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Probably the rarest vertebrate fossils found in the Smoky Hill chalk are birds. They were first found in the 1870’s by Professor Mudge of Kansas State as well as the Yale Paleontogical expedition. The discoveries of two types of birds with conical teeth, set in grooves in the jaws, caused quite a stir in the scientific community. This discovery, showing the evolution of bird anatomy, gave strong credibility to Darwin’s theory. 

In 1880, Professor O.C. Marsh of Yale published the definitive book on toothed birds. Two main genera were described at that time: Hesperornis and Ichthyornis.


Hesperornis (hess-per-orr-niss) was a large, loon-like bird that had huge feet adapted for swimming and small teeth designed for catching fish. It could not fly, having only small vestigal bones for wings. Hesperornis reached a length of five feet and probably only left the water to lay eggs.


Ichthyornis (ick-thee-orr-niss) was a true bird in every sense, except for teeth in its jaws. Resembling a tern or gull in size, it was undoubtedly an excellent flyer. It may have been able to dive deep for fish like present-day auks. Ichthyornis probably laid eggs on land.

©2015 Keystone Gallery / Photos © Barbara Shelton unless otherwise noted

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