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Prehistoric oceans in Kansas could hold clues about the future of life

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

For generations, scientists and students wanting to learn about prehistoric oceans have flocked to a place that's about as far from an ocean as you can get - dry, dusty western Kansas. David Condos of the Kansas News Service tells us why.

DAVID CONDOS, BYLINE: Just south of Interstate 70, in western Kansas, there's a spot where pillars of white and golden rock tower over the flat plains, the Castle Rock Badlands. Today, paleobiologist David Levering is leading a group from Fort Hays State University through the rock formations.

DAVID LEVERING: It's obviously quite barren and rocky now, but in the Cretaceous, where we're standing would have been the bottom of a sea.

CONDOS: It's hard to imagine, but 80 million years ago, this dry, desolate landscape sat beneath the waves of the Western Interior Seaway, which stretched from the Arctic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico. Back then, sea monsters patrolled these waters - bus-length reptiles with razor-sharp teeth, giant carnivorous fish, clams the size of car hoods.

LAURA WILSON: My favorite description I'd heard of the Western Interior Seaway is Hell's Aquarium.

CONDOS: That's Laura Wilson, a paleontologist with the Sternberg Museum in nearby Hays. She studies prehistoric sea turtles that survived on what was a very hot greenhouse planet. And her research could inform conservationists about how today's turtles might adapt to a warming climate. Her work is just the latest chapter in a surprisingly rich tradition here that shaped our understanding of ancient ocean life for more than a century.

WILSON: I consider western Kansas the birthplace of American paleontology.

CONDOS: From swimming mosasaurs to flying pteranodons, discoveries from western Kansas now grace the halls of world-class museums in New York, London and Germany. Sternberg Museum collections manager Aly Baumgartner says most visitors find it hard to believe that this often overlooked region plays such a pivotal role in the scientific world.

ALY BAUMGARTNER: It's fun to tell people from Kansas how important this is because we are often the butt of jokes, and it shouldn't be the case. Like, the history of Kansas includes sea monsters. Like, how cool is that?

CONDOS: In the museum basement, she slides open drawer after drawer of specimens. Many of them can fit in your hand - shells, teeth, toes. In all, this collection is home to more than 20,000 fossils. And that is what continues to draw researchers here from as far away as Japan, Brazil and Australia. So what makes dry-as-dust western Kansas so special? Well, it's one of the few spots on earth where the rock around these fossils is more delicate than the fossils themselves. These badlands are made of soft chalk, so scientists can gently brush it away without wrecking the fragile skeletons.

An hour west of the Castle Rock Badlands, Chuck Bonner flips through photos from decades of family fossil expeditions. He remembers his dad putting together plesiosaur bones on the dining room table and cleaning fossils by warming them up in their oven. On the wall hangs a childhood portrait of his sister at a fossil hunt, using a white cloth to shade her head from the sun.

CHUCK BONNER: That's my diaper. So that's how long I've been in the fossil biz. I was just born into it.

CONDOS: He's given some to big museums in LA or Chicago, but most sit right here in the Keystone Gallery in rural western Kansas, where visitors can gawk at his pizza-sized fish skulls and wall-length reptile skeletons. For Bonner, fossil hunting isn't about fame or money. It's about the thrill of discovery, the chance to unearth a new piece of bizarre aquatic history in this unexpected place. And when people ask him which fossil is his favorite, he says the next one. For NPR News, I'm David Condos in Gove County, Kan. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.