Two sisters find ancient bear skull uncovered by historic Kansas flooding

EMPORIA, Kan. – Who would’ve thought that a summer kayak trip on the Arkansas River in southcentral Kansas would seem like a trip to the Land of the Lost?

For two sisters, that is exactly what happened when their trip took a fascinating turn on a mid-August afternoon.

As the two girls, Ashley and Erin Watt, came upon a sandbar they noticed something a little different protruding from the sand.  It was a massive skull that was partially buried, nose down. The girls noticed it was a unique shape. When they pulled the skull from the sand and saw the large teeth of a carnivore, they knew they had something special.

After a little research, the girls determined they had discovered a bear skull. They shared their amazing discovery in a Facebook post, which caught the eye of  local Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT) game warden Chris Stout.

Stout shared the photos with other agents, and they eventually reached Sternberg Museum of Natural History paleontologists Dr. Reese Barrick and Mike Everhart, who added some more detail into the importance of this find.

“The bear skull was washed out of the same river sediments that routinely produce the skulls and bones of the American bison, some of which could date back as far as the last Ice Age,” Everhart, who serves as the Adjunct Curator of Paleontology at the Sternberg Museum, said. “Whether it is hundreds or thousands of years old, the skull gives us a better insight into the richness of life on the plains before Western man.”

While Barrick and Everhart quickly verified the sisters’ suspicions that this was indeed a bear skull, the large size – approximately 16 inches long by 8 ½ inches wide – and fossilized appearance left them questioning whether this was a modern grizzly or a more primitive species from the past.  The skull is believed to have been deposited into the Ark River sands – an excellent substrate for preservation – and maintained there until it was displaced by this year’s historic floods.

“It’s been pretty amazing, not only discovering the skull, but also the crowdsourcing used to determine how truly exceptional this find is,” Ashley said.  “We can’t wait to see what further information can be uncovered about this incredible animal.”

Ashley, a former agriculture teacher at Oxford Junior/Senior High School, and Erin, an Animal Science student at West Texas A&M University, have graciously donated the specimen to the Sternberg Museum in Hays.

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