Step back in time roughly 250 million years. We are still in Kansas. It is a coastal plain overlooking an inland sea. There are primitive fish and amphibians, but no dinosaurs yet. No mammals walk the land. No birds in the air. It is the end of the Paleozoic–the time of “ancient animals.” A time called the “Permian.”
Kansas is closer to the equator and this is an ancient tropical swamp. Kite-like mayflies dance above the water’s surface. The dragonflies are easily recognized. A huge dragonfly with a 29-inch wingspan darts overhead. A specimen too big for a collecting net–it would take birdshot to bring it down. With no bird predators to thin their numbers, the air is an insect’s playground. With higher oxygen levels, some of these insects have grown much bigger.
A cockroach accidently slips from the primitive tree bark and falls to the water, struggles at the surface, waterlogs, and sinks into the very fine sediment. More clay settles on it. More sediment presses down. And 250 million years later this has become one of the richest insect fossil deposits in the world.
This world class fossil site is at Elmo, Kansas. Indeed, few Kansans may know where Elmo, Kansas is! It’s one of those “blink once and you miss it” crossroads. Now don’t bother trying to go see it. The fossil bed is on private land and the 15,000 insect fossils are mostly in museums at Harvard, Yale and other localities.
It was a Yale University graduate student, Elias Sellards, who first recognized this rich insect layer in 1899. Two other world experts, Robin Tillyard of New Zealand and Frank Carpenter of Harvard also worked the site.
They found that this was a period when primitive winged insects were experimenting with flight. Many modern orders had their roots in the Permian. It will surprise many people to find that these ancestors had complex wings with many veins. And it will surprise even more that evolution over time has been a process that often reduced and simplified.
The bees, and the flowers they pollinated, as well as the dinosaurs, were yet to come. Everyone pays attention to the dinosaurs, but compared to insects, they are few and it is an easy task to identify new species. In contrast, Frank Carpenter published on the Elmo fossils for 60 years and concluded “...I haven’t even yet had a chance to study all the specimens collected there.” ...the world class Permian insect fossils, of Elmo Kansas.
[Tag line: A Kansas School Naturalist on this topic is available free on request from the Biology Department at ESU]