In Search of Tusoteuthis longa, the Elusive Niobrara Squid


Copyright 2011 by Mike Everhart

Created 07/15/2011; Last revised 08/12/2012



Left: A painting of Tusoteuthis in a diorama at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, Kansas.

Squid (Teuthids): Squid are soft bodied invertebrates (cephalopods) that probably occurred in great abundance in the warm oceans during the Mesozoic. Occasionally, the internal structure (gladius or pen) of the squid is preserved. The fossil remains of squid are characterized by long, straight fibers or strands that often appear to be iridescent.  Squid remains are sometimes mistaken for an unusual fish bone.  CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFORMATION

LEFT: Tusoteuthis, a 'giant' squid that lived in the Western Interior Sea, may have been as long as 25 ft. (7.5 m), although there is little or no proof of their size because so little of their body is preserved.  In any case, it probably wasn't nearly as large as shown in this dramatic painting in the University of Kansas Museum of Natural History.

The evidence of bite marks in some squid pens shows that squid were eaten by many predators including fish and mosasaurs (Stewart and Carpenter 1990). Click here for a picture of a very large Tusoteuthis longa fossil from the Pierre Shale in the Museum of Natural History  at the University of Kansas.

Williston (1897, p. 242) was puzzled by fragments found occasionally in the chalk that were of a "glistening fibrous nature." A specimen collected by H.T. Martin (below) solved the mystery when it became apparent that the fragments represented a "large cuttlefish, apparently different from any described species.  The specimen was about 6 inches wide and a foot long, and preserved a small "sepia bag" (ink sac) below it. 

LEFT: A drawing of the type specimen of Tusoteuthis longus Logan 1898 (KU 4208 / 113463; Plate CX, Figure 2). Note that the species name was corrected for gender to longa by Miller (1868). Locality is recorded as "from the Hesperornis beds of the Niobrara Cretaceous on the Smoky Hill River by Mr. Martin." 

Logan, W.N. 1898. The invertebrates of the Benton, Niobrara and Fort Pierre groups. The University Geological Survey of Kansas, Part VIII,  4:432-518, pl. LXXXVI-CXX.

Miller, H.W., Jr. 1968. Invertebrate fauna and environment of deposition of the Niobrara (Cretaceous) of Kansas. Fort Hays Studies, Science Series no.8, i-vi, 90 pp.

LEFT: A fossilized squid pen of Tusoteuthis longa (FHSM IP-710)  in the exhibit at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History. This specimen was collected by Marion Bonner in Logan County. Squid pens (rachis) are made up of chitin, not bone or cartilage. It is also considered to be the type specimen of Niobrarateuthis.

RIGHT: The gladius of the type specimen of "Enchoteuthis melanae" (FHSM IP-13049)  discovered by and named for Melanie Bonner. This specimen appears to preserve much of the original chitin.

FHSM_IP-13049a.jpg (31225 bytes)
LEFT: A nearly complete Tusoteuthis squid pen collected by Scott Garrett from Trego County in 2009. Note that the missing pieces looks suspiciously like the bite marks left by a small shark. 

RIGHT: A field shot of a partial squid pen of Tusoteuthis longa that I collected in May, 2010. A fragment of a inoceramid shell was laying across the gladius. 

BitnSquid1999a.jpg (23923 bytes) LEFT: Four views of a squid pen (rachis) that was bitten through by an unknown predator.

RIGHT: An artist's reconstruction showing the location of the squid pen within the body of the squid, and an artist's conception of what the Late Cretaceous squid, Tusoteuthis longa Logan may have looked like (Exhibits - Sternberg Museum of Natural History).

LEFT: A specimen of large (1.5 m) Cimolichthys nepaholica (UCM 29556) from the Redbird Shale of Wyoming that died trying to swallow a Tusoteuthis longa squid. The rachis of the squid is plainly visible inside the ribs of the fish. Photo Copyright 2012 by Trish Weaver. Scale = 30 cm.

Early in 2011, I was contacted by Trish Weaver, the collections manager of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. She was doing research on fossil squid trying to determine what fossil squid pens were composed of (chitin, chitinous or what?) and was looking for a sample to test. She also wanted to spend some time in the Smoky Hill Chalk, so we made arrangements to spend a day in the chalk and search for a specimen that she could use in her research. Neither of us really expected to find a specimen "on demand" but I thought there was a good chance of finding at least a fragment at the site where I had collected a specimen in May, 2011 (above). With that realistic goal in mind, we drove out to the locality early in the morning on July 8. The weather was actually unseasonably cool and cloudy for Kansas in July.... a great day to be in the field. 

Our group included Dan Lawver, a Montana State graduate student, who was also from North Carolina. Neither of them had ever worked in the Smoky Hill Chalk, so I expected we would spend quite a lot of time just getting used to the chalk and all the inoceramid shell fragments at this locality. About half an hour into our search, Dan called me over and said he had found something. As I got closer, he said it was probably a root, but I was still hopeful. As it turned out, he'd nailed some squid remains almost as soon as he started looking... 

LEFT: This is the view from where I parked the van on the edge of the exposure.... We were in southeastern Gove County, about a half mile south of the Smoky Hill River. The place where the squid remains were found is shown at the upper right of the photograph. The canyon is about half a mile wide at this point and is mostly between Hattin's Marker units 2 and 3 stratigraphically (Late Coniacian in age). 

RIGHT: Here is what Dan saw coming out of the side of a gully... Not much to look at but definitely part of the rachis of a squid. I noted that it appeared to be expanded where it had been broken (bitten?) off and assumed that the expanded portion (gladius) was already gone.  I'd soon find out otherwise. 

LEFT: I loaned Dan my big Estwing GP100 pick and let him take the matrix off the the fossil. The chalk was fractured and this part of the job didn't take long....  

RIGHT: Once we had most of the overburden off, I got down for a closer look (actually blowing chalk off the specimen in this photo).... Then I got up on top the exposure and started removing the remaining layers of chalk over the fossil. 

LEFT: The first layer came off easily and cleanly... I was well off to the side when I started to remove the next layer.... and then "Oops!" .... a big chunk came off with parts of the specimen in it... That was when I realized that the fossil was sitting in fractured chalk on a layer of bentonite / volcanic ash... Bad mistake, but on the good side, it revealed that the gladius was still there, apparently folded over in some way, and it showed us where to dig and not to dig. After kicking myself for a while, I went back to work.... 

RIGHT: Here's the chunk that came up .... The area inside the white oval shows where the remains broke off the main specimen.... clean breaks... No major damage. I applied some preservative to hold everything in place... The other material under the ruler is the pile of bentonite / volcanic ash that created the problem. 

LEFT: Once we knew where the fossil was in the chalk, we began to cut the size of the block down to reduce the weight. That was when we noticed that the block was fractured and that the squid pen was supported by two different layers of chalk... both of which were loose. 

RIGHT: We decided that the jacket would have to include both layers in order to keep from fracturing the rachis... In this photo the exposed portion of the specimen is under the pink cloth... Note the shattered condition of the chalk at the top of the picture. The blocks holding the specimen were only slightly more solid. 

LEFT: Once the block was cut down to a minimal size (using a hand saw), it was necessary to clean everything up to prepare it for jacketing. 

RIGHT: One last photo before we started jacketing....

LEFT: Well, maybe one more picture to include Dan, the proud discoverer of this specimen... 

RIGHT: After packing the specimen with dampened paper towels for cushioning, Trish and Dan applied several layers of tin foil to help hold things together.... 

LEFT: Then we proceeded to "get plastered" in the hot afternoon Kansas sun.  In this case, we used plaster bandages to build up the jacket around the specimen. Once the plaster had dried, we slipped a piece of plywood under the jacket. I did not want to turn the jacket over in the field because the chalk around it was unpredictable and the squid pen was really fragile... 

RIGHT: Here Dan (right) and I carry the jacket up the hill to the van. 

The specimen will not be prepared for a while, but I will post new photos when they become available.  I expect that this specimen would rate with some of the better specimens collected from the chalk in the last 120 years... there just aren't that many of them around. 

Fast forward to 2012.... Trish and Dan came back to Kansas to see if we could repeat our earlier success... First day, no luck but by noon of the second day, we had another nice specimen of Tusoteuthis longa.

LEFT: Trish Weaver and Dan Lawver stand over Trish's discovery of the remains of a Late Cretaceous squid - Tusoteuthis longa Logan.

RIGHT: Not much to see while still contained in the matrix... just a bit of the gladius. 

LEFT: Fortunately, we were able to park on the prairie just about the dig site. Minimal distance to carry the block of chalk up the hill. 

RIGHT: The chalk block containing the squid remains, just prior to removal. Although we jacketed our specimen in 2011, the chalk was solid around this one, and did not require the extra effort. 

The project has proceeded to the point of submitting an abstract for the 2012 meeting of the Geological Society of America.


Everhart, M.J. 2005. Oceans of Kansas - A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Indiana University Press, 322 pp.

Green, R.G. 1977. Niobrarateuthis walkeri, a new species of teuthid from the Upper Cretaceous Niobrara Formation of Kansas. Journal of Paleontology 51(5):992-995.

Hoganson, W. 2006. Dinosaurs, sharks, and woolly mammoths: Glimpses of life in North Dakota's prehistoric past. Journal of the Northern Plains 73(1-2):60 pp.

Larson, N.L. 2010. Fossil Coleoids from the Late Cretaceous (Campanian and Maastrichtian) of the Western Interior. Ferrantia 59:78-113.

Logan, W.N. 1898. The invertebrates of the Benton, Niobrara and Fort Pierre groups. The University Geological Survey of Kansas, Part VIII,  4:432-518, pl. LXXXVI-CXX.

Miller, H.W., Jr. 1957. Niobrarateuthis bonneri, a new genus and species of squid from the Niobrara Formation of Kansas. Journal Paleontology 31(5):809-811.

Miller, H.W., Jr. 1968. Invertebrate fauna and environment of deposition of the Niobrara (Cretaceous) of Kansas. Fort Hays Studies, n. s., science series no.8, i-vi, 90 pp.

Nicholls, E.L. and Isaak, H. 1987. Stratigraphic and taxonomic significance of Tusoteuthis longa Logan (Coleoidea, Teuthida) from the Pembina Member, Pierre Shale (Campanian), of Manitoba. Journal of Paleontology 61(4):727-737, 5 figs. 

Stewart, J.D. 1976. Teuthids of the North American Late Cretaceous. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 79(3-4):74 (Abstract).

Williston, S.W. 1897. Niobrara Cretaceous. The University Geological Survey of Kansas 2:237-246.

Stewart, J.D. and Carpenter, K. 1990. Examples of vertebrate predation on cephalopods in the Late Cretaceous of the Western Interior. pp. 203-208 In Boucout, A. J. (Ed.), Evolutionary paleobiology of behavior and coevolution. Elsevier, New York.

Williston, S.W. 1897. The Kansas Niobrara Cretaceous, The University Geological Survey of Kansas, 2:237-246.