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Archive for Sunday, August 28, 2005

Fossil hunter’s book focuses on Kansas oceans

Northwest part of state one of best places on earth to find mosasaurs

August 28, 2005

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— Most likely, Mike Everhart lies awake at night, being chased by what would be the Oceans of Kansas equivalent of Tyrannosaurus rex.

Rather than dinosaurs, however, they are mosasaurs, seagoing lizards that rivaled T. rex in terms of sheer size and ferocity.

Of course, that was of a time long ago - about 80 million years - when mosasaurs roamed the Kansas ocean, terrorizing hordes of seagoing creatures and wiping out vast numbers of sharks.

Love of seagoing lizards

Ironically, Kansas - landlocked as it might be - is able to give Everhart, a Derby paleontologist, a relatively good look into the life of the seagoing lizards.

In fact, northwest Kansas is perhaps the best place on earth to search, discover and learn about mosasaurs.

Thousands of the feared sea creatures have been discovered and today serve as centerpiece exhibits for big museums worldwide, as well as in the United States.

But, mosasaurs - despite how ferociously predatory they were - just aren't as sexy as dinosaurs, Everhart says. Nor are they as sexy as plesiosaurs, the stuff that the Loch Ness monster is supposed to be made of - if it existed, of course.

Kansas isn't quite as sexy as dinosaur bones from Mongolia or other remote locations where Kansas paleontologists have spent much of their time. Only a small number of people still scour the northwest Kansas countryside in search of fossils.

Some are professional fossil collectors who offer their finds to the highest bidder, and some are university affiliated. That is another war entirely.

'Oceans of Kansas'

Although Everhart is a retired Boeing employee, he is also an adjunct curator of paleontology at Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays. He's also the owner and developer of the ever-growing Oceans of Kansas Web site www.oceansofkansas.com. And he is madly in love with mosasaurs.

Everhart's oceansofkansas .com is the first reference in a search for mosasaurs on Google, a search engine that ranks by relevance and traffic. He loves mosasaurs so much that he's just finished publishing a book on Kansas fossils, which naturally highlights mosasaurs. His book, aptly titled "Oceans of Kansas, A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea," is just off to the printer.

Mike Everhart takes a closer look at a shark tooth while at a site one mile north of Schoenchen.

Mike Everhart takes a closer look at a shark tooth while at a site one mile north of Schoenchen.

Everhart has not yet seen a copy. Instead, an advance copy is headed his way to a conference he attended recently in Wyoming. The book is chock-full of enough scientific data to cross the eyes of the casual reader, but not so much that it is only for people with at least a master's degree in paleontology.

Everhart's degree is in biology and he spent most of his adult years working at Boeing. He took early retirement and is now devoting his time in the world of Kansas fossils, mostly lately writing the book that was just published by Indiana University Press.

There's already been a bit of talk about a second book.

"I want to get this first one out and take a breather," Everhart said. "This has really kept us out of the field."

Little-loved creature

Tucked in between short efforts to promote the book, Everhart took the time to look at a fossil to the south of Hays and was heading to look at what might be a turtle in Lane County.

"I miss going out and getting dirty," he said. And all of his research materials and computer are located in the basement of his home. "I kinda felt like a cave-dweller," he said.

Everhart's foray into the world of paleontology has taken him all over the world, spending two weeks in Japan and visiting the Netherlands. But it's the discovery that he likes.

"Kansas is the best place to discover them," Everhart said of mosasaurs. And he admits that they are his favorite.

"They've got a poor press agent, I guess," he said.

Despite mosasaurs being the Rodney Dangerfield of fossils, Kansas and its discoveries have been at the forefront of paleontology since the 1860s, when the fossil wars started in earnest. Much of the controversy being waged surrounded fossilized bones found by a physician at Fort Wallace.

'Bone wars'

Everhart, in his book, shrugs off the idea that Kansas was at the heart of the "bone wars" between then paleontological superstars O.C. Marsh of Yale University's Peabody Museum and Henry Drinker Cope of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia.

Cope, in his rush to identify fossils, put the head on the wrong end of a plesiosaur that had been shipped to him from Fort Wallace. Marsh, naturally, sought to embarrass his competition and chastised Cope for the blunder.

For Everhart, his book provides the opportunity to detail the history of paleontology in Kansas as well as give credit to the people who have made discoveries.

His name is prominent among people who have discovered mosasaurs and even sharks.

But the other people include the entire Sternberg family, for whom the Sternberg museum is named; J.D. Stewart, a former Plainville resident who served as the curator of vertebrate fossils for the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History; and Chris Bennett, now a professor at Fort Hays State University and one of the top experts on pteranodons.

'Fits a niche'

Everhart doesn't expect to get rich from the book, but he is hoping that there will be a little left over when the sales are complete.

"All this running around ... has been on my time," he said. "I'd like to make some money on it."

Initially, 2,700 copies of the book are being printed. Of those, 1,150 have already been sold.

"I don't know what to compare it with, but I'm very happy," he said.

He's just as thrilled that the Discovery Book Club has purchased rights to include it in its book club.

"They are going to print another 3,000," Everhart said. "To me, it means that it will go to a second printing. I'm hoping it goes real well in Kansas. This fits a niche. Nobody has done a book like this."

But that will be his name on a book that deals with a topic that is so near and dear to him.

"It's neat having a book with my name on it on the shelf at the bookstore."

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