the fine details 
 of fossilization

The Monument Rocks formation in northwest Kansas is noted for the many large sea fossils that have been discovered there.

For more than a century, the Rock Chalk Chant has been the bedrock of Jayhawk tradition.

Over millennia, the Kansas chalk rock that inspired our famous chant has created something else: a seabed of prehistoric marine fossils — right under our feet. In fact, most mosasaur or pterosaur fossil specimens at natural history museums around the world come from Kansas, according to Bruce Lieberman, senior curator of the KU Natural History Museum and professor of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Bruce Lieberman is lead investigator on a $2.1 million NSF grant to digitize fossil collections of eight institutions.

The KU Natural History Museum has one of the leading collections of Late Cretaceous fossils in the world.

“Fossils were one of the state’s first great exports,” Lieberman says.

Kansas may be landlocked today, but 65 to 100 million years ago, during the Late Cretaceous period, much of the central continent was beneath the Western Interior Seaway. We’re walking around on an ancient ocean floor and some of the most spectacular fossils in the world, Lieberman says.

Bruce Lieberman works with collection manager Julien Kimmig to photograph and digitize fossil specimens.

As he explains it, the chalky limestone — made up of skeletons of microscopic marine algae — has exceptional preservation power. “Think of the rock that entombs fossils like a template,” Lieberman says. “The finer the grain, the finer the detail preserved.”

For example, one fossil shark displayed at the Natural History Museum is so detailed that the skull of a bony fish — the creature’s last meal — is visible in its belly.

The $2.1 million National Science Foundation grant that supports digitization of fossils like these — and thousands more stored in the back rooms of other research institutions — will make them more accessible to scientists around the world. With further study, scientists hope to better understand the warming climate of the Late Cretaceous period and how today’s similar global climate changes may alter habitats and affect species.


Oil recovery research

KU’s Tertiary Oil Recovery Project, established more than 40 years ago to help Kansas oil producers get the most out of hard-to-crack reserves, will soon move to labs in KU’s new Earth, Energy & Environment Center. Shahin Negahban, TORP’s new director and associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, is a KU alumnus and has more than 30 years’ experience in the petroleum industry.

Speaking abilities

A five-year, $4.5 million grant will support a project to improve the speech of children with autism spectrum disorder and will fund other work by 43 scientists at the Kansas Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center. The KIDDRC is one of only 14 such centers with national designation.

Protecting the pollinators

Understanding how bees and other pollinators interact with tallgrass prairie plants may help scientists mitigate the declining health of these insect populations. Kathy Denning, a doctoral student in ecology and evolutionary biology, will use an NSF grant to study pollinators on Kansas prairie sites.

Mapping out Zika’s spread

A new map modeling the future threat of Zika around the world shows that Europe is now at risk, as well as parts of Texas, Florida, and Louisiana. A team including KU researchers created the extensively detailed map.