart. "That particular discovery had never been described in print, so I got curious. I called the Smithsonian and asked about it because Charlie's notes indicated they had it."
 
The Smithsonian, said Everhart, knew the specimen and had put the mosasaur on display, with much fanfare, in the 1930s, but the plesiosaur had been put in a box and stored. Everhart went to Washington to see the specimens, primarily the plesiosaur, and eventually published his own paper giving Sternberg the credit he deserved, said Everhart, for a "one-of-a-kind discovery."

But while he was in Washington in 2001, he went to the National Geographic offices and persuaded them that this -- a giant sea reptile eating a small sea reptile, dying soon thereafter and being uncovered a hundred million years later -- would make a good story.

And that was that for a while, until sometime late in 2005 when National Geographic got seed money from the National Science Foundation for a documentary, and the idea started snowballing, said Everhart.

In 2006, Everhart and several other paleontologists began work with film crews and animators and, on Oct. 5, the film opened in IMAX theaters across the country. It recounts the fictional life, from birth to death, of a Dolichorhynchops named Dolly and the real life stories of paleontological discovery of the Cretaceous world of water and marine predators.

"Everything out there was eating everything else," said Everhart, describing the Cretaceous Sea. "Everything was a predator. We're just trying to portray that kind of an environment. In the process, there's lots of other things that die. It was a very dangerous place to live."

 The incident inspired by Sternberg's discovery of the dolly inside the mosasaur occurs about three-quarters of the way through the film.

"The Dolichorhynchops that gets eaten is a bit player," said Everhart. "The star leads a full life."

Everhart and the other paleontologists serving as technical advisors spent months with the animators to put flesh on the fossil bones and, Everhart said, "teaching the animals to swim."

"Actually," he said, "teaching the animators how to get it right, instead of coming up with something that looked like Bambi underwater."

"The final product is as near perfect as we can get it," he said.

The animation is based largely on specimens at the Sternberg Museum, at the University of Kansas Natural History Museum and at the Smithsonian.

"Between us and KU, that was most of them," said Everhart.

"The lead character, Dolly, is based on our skeleton that Marion Bonner found in the late 50s," said Everhart. "It is the most complete dolly from Kansas, and probably one of the most from anywhere. We used that specimen for measurements and proportions and getting the anatomy of the animation as accurate as possible."

The mosasaur ("The mosasaur is the bad guy in the movie," said Everhart) came from Logan County, about 10 miles from Monument Rocks, found by Sternberg.

"That specimen is in the Smithsonian, sold by Charlie right after it was found," said Everhart. "By 1920 they had it on exhibit in their museum. It is their centerpiece in the marine exhibit."

It is almost identical in size to the one George, Charlie's son, and Charles, George's son, found near Russell Springs in 1926. "That's the big one on display at the Sternberg," said Everhart. At just under 30 feet long, it and the Smithsonian's are almost identical.

"The one at the Smithsonian is missing about six feet of the tail. The one that we have here is missing about six feet from the center of the animal. The way they found it was a gully cut right through the middle of it."

The movie depicts about 20 species. Everhart and the other paleontologists would have preferred more, "but there was a dollar cost," he said.

"I can't overemphasize the connection between specimens in our museum and the movie," said Everhart. "We have specimens of just about every animal in the movie, and if we don't have it, I'm pretty sure KU does."

Everhart can list off the top of his head many of the creatures featured in "Sea Monsters" and present at the Sternberg: crinoids (related to starfish and sea urchins; "We have a big slab of crinoids"); the little fish shown in huge schools in the movie, Leptotodon and Caprobaryx; the big predator fish Xiphactinus (pronounced zy-FACT-tin-us), he of the famous Fish-Within-A-Fish at the Sternberg Museum, and the Gillicus he ate; sails from the big sail fishes, Protosthyraena (pronounced PRO-toe-sty-REEN-a); a giant squid also at the Sternberg ("A piece of it," said Everhart. "There's not much of a squid that perserves."); Pteranodons (pronounced tur-ANN-o-dons), the flying reptiles ("The pteranodons that appear in the movie in a couple of places are based on our type specimens of Pteranodon sternbergii. We're the only ones that have one."); and sharks.

"The big shark in the movie is something called Cretoxyrhina (pronounced cray-TOX-y-RHINE-a). Most of what we know about that is based on discoveries made by the Sternbergs."

The first Cretoxyrhina was discovered by Charlie in 1890s and purchased by a German museum. It was a "very complete specimen" of a 20-footer. George found another in the '50s, which is on display at the Sternberg.

"The one found by Charlie was destroyed in World War II, so we've probably got the best exhibit specimen on display anywhere in the world right now," said Everhart.

"Everything we know about that ecology is based on these types of specimens," he said. "The movie is a great opportunity to visit a different world, when a vast ocean covered the Midwest."

Everhart's Web site, Oceans of Kansas, is dedicated to exploring Cretaceous life, www.oceansofkansas.com.

The movie Web site is www.nationalgeographic.com/seamonsters.


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