During the Cretaceous period, the area that is now Kansas was mostly underwater, part of the Western Interior Seaway that split North America. As such, the majority of fossils found in the state come from the Niobrara Formation (also called Niobrara chalk) that formed along the bottom of this sea. All kinds of fish, sea reptiles, and pterosaurs have been found in western Kansas–many of the better known species of pterosaurs and sea reptiles come from here. So naturally, the Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University is mostly focused on the creatures that lived in and around the ocean, and the museum has a terrific collection. Named after former director and paleontologist George F. Sternberg and his famous paleontology family, the focus of the museum is on the natural history of Kansas.
The first highlight for most visitors will be the “fish-within-a-fish” fossil that is featured near the entry to the exhibit area. It is a glorious fossil, with a nearly perfect six-foot fossil of the Late Cretaceous fish Gillicus inside the belly of a much larger Xiphactinus fossil. Xiphactinus was a large fish, capable of reaching twenty feet in length and obviously had a voracious appetite. Clearly the Xiphactinus died with the Gillicus inside it, and it seems very likely the meal contributed to or was the cause of death. The fossil is fantastic, and there is also a nice re-creation showing George Sternberg uncovering the fossil, pictured below.
I am mesmorized every time I see the beautiful fossil skull of the (former) Pteranodon at the Sternberg Museum. The skull, plus significant portions of the body, comprise the type specimen for the Geosternbergia sternbergi, which has recently been designated a new genus of pterosaur previously known as Pteranodon sternbergi. With it’s distinctive head crest and large beak, it is truly a magnificent fossil. I have seen a lot of pterosaurs in a lot of museums, but I have not seen a more remarkable fossil than this one.
There are several other highlights at the museum. The type specimen for the pterosaur Nyctosaurus is on display, and this is another great fossil. Some beautiful examples of sea reptiles are on display–a very large and scary-looking Tylosaurus is particularly impressive; a great specimen of the plesiosaur Dolichorhynchops is also noteworthy. Dolichorhynchops was the “star” of the 2007 IMAX feature “Sea Monsters: A Prehistoric Adventure”, a film set in the Late Cretaceous Western Interior Seaway that is now central Kansas. There is also an interesting fossil of the Cretaceous diving bird Hesperornis.
Other highlights of the museum include an area devoted to life-size dinosaurs, under a domed section of the building. With sound effects, light displays, and some animatronic dinosaurs, this section was a particular favorite for my children. I enjoyed seeing the (flock?) of pterosaurs flying overhead.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY THE MUSEUM?
The prehistoric fossils are the central exhibits at the Sternberg Museum, but there are other permanent exhibits about various aspects of Kansas natural history. The museum has an active schedule of traveling exhibits as well. You will not find a whole lot other than the natural history of Kansas at the museum. But…it’s a fascinating history!
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
Given its size and mission, it must be said that the Sternberg does a great job bringing in excellent traveling exhibits (we saw “African Giants” and “Titans of the Ice Age” in recent visits). Not many museums have such large collections of Cretaceous sea life, so I would love to see more of the Cretaceous-era fish and other sea reptiles and pterosaur fossils displayed and the exhibit updated, and perhaps more artwork that helps bring the ancient sea of Kansas to life. The fossils are really good…a more immersive sea-life feel to the exhibits could make them even more attractive. Hays, Kansas is the perfect place to learn more about the Western Interior Seaway and it’s denizens…and the Sternberg has the collection to be able to do that.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
Yes, absolutely. We have been to the Sternberg Museum quite a few times. The first time we went, my then-four-year-old talked about the scare he got from the animatronic T. rex for at least a year…he loved it once he realized it wasn’t really going to eat him. I’m pretty sure they weren’t really *supposed* to, but we visited on a quiet day and the boys did a lot of running in that area of the museum. The second time we visited was shortly after we watched the previously mentioned IMAX video “Sea Monsters”, and that helped the kids gain some context for the fossil displays and certainly made them more interested. I do recommend that film, particularly if you are planning a visit to the Sternberg Museum.
The Sternberg Museum has plenty of interesting fossils and a few really great displays. If you love pterosaurs, you will certainly love the gorgeous Geosternbergia on display. If you love sea reptiles, there aren’t many better than the Tylosaurus and Dolichorynchops at the Sternberg. The Xiphactinus “fish-within-a-fish” fossil remains one of the most interesting fossils I have ever seen, and is alone worth a trip to this relatively small but great museum in central Kansas.
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Dinosaur Displays:
Number of Dinosaurs/Sea Reptiles/Pterosaurs on Display: (7.5 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (6.5 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (8 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (7.0 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (7 out of 10)