The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Kansas

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Which Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals Lived in Kansas?

Xiphactinus, a prehistoric fish of Kansas. Dmitry Bogdanov

You might not believe it to look at the state now, but for much of its prehistory, Kansas was under water--not only during much of the Paleozoic Era (when the world's oceans had a much different distribution than they do now), but for a long stretch of the late Cretaceous period, when the Sunflower State was submerged beneath the Western Interior Sea. Thanks to the vagaries of geology, Kansas has a deep and rich fossil history, including dinosaurs, pterosaurs and marine reptiles--all of which you can learn about by perusing the following slides. (See a list of dinosaurs and prehistoric animals discovered in each U.S. state.)

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Nodosaurus, a close relative of Niobrarasaurus. Wikimedia Commons

One of the oddest fossils ever discovered in Kansas, Niobrarasaurus was a type of armored dinosaur known as a "nodosaur," characterized by its thick plating and tiny head. This isn't strange in itself; what is strange is that the late Cretaceous Niobrarasaurus was unearthed from sediments that were once covered by the Western Interior Sea. How did an armored dinosaur wind up hundreds of feet under water? Most likely it was swept away by a flash flood, and its body drifted to its final, unlikely resting place.

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Claosaurus sinking to the bottom of the Western Interior Sea. Dmitry Bogdanov

One of the few dinosaurs besides Niobrarasarus (see previous slide) ever to be discovered in Kansas--by the famous paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh, in 1873--Claosaurus was an extremely primitive hadrosaur, or duck-billed dinosaur, of the late Cretaceous period. Its unusual name, Greek for "broken lizard," refers to the fragmentary nature of its remains, which may be attributable to the scavenging of its corpse after it died (perhaps by sea-dwelling mosasaurs).

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Mosasaurs and Plesiosaurs

Tylosaurus, a marine reptile of Kansas. Wikimedia Commons

Plesiosaurs were the most common marine reptiles of middle Cretaceous Kansas. Among the genera that roamed the Western Interior Sea 90 million years ago were Elasmosaurus, Styxosaurus and Trinacromerum, not to mention the poster genus of the breed, Plesiosaurus. During the later Cretaceous period, plesiosaurs were supplanted by sleeker, even more vicious mosasaurs; some of the genera discovered in Kansas include Clidastes, Tylosaurus and Platecarpus.

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Nyctosaurus, a pterosaur of Kansas. Dmitry Bogdanov

During the later Mesozoic Era, the rivers, lakes and shorelines of North America were prowled by pterosaurs, which dived down from the sky and plucked out tasty fish and mollusks, much like modern seagulls. Late Cretaceous Kansas was home to at least two major pterosaurs,Pteranodon and Nyctosaurus. Both of these flying reptiles were equipped with large, elaborate head crests, which may (or may not) have had something to do with the weather conditions then prevailing in the Sunflower State.

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Prehistoric Sharks

Ptychodus, a prehistoric shark of Kansas. Dmitry Bogdanov

Kansas' portion of the Western Interior Sea was an extremely crowded ecosystem (in fact, there have been entire books written about the "oceans of Kansas"). You might not be surprised to learn that, in addition to the plesiosaurs, mosasaurs and giant fish described elsewhere in this slideshow, this state has yielded the fossils of two important prehistoric sharks: Cretoxyrhina, also known as the "Ginsu Shark," and the huge, plankton-gobbling Ptychodus

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Prehistoric Birds

Hesperornis, a prehistoric bird of Kansas. Wikimedia Commons

Many people are unaware that some of the earliest birds of the Mesozoic Era lived alongside already-established pterosaurs (and assumed their ecological niches after the K/T meteor impact rendered them extinct). Late Cretaceous Kansas was no exception; this state has yielded the remains of two important prehistoric birds, Hesperornis and Ichthyornis, that competed with their flying reptile cousins for fish, mollusks and other sea-dwelling creatures.

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Prehistoric Fish

Xiphactinus, a prehistoric fish of Kansas. Wikimedia Commons

Just as prehistoric birds competed with pterosaurs over the oceans of Kansas, so did prehistoric fish compete with, and get eaten by, sharks and marine reptiles. The Sunflower State is famous for two plus-sized fish of the late Cretaceous period: the 20-foot-long Xiphactinus (one specimen of which contains the remains of an unfortunate fish called Gillicus) and the comparably sized, plankton-eating Bonnerichthys.

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Megafauna Mammals

saber-toothed tiger
The Saber-Toothed Tiger, a prehistoric mammal of Kansas. Wikimedia Commons

During the Pleistocene epoch, from about two million to 50,000 years ago, Kansas (along with practically every other state in the U.S.) teemed with mammalian megafauna, including American Mastodons, Woolly Mammoths and Saber-Toothed Tigers. Unfortunately, these majestic beasts went extinct at the cusp of historical times, succumbing to a combination of climate change and predation by the early human settlers of North America.

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Strauss, Bob. "The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Kansas." ThoughtCo, Sep. 8, 2021, Strauss, Bob. (2021, September 8). The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Kansas. Retrieved from Strauss, Bob. "The Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals of Kansas." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).