Oceans of Kansas: A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea (Life of the Past)
Michael J. Everhart
Indiana University Press, 2005
344 pp., $49.95
Sharks in Kansas
Some of the organisms that lived in the Western Interior Sea are rather familiar—large marine clams, for instance, and sea turtles—while others are wonderfully strange. Among the latter are mosasaurs and elasmosaurs. These creatures were not dinosaurs but large marine reptiles. The mosasaurs, distantly related to Monitor lizards, were first described from fossils found in Europe (in the Netherlands) in the late 1700s. The discovery of these extinct organisms predated the discovery of the dinosaurs by almost 80 years. Mosasaurs were the dominant carnivores in the sea. They moved through the water by swishing their large tail back and forth in an undulating motion. The largest mosasaur, Tylosaurus proriger, grew to a length of over 10 meters. Not something that you would want to run into if you were snorkeling! The evidence in the fossil record shows that mosasaurs would feed on almost anything that was smaller than they were. Fossil remains also indicate that the mosasaurs were capable of giving live birth. The elasmosaurs—whose name suggests a quirky comic book superhero—had extremely long necks and four limbs that were developed into paddles, with which they "flew" through the water like modern penguins. They could reach lengths of 14 meters and fed principally on fish. The first Cretaceous vertebrate fossil that was found in Kansas in 1867 was an elasmosaurus, Elasmosaurus platyurus.
Everhart concludes with a chapter entitled "The Big Picture" and an epilogue, "Where Did It All Go?" In "The Big Picture" he lists the organisms that were present from the beginning to the end of the deposition of the Smoky Hills Chalk, dividing the chapter into the geologic stages that are preserved within this chalk. He describes the major environmental changes that occurred in each of these stages along with the changes in the diversity of the faunal life in the Western Interior Sea, taking account of extinction of organisms as well as diversification. Finally, in the epilogue he offers his perspective on the mass extinctions that took place in both the Western Interior Sea and on land at the end of the Cretaceous.
Entertainingly written and superbly illustrated, Everhart's book is an excellent introduction to the natural history of the Western Interior Sea. Readers whose appetite is whetted should check out Everhart's accompanying website, www.oceansofkansas.com.
Robert Reber is associate professor of Earth and Environmental Science at Taylor University.
Copyright © 2006 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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