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Ancient fish named for Kansans

Artist renderings of what the big fish looked like, based on the paleontologists' scientific descriptions.
Artist renderings of what the big fish looked like, based on the paleontologists' scientific descriptions. Courtesy illustration

In Science magazine this week, paleontologists are announcing the discovery of a new genus of ancient giant fish, uncovered in the chalk deposits of Kansas, Britain and elsewhere. And with that discovery comes the story of the relentless Kansas family that solved a fish science mystery.

The scientists named the new genus after the Bonner family of Leoti, who found the breakthrough specimen. The family for decades has hunted fossils in the bone-rich Niobrara chalk to salve the grief over their mother's death.

Bonnerichthys the scientists are calling it: 20 to 25 feet long, eyes 6 inches wide, a mouth that could have swallowed the eight Bonner children in one or two gulps.

The giant fish ate microscopic plankton, and that's a big deal to fish historians; they didn't know fish like that lived in the dinosaur age.

The Bonners have changed fish history. They did not know this on the day in 1971 that they hauled a giant fish head out of the chalk canyons along Twin Butte Creek.

* * *

Logan County in western Kansas is "Dust Bowl dry," as Orville Bonner says. The buttes where the Bonners hunted fossils are all chalk, yellow and tan, covered with yucca and shortgrass, gorgeous in the low light of the western Kansas sun. It's oven-door hot in summer, with soil so light-colored that it sunburns fossil hunters from the ground up.

Marion, the father, ran his movie house at night, and by day hunted bones and teeth on land that looked like the deserts of movie-house westerns: dusty canyons and gullies with local topographical names including Hell Creek, Horse Thief Canyon, Rattlesnake Gulch. The chief residents, besides cattle, are rattlesnakes, hognose snakes and lesser earless lizards.

One day in 1971, Marion Bonner took his sons to Logan County along Twin Butte Creek. Dana said they drove out in "Spiker," a prehistoric-looking 1949 Chevy Suburban. They were rural Kansans scratching out a living: Dana, a high schooler, had spent part of the summer with a wheat harvest crew.

Chuck, a 21-year-old art major at Fort Hays State University, was the one who found the fish; he climbed to the top of a butte the Bonners called "The Big Place," a butte 40 feet tall from summit to valley floor.

In one of the chalk spires, Chuck saw something big and brown sticking out.

"Dark fossil bone," he said. "I did a little digging. I assumed it was a fin."

For four days, Marion Bonner dug out jumbled bones, applying plaster to hold them in place for study.

They had to let the bone pile down to Spiker on ropes.

* * *

Scientists love the Bonners, Marion and all his children: Orville, Clare-Jane, Letty, Steve, Chris, Chuck, Dana, and Melanie.

They hunted fossils for therapy, Dana said. His mother Margaret died of a heart attack in 1967.

"It's a very deep anchor for me on a spiritual level to go hunting fossils," Dana said.

Over the seven decades that Marion climbed and combed the chalk buttes and over the four decades his children accompanied him, the Bonners helped science immeasurably. When they found unusual-looking bones, they gave them to scientists and let them take published credit for the discoveries.

Their discoveries lay now in museums in Kansas, Chicago, Los Angeles and elsewhere. Scientists named discoveries after them: A few invertebrates.

Pecten bonneri, a small-fin fish. Pteranodon bonneri, a flying reptile. Niobrarateuthis bonneri, an ancient squid, found by Melanie.

* * *

Marion Bonner had no idea what to make of the pile of bones.

He told Orville to take them to the scientists.

Orville by that time was the preparator at the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas. He took the bones to KU paleontologist Larry Martin. Martin was impressed; he saw bone structures he'd never seen before, eye sockets 6 inches across.

A "barn-burner" of a fossil find, he said.

"An amazing big fish. I didn't know what it was. But I knew it was a big deal."

* * *

In the age of dinosaurs, North America was divided in two by the Western Interior Sea, and the Great Plains was a skeleton-covered sea bottom, the water above it home to sharks, squid, manta rays, giant clams, giant reptile mosasaurs and plesiosaurs, and plankton, a microscopic animal still thriving today.

It was plankton that fossilized into oil and gas; it is plankton that feeds the biggest animals on the planet, planktivores, including baleen whales, basking sharks and manta rays. It is a paradox in biology that the world's biggest animal eats the world's smallest food item.

Until this week, fish paleontologists were always puzzled about why they never found any planktivores in the fossil record.

* * *

For decades at KU, Larry Martin showed the bones to fish scientists whenever he could talk them into peeking into the box in Dyche Hall. But none could decipher what the fish head was telling them.

There were no real body bones; mostly skull and huge front fins. No teeth.

Martin, by now an expert on dinosaurs, small ancient mammals, saber-toothed cats, ancient birds and many other creatures, was beginning to suspect that the Bonner fish, like today's baleen whale, was a "filter feeder." If so, this was a huge find.

Eventually he let a commercial company take the fish head to Colorado and prepare it.

In Colorado, a fish scientist completing his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago, Matt Friedman, saw the fish head — and became the first scientist to grasp the significance.

He called Martin and got permission to study it.

Over the course of time, Friedman went to work in England for the University of Oxford's Department of Earth Sciences. What he saw were long, toothless jaws supporting a gaping mouth, long bones that braced the gill arches needed to filter huge quantities of plankton-filled water.

By that time, Friedman had connected dots; he'd found other specimens of other species of this genus, in Britain and Japan, mis-identified; the scientists had not seen what they were.

As Friedman closed in on identifying the new genus, paleontologist Mike Everhart of Derby, an expert on the Western Interior Sea, was digging up a specimen in Gove County, more complete than the Bonner fish.

Suddenly scientists could paint a more complete picture of the ancient seas, now including these giants.

They were a successful genus; they thrived 172 million years ago, and died 65 million years ago along with the dinosaurs.

* * *

Finding a new species, which the Bonners did several times over many years, is a big deal. Opening the door to discovering an entire new genus is even bigger. A genus is a grouping of related animals; wolves and dogs, for example, are members of the genus Canis. Donkeys, horses and zebras: Equus. The Bonners added a new genus to the list of nature's creations.

Marion Bonner died in 1992, age 81. He had spent seven decades contributing considerably to science.

Friedman named the fish genus Bonnerichthys after the family; the species they found in Logan County is Bonnerichthys gladius.

Marion's children still hunt bones and teeth, and still ride Spiker.

Bonnerichthys.

"It's pretty interesting," Orville Bonner said.

"We never had an entire genus named after us before."

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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