WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — Eric Volkmann was recently digging in his yard in the Indian Hills neighborhood in Wichita when he came across what appeared to be a horse tooth.
He also recognized immediately the tooth had been fossilized. That meant it couldn’t be from any modern horse and had to be from some ancient related animal.
So, he did what he often does, he showed his brother Todd Volkmann who is the Exhibit Caretaker at the Kansas Wildlife Exhibit in Riverside Park. It’s safe to say he knows animals well.
Todd says he’s used to his brother sending him nature-related photos and texts regularly, along with an occasional artifact. In fact, people are often reaching out to him, asking if he can identify something they have found.
Todd immediately recognized, as his brother did, that the tooth belonged to something in the equine family, and it was a fossil. Still, he wasn’t exactly sure what type of equine it came from.
He says he consulted several academics who told him there was one person he needed to show it to: Mike Everhart.
Everhart is a naturalist and author of Oceans of Kansas, which is considered a definitive guide to Kansas during the ages of dinosaurs. He was able to quickly identify it as likely belonging to Equus scotti, an extinct species of horse closely related to Zebra.
They lived about two million years ago up until around 10,000 years ago. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because the Equus Bed Aquifer is named for it due to the abundance of their fossils being found around the area.
Kansas is teeming with fossils. Some are more recent, like Equus scotti, mammoths, mastodons, sabretooth cats, and giant camels. Some are from the Cretaceous period, like the Pterosaur or Plesiosaur.
However, the vast majority are early sea life from when Kansas was covered with water. That era is known as the Pennsylvanian time period, about 300 million years ago.
You can find everything from sea plants and coral to shellfish and trilobites. You just have to know where to look and what to look for.
First, some very important information. Any fossil you find belongs to whoever owns the land you are on.
Be sure you have permission to search a property before you start. If it is public land, then there are very specific rules laid out by the Bureau of Land Management:
“Only researchers operating under a BLM permit are allowed to collect vertebrate fossils such as dinosaurs, mammals, fish, and reptiles, as well as uncommon invertebrate or plant fossils.
Collected fossils remain public property and are placed with museums, universities, or other public institutions for study and exhibition.
You may collect reasonable quantities of common invertebrate fossils such as mollusks and trilobites, but this must be for personal use, and the fossils may not be bartered or sold. Resources found in caves including plant, animal, and geologic features are federally protected and may not be altered, damaged, or removed.”
Things to think about before you go fossil hunting:
- Never go looking alone. Always have at least one other person with you, and be sure people know where you will be going and when to expect you back.
- If you plan on venturing far from your means of transportation, treat it as you would a hike. Make sure you have plenty of water with you and possibly other provisions should something happen or you get lost.
- Check the weather before you go out so you can be prepared for any sudden changes.
- Keep an eye out for wildlife and for livestock.
- If looking near roads, watch for traffic, and if possible, wear a reflective vest so you are more visible.
As far as equipment, The American Museum of Natural History recommends the following:
- Toilet paper for wrapping your fossils
- Plastic food bags for protecting your fossils
- A backpack for storing the fossils you find
- Plenty of water, not just for consumption but to help free fossils from surrounding dirt
- Shovels, screens to sort small loose fossils, soft and hard paint brushes of multiple sizes, a geology hammer, chisels, safety goggles, and gloves
You can find sorting screens for a variety of different price points on Amazon. You can also find several fossil kits that have all of the tools you would want to take with you on Amazon. Although none of it is absolutely necessary, it does make it a lot easier, especially if you plan to take the fossils with you.
The best places to look for fossils are anywhere you can find an outcropping of rocks. Hills that have been blasted through for roads are a perfect spot to look. Just watch out for traffic and be careful as you climb.
So how do you know for sure what you have once you find something? Well, thankfully, University of Kansas professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Bruce Lieberman, along with his team of paleontologists and researchers, have created the Digital Atlas of Ancient Life.
It’s available on Apple iOS, though no longer available on the Google Play Store. You can still use the website on mobile.
If you’d like to learn more about the geological and paleontological history of Kansas, you can find more information on the Kansas Geological Survey website. In addition to his book Oceans of Kansas, Mike Everthart still operates the website OceansofKansas.com which is a massive trove of not just information about ancient Kansas geology but the diverse life that once existed here.
Don’t let the outdated format of the website deter you. The information provided is accurate and up-to-date.
The most important thing to remember is to have fun and don’t be afraid to reach out to an expert. You’ll find that many of them are just as excited to hear from someone who is excited as they are about the natural world.