Overland Park museum gets 85-million-year-old fossils

Fossils unearthed in Kansas that are 85 million years old have been donated to the new Museum at Prairiefire in Overland Park after complaints that they were to be sold at auction.

Instead, the San Diego Museum of Natural History agreed to give them to the new museum, which opened Monday at 5801 W. 135th St.

The fossils, collected in the early 20th century in west central Kansas by amateur paleontologist Charles H. Sternberg, include a 17-foot-long skeleton of a marine reptile and a 16-foot-long skeleton of a large bony fish.

A similar skeleton of the fish species sold at auction in 2009 for $422,000.

“We are over the moon,” said Uli Sailer Das, executive director of the Museum at Prairiefire, which is affiliated with the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

Sailer Das said Mark Norell, chairman of the paleontology division at the American Museum of Natural History, helped arrange the donation.

The San Diego museum drew criticism last year for its plan to place the fossils up for auction. The museum had purchased them from Sternberg in the 1920s. Paleontologists feared they would pass into private hands and away from public access.

The San Diego museum in November announced it had changed its mind about the auction.

“It was not our intent to sell the fossils for financial gain nor to minimize the historical importance of these specimens,” the museum said then, adding that its mission is to focus on California and Baja California.

“While our hope was that the specimens would have been purchased by other museums as part of the auction, we realize that there was no guarantee this would occur,” the museum said.

Three of the fossils went on display Monday at the Museum at Prairiefire. They include the skull of a fierce bony fish called xiphactinus, the tail of a marine reptile called a mosasaur and swimming crinoids, which were marine animals that resembled plants. All lived in the sea that once covered what is now the western United States.

The larger fossils, of a complete mosasaur and a complete xiphactinus, will go on display June 7.

“These items are highly relevant for Kansas residents,” Sailer Das said, “because they are telling the natural history of this area.”