oldview2.jpg (113981 bytes)

C. H. Sternberg


The Niobrara Group

Kansas City Review of Science and Technology 5(1):1-4.

Copyright 2004-2013 by Mike Everhart

ePage created 12/04/2004 - Last updated 01/23/2013




LEFT: A drawing by J. Carter Beard used as the frontispiece for Volume IV of the University Geological Survey of Kansas. Originally published in Popular Science Monthly: Ballou, W.H. 1898. The serpentlike sea saurians. Popular Science Monthly. 53:209-225, 2pls. (June issue).

Wherein a young Charles H. Sternberg (31 years old at the time) discusses the animals that lived in the sea that covered Kansas during the Late Cretaceous. Although he borrows heavily from a earlier paper by E. D. Cope, he still makes a number of interesting errors, such as confusing Hesperornis with Ichthyornis, and Protosphyraena with Portheus (Xiphactinus). The reader is advised that this paper should be read for the "flavor" of early work in Kansas paleontology and not for an accurate description of the fauna of the Smoky Hill Chalk.

See more about Charles H. Sternberg here.








VOL. V.                      MAY 1881.                              NO.   I




     The rocks of Cretaceous No. 3, or Niobrara group, consist of an upper stratum of red, yellow or white chalk, underlaid by great beds of blue shale. There is no paleontological difference between the strata, as the same animal remains are found in both. These beds are of great value to science, as they contain the remains of animals that once inhabited the cretaceous ocean. Perfect skeletons are found of huge saurians eighty feet in length. What a field for the imagination of the student, to people the old cretaceous seas with animals restored from their buried relics! I now in imagination walk the old cretaceous beach; I hear the rush of mighty rivers, as, laden with the debris of the carboniferous hills, they pour into the ocean, depositing their loads of soft mud that is to cover and preserve the remains of animals living in these waters. Far out at sea, I "observe a huge snake-like animal, with head erect, full twenty feet in air, gazing into the depth below.” The fish that meets his eye will soon fall a victim to his voracious appetite. Another monster of the deep grandly exposes a length of eighty feet; as he lies stretched on the waters an enemy in the distance attracts his attention and he prepares to offer battle; his four powerful paddles begin to work, and that vast mass of animal life commences slowly to move; gradually it gains more speed as the paddles move more rapidly; his huge tail, acting like a screw propeller of some steamboat, augments his speed and guides him toward his prey. The water boils behind him. It matters not how large the animal may be that he


2                                                           KANSAS CITY REVIEW OF SCIENCE.

means to attack, if once it receives a stroke from the powerful bony snout of our saurian (for he means to use it as a battering ram), it will lie a crushed and helpless mass upon the surface and the bubbling waters will suck it in; on the bottom of the ocean it will be dragged hither and thither by sharks and other rapacious fishes which will have many a dainty feast from its body. The soft mud of the ocean’s bed will at last cover and bury the skeleton and preserve it for ages; future explorers will gather up and admire the finely marked bones for the attachment of muscles. A fleet of smaller saurians heave in sight; they twine their long delicate necks together or dive beneath the surface for some luckless fish, which, on again appearing, they hold in their long glistening teeth. ‘‘The air is darkened by great flying saurians that flap their leathery wings over the deep,” or dive in pursuit of prey. As evening approaches they flock to the shore and suspend themselves by their claw-armed fingers to the cliffs. - Wandering along the shore, I find that a huge fish, twenty feet in length has become entangled in the shifting sands of a shallow bay. It seems to be in agony, and, seeking the cause, I find it has been pierced by the long bony snout of some smaller fish that uses this weapon as the sword-fish of modern oceans does his sword. The beach is strewn with large oyster-like shells, twenty-seven inches in diameter. " They seem to be the remains of a feast of some titanic race.”
     As the explorer approaches the beds of the Niobrara Group, he often sees in the distance a city of imposing grandeur. Wide streets, lined with buildings of dazzling whiteness meet his eye, and only a near approach will convince him that he is looking at nature’s handiwork. The rains of ages have cut and fashioned the soft limestone into the semblance of cities. The shale beds of this formation contain great quantities of the salts of soda and magnesia and the waters flowing from or through these beds are strongly impregnated with ‘‘alkali.” They also contain iron pyrites and gypsum. I have often, while wandering along some wash (where the chalk and shale has been denuded), found some fossil bones scattered along, and by following them up to where bones project from bluff or bank, I find I have stumbled upon the burial ground of a denizen of the ancient cretaceous seas. Perhaps it is a species of Leiodon and reaches a length of eighty feet. Its long teeth glisten in the sunlight, and its powerful paddles reach far in the bluffs on either side, requiring days of toil to lay them bare. The great bony snout (the characteristic of all his race), which, with other peculiarity, places him in Cope’s new sub order of Pythonomorpha, lies pointing heavenward. I find that he is without an expansible gullet, as in modern serpents; another method of swallowing his food whole is given him, as without it he could not exist, as he has no teeth for masticating, and I find that the jaws are provided with a set of hinges, of ball and socket pattern, just back of the dentary bone. He is thus enabled to expand the cavity of the mouth. All now that was necessary to allow the passage of large morsels into the stomach, was a loose, baggy, pelican-like throat, with which he was doubtless provided. His teeth were long and conical, slightly recurved; his head long and conical, with eyes directed upward. He, perhaps, had the faculty of flattening his head like the python.

                                                       THE NIOBRARA GROUP.                                                 3


One peculiarity of the order is found in the quadrate bones, which not only places him in the rank of reptiles, but enables the student to distinguish from it the different species. In shape this bone resembles the external ear of a man, and is composed of the bones that help make up the internal ear in mammals. This bone connects the under jaw with the skull and allows all the motion necessary. His tongue was long and forked, like a serpent’s, and was thrust out while in motion. The only noise he could make was a hissing sound. While at rest, “the tongue was concealed in a sack under the windpipe.” Leiodon proriger Cope, reached a length of eighty feet; it had a long slender neck, twenty feet in length; the tail was long and powerful, and was doubtless used both as a rudder and propeller. Clidastes tortor was an elegant creature, about forty feet in length; its vertebral column was provided with an additional set of articulations, so as to enable it to coil itself like a snake; this seems to be its favorite position, as I have often found it thus coiled.
      Clidastes pumilus, Marsh, was a little creature, ten or fifteen feet long, and doubtless often fell a victim to the larger saurians or rapacious fishes with which the cretaceous seas abounded. The Pterodactyls of the Niobrara differed very much from those of Europe; they were much larger; I have found them with an expanse of wing of twenty-five feet; they were also without teeth, and Marsh
has made the new genus Pteradon [Pteranodon] for them. One peculiarity of the Niobrara group is the presence of the only known birds armed with teeth.
     Ichthyornis dispar, [Hesperornis] Marsh, was a bird six feet in height; it was armed with long sharp teeth; the wings were poorly developed; they were swimmers and lived on fishes. Other birds are found no larger than a dove; they are arranged in families according to the position of the teeth, which are placed either in grooves or sockets. Believers in the evolution theory have received the discoveries of reptile-like birds as a positive proof that they have descended from reptiles. Of all the strange animal forms found in the rich, fossiliferous beds of western Kansas, I think Cope’s Protostega gigas, or marine tortoise, is the most unique. Cope calls them the boatmen of the cretaceous ocean.
     In 1877 I discovered a specimen that measured twenty feet from one flipper to the other; the distance between the condyles of the lower jaws was eighteen
inches. We know that in modern turtles the young, when first hatched, have
free ribs like other animals, and that in process of growth, bone is deposited in the skin, the ribs expand and unite in connection with the breastbone, forming a perfect shell, or house. This is not the case in Protostega; in the adult the ribs are free, and, in place of a shell, these animals are provided with great dermal plates, two feet in diameter, an inch thick in the center and beveled off to a thin figured margin. When Prof. Cope discovered this animal, he was confident he had found a young turtle, but it was impossible to believe that an animal measuring twenty feet from flipper to flipper had just been hatched, and on studying the bones he was forced to conclude that it was a full grown animal, and to be one of those miniature types that is often found in the geological strata—another fact taken by many to prove that animals of the present day have been derived from

4                                                    KANSAS CITY REVIEW OF SCIENCE.

more imperfect species, which, by process of growth, have obtained the perfect condition in which we find them.
     Great oyster-like shells are found in the Niobrara called by Conrad, Haploscapha [Volivceramus grandis]. They often measure twenty-seven inches in diameter and are usually covered with small oyster shells, Ostrea congesta. Among fishes the first resembling our common edible species are found. The species that leads them all in point of size and ferocity, is Cope’s Portheus.
molossus was twenty feet in length.   It was provided with a huge bulldog shaped head with fangs projecting from the mouth four inches. The roof of the mouth and lower jaws were covered with teeth irregular in size—some long and conical as the ones mentioned; others much shorter. These huge fishes were also provided with other means of defense or attack in the shape of great bony spines, with one edge enameled, that, even in their fossilized forms, are hard and sharp enough to be used in cutting wood. In some species one edge is toothed. They are often three feet in length and are made up of bundles of rods which terminate in the sharp teeth of some species, or are beveled down to make the sharp edges of others. I have no doubt but that these enormous fishes would not hesitate to attack their neighbors, the saurians. They were certainly well provided with weapons, for, in addition to the ones mentioned, their tails were forked and made up of bundles of hard bony rods, and, I imagine, a blow from this would disable an antagonist easily. Another peculiar species found in Western Kansas is the snout fish, or Cope’s Erioiethes [Erisichthe = Protosphyraena]. Though small, not over five or six feet in length, its bony snout, six or eight inches in length, must have proved a terrible weapon. I discovered three new species, of this genus in 1877. We have also the Enchodus, a fish with teeth, one on each premaxilla, that were shaped like the incisors of a beaver. Sharks abounded; I have often found their flat coin-like vertebra and delicate serrate edged teeth. One species of this family are provided with teeth covering the roof and floor of the mouth [Ptychodus], which were doubtless used as a mill for grinding up food. Some beautiful crinoids [Uintacrinus] were found by Prof. Mudge’s party in the rocks of this formation. A company has been organized at Trego, Kan., for the purpose of utilizing the chalk by making waterproof cement—said to be equal to the best Portland cement. Great quantities of iron pyrites and gypsum are found. The rocks are of little value for building purposes, although it has been used in making the buildings at Ft. Wallace, with the belief that they would harden when exposed to the atmosphere, but they are as soft now as when the buildings were first made. Near Wallace, however, builders can draw from the conglomerates of the Loup Fork Group, which are found on the high lands near by.
     I am greatly indebted to Prof. E. D. Cope’s Cretaceous Fauna, from which I have drawn largely in the preparation of this paper, as, I could obtain many facts from no other source. I hope he will pardon the use of some of his descriptions.