Fossil hunter attempting another go at getting state fossil named
66-year-old to give up campaign after 1 more year
If you take a walk around Alan Detrich’s barn outside of Lawrence, you’re going to come across a few things lying about that are generally reserved for glass cases in fancy museums.
There are remains of prehistoric creatures, some the size of small boulders, scattered all about. “Dinosaur bone, dinosaur bone, dinosaur bone,” Detrich said, each intonation accompanied with a casual pointing of his finger.
Knee-deep as ever in those artifacts, Detrich, a retired oil investor and antique businessman, has been a fossil hunter for about 28 years. For 12, he’s tried to get the state of Kansas to recognize a state fossil, and now, in one last push, he’s dedicating one more year to the cause before giving it up.
Kansas is one of 11 states that do not have a state fossil or dinosaur. Even the District of Columbia has one.
“This is my last try,” said Detrich, 66 years old with gray hair in a ponytail. “If this does not succeed, the guy that picks up the baton after me is going to have to carry it because at some point you gotta realize that people do not want what you’re recommending.”
The beast he wishes to anoint: the mosasaur, a large, swimming reptile predator common to Kansas when it was submerged by an inland sea millions of years ago. Detrich has a two-pronged strategy involving two sets of mosasaur skeletons and lobbying the state legislature.
One of those mosasaurs, at 17 and a half feet long, is all shined and ready for the eyes of the public. It is coiled up in what he calls “the death pose,” and Detrich wants to display it somewhere soon so its many teeth and gnarly claw-like bones of its flippers can stir public support.
In the meantime, Detrich plans on approaching state representatives while preparing his other 20-foot-long mosasaur for its ideal home – the Kansas Statehouse. He said the skeletons of both mosasaurs are 75 to 80 percent complete.
Detrich and, separately, Leonard Krishtalka, director of the of Kansas University’s Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Institute, said declaring the mosasaur the state fossil could promote education and tourism to Kansas because of its monstrous qualities and the abundance of fossils in the western part of the state.
“When it comes to mosasaurs, Kansas certainly has the goods,” Krishtalka said. “Other museums, from the United States and other countries, have collected mosasaurs from [Kansas].”
Said Detrich: “If we can use these monsters as instruments of education, let’s do it, because it excites young people and if it excites them they’re going to want to read about them.”
Krishtalka, who has met Detrich over the course several collaborations, said Detrich has not asked for help on the campaign, but that the museum would “certainly endorse the mosasaur” as the state fossil.
Detrich has made a career out of finding and selling fossils to both museums and private buyers. In 2004, he offered to give the state a fossil of a Xiphactinus addax, a predatory bony fish, in an attempt to get anything recognized as the state fossil. He asked for a tax deduction in return. The state didn’t bite.
When asked if he would give one of his mosasaurs to the state for a price this time around, he said he might, in order to ensure it’s properly taken care of. But then he added, “They could probably twist my arm and I could probably give it to them.”
The state has until next October, or the deal is off the table.