Plains Spoken Paleontology: The University of Kansas Natural History Museum Has Emerged as a Leading Research Center

Article excerpt

Just beyond the eastern edge of the Great Plains, where paleontologists have made some of their greatest discoveries, lies one of the preeminent research institutions in the country, the University of Kansas Natural History Museum. Founded in 1866 at the same time the state Legislature established the university, the museum offers top-notch research facilities and ready access to natural habitats for fieldwork.

"The museum is full of intellectual giants," declares Philip Humphrey, who retired in 1995 after 28 years as its director. Scientists at the KU museum have added immeasurably to what we know about the diversity of life, past and present. Renowned paleontologist Larry Martin, for example, was one of four researchers who last year determined that a fossil found in China is of the earliest-known beaked bird. He is a major figure in the scientific debate about birds descending from dinosaurs.

Humphrey, an ornithologist, placed great emphasis on expanding specimen men collections and made a lasting contribution in orchestrating the merger of the Natural History Museum with three other university museums dedicated to botany, entomology and invertebrate paleontology. The combined collections rank among the nation's largest, some exceeding those of its more famous Midwestern neighbor the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago (see "Field Work").

The museum's new director, Leonard Krishtalka, hopes to make the institution more accessible to the public. Some 200,000 people visit it every year, but Krishtalka wants to bring the collections to those who can't make the trip. …