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Plesiosaur remains museum mainstay

July 10 , 2016

by Michael Wunder

One Valparaiso native continues to make a splash at the University of Nebraska State Museum, where people from inside and outside of the state stop to learn about and appreciate the state’s rich paleontological history.

Though it’s been moved to a more interactive display -- installed beneath plexi-glass on the museum’s floor so visitors can get up close and personal – the Valparaiso plesiosaur is still one of the site’s most recognized exhibits, even after more than 50 years of residence at one of the state’s most visited attractions.

Conjure up the famous image of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster – a small head poking out of the water, balanced atop a long, snakelike neck attached to a body outfitted with four paddle fins and a relatively short tail - and you’ll arrive at a mostly accurate idea of a plesiosaur.

These sizable lizards – not dinosaurs, as the museum’s Vertebrate Paleontology Collection Manager George Corner pointed out – once roamed a vast shallow sea that 70 million years ago stretched from what is now the Gulf of Alaska to today’s Gulf of Mexico. The massive expanse of water split the North American continent in two, providing ample hunting ground for the impressive creatures.

The Cretaceous sea would not be considered an ideal vacation destination.

Most animals living in its depths were equipped with razor sharp teeth, and plesiosaurs were no exception. The beasts had “teeth like a gator” and used their long necks like “a python on steroids,” Corner said. With those tools at their disposal, they flew through the sea, snatching up various bony fish as they drifted by.

“With a long neck like that, you can just imagine they were picking up fishes,” Corner said.

This particular Cretaceous-era sea beast was discovered almost by accident, in 1963 on the Rezac farm a few miles north of Valparaiso, Corner said. Like most of life’s most memorable moments, the find happened when those involved least expected.

“I think the story goes that they had sat down for lunch,” Corner said. “Someone spotted what looked to be bone.”

The “they” in question were Hal DeGraw of the Nebraska Geological Survey, Charles Osborn of the Bureau of Reclamation and Phil Emory of the United States Geological Survey. The trio was on the farm examining the Oak Creek Valley’s Cretaceous shale and limestone deposits and doing some geologic mapping.

Who spotted the bone has been lost to time, but whoever it was had zeroed in on a big find. After further investigation uncovered a few vertebrae and portions of two paddles, the discovery was reported to the state museum.

The museum’s then-Director C. Bertrand Schultz dispatched a graduate student to the dig site, who then found a few more vertebrae and mistakenly identified it as a mosasaur, a more common find in similar formations. Mosasaurs were also immense sea lizards that frequented the large inland sea. They, too, were nothing to shake a stick at, with huge heads equipped with rows of sharp teeth, four large paddle fins and a big appetite.

What they had actually stumbled upon was “Thalassomedon haningtoni” science talk for “big sea lizard,” more or less. The specimen uncovered in Nebraska is estimated to have measured more than 41 feet long – about double the length of a 2016 Ford F-150 pickup.

The Lincoln Gem and Mineral Club eventually led to the discovery that the fossils did indeed belong to a plesiosaur. Members of the club reached out to Schultz in October 1964, offering assistance in recovering the specimen.

Though finding the vertebrae and paddles was no doubt exciting, the highlight of the site was discovered later when the investigators located the beast’s skull.

“When you get the skull that’s probably the big prize,” Corner said. “That’s what you’re looking for.”

Though it was already nearing November, all involved agreed it was time to get to digging out the fossils, Corner said. They constructed a wooden structure draped with plastic sheeting to protect the excavation site from cold and snow and brought in hot coals to keep the temperatures above freezing. Otherwise, the plaster-of-paris used to make protective transport jackets for the fossils would freeze.

The workers did freeze.

“They actually worked in some really cold days,” Corner said. “It got down to six below.”

But the volunteers put in a lot of man-hours diligently preparing the plaster jackets that kept the fossils safe on their journey to the university, Corner said.

“You make the field jacket real nice and tight so nothing jars within it,” Corner, who’s made plenty of plaster jackets in his time, said. “If you hear a rattle, it’s not good.”

Excavators prepared the last of those field jackets on the day before Thanksgiving. It contained a section of the cervical vertebrae and the skull. All of the jackets were taken to the university’s Nebraska Hall, where Gem and Mineral Club volunteers aided museum staff in preparing the specimen.

The partial skeleton’s identification as Thalassomedon haningtoni came from the University of California-Berkeley’s Dr. Samuel Welles. Soon after, the skull and 23-foot long neck (consisting of 63 vertebrae) were installed in a temporary exhibit in the museum’s Gallery A.

The discovery made headlines, Corner said as he pulled out a museum press release from the time.

“It was huge,” he said. “It got a lot of press.”

Though the press has died down over the past few decades, the plesiosaur still remains a draw – for laypeople and scholars alike.

Recently a scientist made the trip from Germany to study the specimen. Corner said the museum removed it from beneath the plexiglass, giving him freedom to research.

Corner expects the plesiosaur will continue to be researched well into the future.

“It will always be there for scientific study, which is what this collection is all about,” he said. “It’s like a lending library for fossils.”

And if it weren’t for a Valparaiso family, that opportunity wouldn’t be available.

“If it hadn’t been for them, the citizens of the state would be without a real jewel that belongs to each and every one of us in the state,” Corner said.

And for anyone who may stumble across another monumental paleontology find, Corner recommends caution. Contact the museum, he said.

“The worst thing they can do is try to dig it out themselves,” he said. “It takes a trained person to tell you that it’s worth digging it out. To be able to get it out of the ground takes some expertise.”

And, just like the plesiosaur, the next big discovery will happen when least expected.

“You probably wouldn’t find it if you were looking for it,” Corner said. “You’ve got to be at the right place at the right time. Timing’s everything.”

The Nebraska State Museum is located at 645 North 14th Street in Lincoln, and is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and Sundays from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m.




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