Politics & Government

e fossil debated

TOPEKA — About 80 million years ago, the Pteranodon longiceps, a flying reptile, would not have been powerful enough to swoop down and successfully nab the big Xiphactinus audax fish.

In a bid to be designated the official state fossil, though, don't count the pteranodon out yet.

On Monday, state Reps. Tom Sloan, R-Lawrence, and Don Hineman, R-Dighton, introduced a bill to declare the fossil of the Xiphactinus audax the official fossil of the state of Kansas. The bill's genesis came from Sloan's constituents.

On Wednesday, Sloan said, he started hearing views that the more fitting state fossil was the pteranodon.

Hineman has heard those arguments, too, and he indicated Thursday there could be a change.

Most states have official state fossils. Alaska has the woolly mammoth; Montana, the duck-billed dinosaur; Massachusetts, dinosaur tracks.

The Xiphactinus audax (ZI-fac-tin-us AH-dacts) is well-known to paleontologists. At Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, the most famous fossil is the fish-within-a-fish. The larger fish is a Xiphactinus audax.

The big fish would have been found here as long ago as 100 million years, said Mike Everhart, who wrote "Oceans of Kansas" and is an adjunct curator of paleontology at Sternberg Museum. The fish fossils have been discovered over a wide area — from Alabama to Wyoming — and that could be its weakness as far as becoming Kansas' state fossil.

The Pteranodon longiceps (terr-RAN-oh-don LON-gi-seps) is a flying reptile found in this area about 87 million years ago. Limited and poor-quality specimens of the pteranodon have been found in Wyoming and South Dakota, but the pteranodon is almost exclusive to Kansas, according to Everhart.

Sternberg Museum director Reese Barrick pronounced the Xiphactinus audax "a very cool fish." But the Sternberg Museum also has specimens of the pteranodon, and the flying reptile is incorporated in the museum's logo.

"Either one of them would be fantastic," Barrick said, and "perfectly appropriate."

Personally, though, Barrick and Everhart favor the pteranodon as the official state fossil. They noted that it is more recognizable and more exclusive to Kansas.

Everhart pointed out that the flying reptile would be "nearly instantly recognized" by children and adults — particularly those who saw "Jurassic Park" and the IMAX movie "Sea Monsters."

"We're kind of in limbo right now. We may change the species of the fossil before we finish with that bill," said Hineman, who has hunted and found fossil specimens in western Kansas.

Sloan isn't keen on throwing the fish back in the sea.

"Frankly, what is going to happen is that people will suggest other fossils, confusion will reign among the legislators and nothing will happen," Sloan said.