Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Sharks Swimming in Kansas Seas

Sharks swimming in Kansas waters? Looking for dorsal fins cutting through waters where I fish, wade, and swim gives me goose bumps. I spent too much time focusing on such worries as a teenage body surfer in Huntington Beach, California.

Once I moved to Kansas, I expected snakes, spiders, scorpions, and skunks, but shark alerts sank to the bottom of my concerns. When I saw a funny internet comment asking what kind of sharks live in Kansas accompanied by a picture of a dorsal fin cruising up a creek, I had to laugh.

Then I thought about a favorite Kansas pastime that could lead someone unfamiliar with our state to think we have sharks as well as pheasants and meadowlarks. That pastime is shark tooth hunting, a hobby many people in this area enjoy as hunters and as museum-attendees.

Those with access to hills along the Smoky or land in Ellis, Trego, and Gove Counties know walking with eyes to the ground means they might come home with at least one new tooth to add to their collections. Lucky hunters will celebrate with pockets full of fossil teeth stabbing their thighs to remind them this land wasn’t always dry.

Limestone posts quarried from local stone showcase shell fossils and confirm an inland sea once covered what is now Kansas. For those who love to spend outdoor time looking at the ground, this promises hope of finding that little grey triangle resting so the sun reflects just enough to make it visible.

When I moved to Kansas, I was a confirmed arrowhead hunter. As a result, I scan surrounding ground for triangular shaped objects. However, most arrowheads are bigger than most shark teeth, so it took some adjusting to sweep my eyes back and forth, looking for that tiny triangle standing out from the dirt around it.

I also learned recently surfaced shark teeth sport a shiny gloss that contrasts with dull root material at a tooth’s base. Weathered teeth tend to match the root material, making them harder to spot.

Whenever I find a shark tooth, I wonder what Indians who camped in this area thought when they found these reminders of long ago.  Did they turn them into tools or use them as decorative items the same way elk teeth and porcupine quills decorated their clothing and baskets?  Did they weave elaborate stories to explain these mystery teeth?

It’s not only fun to hunt for sharks teeth, visiting local museums displaying world-class shark tooth collections is an adventure. This gives me a chance to learn about my own box of teeth and inspires me to keep looking for that monster tooth.

Knowing every time I go outside I might find one of these reminders that sharks swam where I walk brightens my day. I love that I don’t have to drive far to see professional fossil collections. I love living on an ancient seabed. Every time the wind blows, I think of the sound of the sea and wonder what treasure awaits discovery.   

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