Finding a fossil in Kansas City can be as easy as going to the park or checking around your basement.
"Both Kansas and Missouri have great fossil deposits," Bruce Lieberman told host Gina Kaufmann on KCUR's Central Standard.
"They represent, in some respects, different time periods, especially if you get further east into Missouri, east of the Kansas City metro," he said.
Lieberman, a paleontologist at KU, is the co-creator of a new app, Digital Atlas of Ancient Life. The app helps identify fossils by showing a set of images; there's also a map function that shows which fossils have been previously found in the area.
According to Lieberman, a lot of the life forms in the area lived about 290 million years ago. At that time, most of North America was underwater. Kansas and Missouri would have been a little bit south of the equator, he said, resulting in a tropical marine environment — similar to that of the Bahamas or the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
"So there's a rich profusion and variety of marine organisms that live here," he said.
Lieberman suggested looking for invertebrate fossils, which he described as "extremely common and very easy to find." Check out the yellowish rocks that are stacked around the back of basements, in parks and on the sides of the road.
"Really, any place you can find the yellowish-brown layered rocks ... they're literally going to be packed with things like clams, brachiopod shells, horned corals, and, if you get a bit luckier, you can find crinoids ... and trilobites," he said.
There's also a good chance of finding fossils of mammals here, according to Lieberman.
"There was a whole host of very large animals, until recently — 10,000 years ago — that were present in this area," Lieberman said.
"It's really fascinating to have that connection to nature in that broader scale to think that, hey, 10,000 years ago, there was a giant relative of an elephant or the modern camel that was walking through this part of the world," he added.
Brent Jackson, an amateur fossil hunter, usually looks around creeks and rivers for fossils. He visits some creeks in Missouri north of the river, but his main area is the Kaw River in Kansas.
“What you want is sort of a disturbed ground, so anything that’s a water course,” he said. “It’s just like a gold mining thing, like it’s sluicing material out.”
Jackson dreams of finding the big vertebrate fossils, which, in Kansas and Missouri, are mammals from the Pleistocene Epoch, from around 10,000 years ago.
He once found a thoracic bison vertebrae — the big hump bone — on the Kaw, about a quarter of a mile from Kemper Arena.
Fossil hunting can be deceptive too, though. Not far from his thoracic bison vertebrae find, he also found a mineralized bone with perfectly cut edges that was cut by a saw.
For those who are new to fossil hunting, Jackson suggests looking along the Kaw, starting at Kaw Point, then going to the access points at Edwardsville and DeSoto.
“There’s usually a sandbar or gravel bar. You can start walking around and looking for something,” he said.
It’s a good time of the season to start there, he said, because the water’s going down.
According to Jackson, the draw of fossil hunting is the excuse to go outside. But the chance of hitting the jackpot, fossil-wise, is also alluring.
“A lot of times in the Midwest, we sometimes have poor self-esteem because we think nothing was here and nobody was here,” he said.
“But there were people here, and there were also wooly mammoth and mastodons … and there was this bison called the bison latifrons, which is this giant buffalo with a six-foot horn spread. And that makes things exciting, I guess.”
Some fossil-hunting tips:
- Fossil content on the river is often mineralized and it changes color. There's sort of a kind of color to the bone that allows you to recognize that it's old enough to be a fossil. Some are chocolate brown.
- Teeth are the most resilient. After that, the large leg bone is also more resilient.
- If you live in Kansas City, you're aware of shells in our sedimentary rocks. In western Kansas, Jackson has found fossils from large fishes and sharks.
- According to Jackson, sometimes if the water level is right, you can just basically pull the fossil out of the stone.
- Definitely be careful around roads. You can't stop on interstates (some fossils can be found around there). But around smaller roads (and in parks, around basements, etc.), you'll see those yellow-brown layered rocks, which are packed with invertebrate fossils.
- A lot of times, you'll see yellow rocks with black shale interbedded in them (they usually have grass covering them, especially in the spring and summer). Those might contain fossils, but that's more rare; the fossils will more likely be plant fossils.
Jen Chen is associate producer for KCUR's Central Standard. Reach out to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.