WICHITA — Ashley and Erin Watt have always enjoyed the outdoors.
Over the years, they’ve spent a lot of time floating down the Arkansas River in south-central Kansas. Because of record-setting rains this spring, the two didn’t make their first kayak trip down the river until mid-August.
But what started as a leisurely trip ended with a remarkable discovery.
Sitting in the middle of a sand bar was a nearly 18-inch long, incredibly preserved, grizzly bear skull.
“The fact that we have a bear skull is a very, very rare event,” paleontologist Mike Everheart said.
As far as he knows, it’s the only one ever found in Kansas.
It’s a lot more common to find the bones of ancient bison along that stretch of the Arkansas River. Some of those fossils date back to the Ice Age.
While figuring out the age of the grizzly skull will be difficult, its proximity to the bison bones could offer a clue.
“It may be just hundreds of years old, but it may be up to 20,000 years,” Everheart said.
The same flooding that kept the Watt sisters off of the river earlier in the summer is likely what revealed the skull for them to find later.
Ashley Watt said they noticed right away how different the river looked from years past — sand bars were in different places and often much larger than normal.
Only the back half of the skull was above ground when they first noticed it.
“We didn’t realize how unique it was until we flipped it over and could see the two incisor teeth that were about three inches long,” she said.
The fact that the skull was largely intact — including most of the teeth — is a sign that it’s likely been in that spot since it died. If it had traveled any distance down the river, it would have been dashed to pieces over the years.
While the Watt sisters, who grew up on a farm, were familiar with finding bones of cattle and deer, they didn’t know what to think about this discovery. At first they thought it might be a mountain lion. But after a few Google searches, they quickly realized it had to be something else.
Excited about the discovery, they did what a lot of people would do — shared it on social media.
As friends eagerly shared the post, it eventually grabbed the attention of staff at the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism. They contacted the Sternberg Museum of Natural History in Hays, which put the women in touch with Everheart.
“I still feel like I can’t quite fathom exactly what it is that we found,” Ashley Watt said.
Even though friends have suggested the unique find might be worth something, ultimately, the two decided to donate the skull to the Sternberg Museum.
“The fact that we could discover more about what exactly it is is probably more enticing than having it be part of the decor of my home,” Ashley Watt said.
Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service. You can follow him on Twitter @briangrimmett or email him at grimmett (at) kmuw (dot) org. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on the health and well-being of Kansans, their communities and civic life.
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