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.
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.