THE DAN VARNER PALEO-LIFE ART PAGE

MARINE LIFE FROM THE WESTERN INTERIOR SEA (LATE CRETACEOUS)

 

  Copyright ?by Mike Everhart: 2000-2013

Updated 01/08/2013

 

R.I.P. Dan - January 1, 2012

LEFT:  Tylosaurus was big enough to eat lots of other prey besides fish. One specimen in South Dakota preserves stomach contents that include the bones of another, smaller mosasaur, a marine bird (Hesperornis) and a fish.  Copyright ?Dan Varner; used with permission of Dan Varner. 

Dan Varner has generously given me permission to use his original paleolife-art to illustrate some of the marine creatures from the Late Cretaceous whose remains are found in the Smoky Hill Chalk and Pierre Shale of Kansas (and in the rocks of South Dakota and New Jersey, and as far away as Japan and the Netherlands).

A Tribute to Dan Varner

What to say about Dan? - or as he called himself, little Danny Varner.

I've encountered few people that exude the sort of kindness Dan possessed. He was a private person, but had an intense passion for people around him. Dan's personality includes a pleasant mixture of Mel Blanc, Stan Laurel and your best friend from primary school.

Dan was an accomplished paleontological field collector, and knew as much about historical geology, stratigraphy and paleoecology as those with degrees.

He was a wonderful blues guitarist, and a lover of modern wildlife more so than the prehistoric beasts we've come to associate his work with.

Funny thing about talented people, often they are reluctant to show off certain gifts. Dan would chunk out a guitar diddy at the drop of a hat, but asking him to quickly produce anything seriously artistic on paper was just short of impossible. If the subject matter were a fun or silly doodle, then fine. Some of my fondest memories are staying up late, taking turns drawing on a pad and passing back and forth humorous roughly hewn cartoons, most with some sort of hidden reference to historical paleontological people and events, and waiting for the other to guess the context and laugh. I've shed as many tears related to laughter in my life largely due to those evenings giggling over doodles.

But anything professionally artistic and a different part of Dan would switch on. He was incredibly serious, deliberate, and meticulous about his oil painting, even the rough sketches leading to his final work. This is why the images he brought to life are so 'real' - his level of commitment toward each piece would often never allow them to be quite finished, but merely resigned as 'done enough'. Seeing certain of his rough draft sketches for the first time in many different variations would be exhilarating, many of them looked ready for publication. I quickly learned however not too comment often on how much I liked them - bring concept drawings to Dan's attention in a positive way and he would wad them up and chuck them in the bin.

And in the end, what a truly lovely person. Being around Dan made you unconsciously focus your personality toward the better part of yourself. That is perhaps Dan's greatest gift - he brought out the best in others.

His legacy will endure as instrument in giving us what remain our most inspiring glimpses of the Cretaceous marine realm. And several of his rather prophetic paintings and attention to anatomical details have now become accepted science - tail bends and forked tongues in mosasaurs, intraspecific competition amongst various marine reptilians, and predator-prey relationships amongst sharks, bony fishes, reptiles both swimming and flying, and birds.

Though I'm sure Dan would say all of this is attributable to historical research and the work of Charles R. Knight.

See ya' someday Danny!

Bruce Schumacher

OOKcover.gif (21739 bytes) Dan also provided the paleo-art for the cover and eleven color illustrations inside my book, Oceans of Kansas (2005; University of Indiana Press) ...

All of these images are Copyright ?Dan Varner, and may not be used in any form without his written permission.

 Click on the thumbnails below to see a larger image.

NEW 2005 -The final moments in the life of the "Fish-within-a-Fish"... A 13 foot Xiphactinus that swallowed a 6 foot long Gillicus... and then died suddenly.
varnr29a.jpg (3853 bytes) NEW 2005 - Two very large elasmosaurs (Styxosaurus snowii) cross paths while feeding near the surface in the Western Interior Sea during the early Campanian. Plesiosaurs were rare during the deposition of the Smoky Hill Chalk, possibly due to the presence of the giant ginsu shark, Cretoxyrhina mantelli. They are much more common in the overlying Pierre Shale, and in the underlying "Ft. Benton" rocks in Kansas (See Schumacher and Everhart, 2005).
varnr30a.jpg (3738 bytes) NEW 2005 - A five-foot- long Hesperornis regalis swims over the top of a giant Protostega gigas turtle during the early Campanian. The arrival of these two species marked a major change in the fauna of the Western Interior Sea and were probably there as a result of world-wide changes in the Earth's climate. (See Everhart 2011)
Somewhere in the Western Interior Sea, a giant pliosaur (Brachauchenius lucasi) is about to make lunch out of a small turtle similar to Desmatochelys.  Brachauchenius was one of the last of the pliosaurs and made it's final appearance in Kansas during the deposition of the Blue Hill Shale (Middle Turonian) of the Carlile Shale. Varner painting courtesy of the Museum of Northern Arizona.
varnr25b.jpg (5022 bytes) This picture has an interesting international connection... The painting was done by Dan Varner for the Natural History Museum of Maastricht in the Netherlands as a part of the celebration of the discovery of a large, fairly complete specimen of a new mosasaur species (Prognathodon saturator) in the ENCI limestone quarry outside of Maastricht. Many shark (Squalus) teeth were found in association with the remains, indicating that the carcass had probably been scavenged by sharks after death. I was able to visit the museum in May, 2004 for the First Mosasaur Meeting.  The photograph was made from the original painting at the Maastricht Museum.
varnr23a.jpg (3337 bytes) Here a Mosasaurus cruises the rocky underwater shoreline of the Late Cretaceous Japanese Islands, looking for a meal.  The ammonites in the background appear to be wishing they were some place else! During the Late Cretaceous, the ocean off the coast of what would become Japan was host to many different species of ammonites...  and many of the same genera of marine reptiles (mosasaurs and plesiosaurs) as were found in the Western Interior Sea. Dan painted this for me for a trip that I made attend a conference in Japan in 2002.
varnr24a.jpg (2388 bytes) A pod of very early and quite small (1-2 m) ichthyosaurs (Utatsusaurus hataii) searches for prey in the waters near present day Japan.  Some of the earliest remains of ichthyosaurs have been found in Japan and China. Dan painted this for me for a trip that I made attend a conference in Japan in 2002 where I was able to examine the type specimen of Utatsusaurus hataii.
varnr22a.jpg (3478 bytes) Here a Mosasaurus hoffmanni just misses the mark in an attack on the marine crocodile, Thoracosaurus, in the seas over present day New Jersey. Wanna bet on the outcome? These Maastrichtian age animals are known from both North America and the Netherlands in Europe (the North Atlantic was much smaller 68 million years ago).  Thoracosaurus survived for some time after the K/T boundary event while mosasaurs, plesiosaurs, dinosaurs and many other groups did not. Although first found in the Netherlands, M. hoffmanni is also known from the Western Interior Sea (Texas).
varner1y.jpg (3958 bytes) This rather dramatic picture was done especially for my poster presentation at the 1999 Society of Vertebrate Paleontology meeting in Denver.  It shows a large Cretoxyrhina mantelli shark taking a bite out of a juvenile Tylosaurus.  While we are unsure if these sharks attacked live mosasaurs, or scavenged their carcasses, feeding by sharks on mosasaurs is supported by a lot of fossil evidence. See the Ginsu Shark, Parts and Pieces, and A Moment in Time.  

Everhart, M. J., 1999. Evidence of feeding on mosasaurs by the late Cretaceous lamniform shark, Cretoxyrhina mantelli. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 17(suppl. to 3):43A-44A.

"Feathers and all" - It's hard to imagine the scale of this picture.... the little swimming birds (Hesperornis) are about 5 feet long and the Tylosaurus ... well, it's huge.  Modeled after the largest specimen on exhibit (The Bunker Tylosaur), this beast was at least 45 feet long and had a skull that was 6 feet in length.  Read about "A day in the life of a mosasaur" here.
In this view, a Clidastes (one of the smaller mosasaurs, about 12 feet long) is about to put the bite on a turtle called Calcarichelys somewhere off the ancient gulf coast of what is now Alabama.   Mosasaurs fed on just about anything that was small enough for them to swallow.
This picture shows an attack by a very large (30'+) mosasaur called Tylosaurus proriger on a much smaller Platecarpus mosasaur. Tylosaurus occasionally killed and ate other species of mosasaurs but there is no evidence to show that any of the mosasaurs were cannibalistic toward their own species. (My apologies for the poor color in this photo... This is what it should look like)
varner1a.jpg (3049 bytes) This scene is based on a specimen found South Dakota and shows a mother Plioplatecarpus giving birth to the second of her two babies. Until recently, it was assumed that mosasaurs laid eggs on beaches like turtles. Instead, they appear to have given birth at sea just like the ichthyosaurs
varn02a.jpg (2806 bytes) This encounter is also based on a recently found specimen of a young adult Mosasaurus conodon that showed evidence (embedded tooth and a broken neck) of being attacked and killed by a larger member of the same species.    Here's the illustration Dan did for the article in the February 1996 issue of Discover magazine.
varner3a.jpg (2380 bytes) This picture shows a Plioplatecarpus feeding on a school of bone fish and is based on a specimen found in Central Alabama by a Historical Geology class from Okaloosa Walton Community College in Northwest Florida.  Plioplatecarpus mosasaurs were more advanced and somewhat specialized.  See the latest Plioplatecarpus page - A Plioplatecarpus from North Dakota
varner8a.jpg (2793 bytes) Globidens was another very specialized mosasaur, with round, crushing teeth.  This picture shows two Globidens dakotensis mosasaurs feeding on clams and other shellfish found on the bottom of the shallow, inland sea that covered Kansas, South Dakota and much of Midwestern North America.
This picture shows what happens when the hunter becomes the hunted, as a giant pliosaur called Brachauchenius lucasi attacks an early mosasaur.  Although pliosaurs became extinct during Turonian time, they were still present in the Western Interior Sea when the first mosasaurs arrived. While mosasaurs eventually became the top predators, their young were often preyed upon by sharks, large fish, and even other species of mosasaurs.  Life could be short for the unwary. This painting was done for a paleontology classmate of mine Michael Greenwald.

Schumacher, B.A. 2011. A ?i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal">woollgari-zone mosasaur?(Squamata; Mosasauridae) from the Carlile Shale (Lower Middle Turonian) of central Kansas and the stratigraphic overlap of early mosasaurs and pliosaurid plesiosaurs. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 114(1-2):1-14.

varner9a.jpg (3030 bytes) "Brachauchenius and Squid" from a painting done for Pete Von Sholly. This picture recreates an actual specimen found in the Turner Sandy Member of the Carlile Shale Formation (Turonian / Late Cretaceous) near Edgemont, South Dakota. This was the latest age that these giant pliosaurs were found in North America.... coincidentally the same time that mosasaurs first appeared.
varner4a.jpg (2447 bytes) The Cretaceous Seas were a dangerous place for lots of good reasons. This view shows two giant (up to 17 feet or more in length) Xiphactinus audax on the prowl for their next meal.  These fish fed by swallowing their prey whole, and are sometimes found with their last meal perfectly preserved inside. 
varner5a.jpg (2493 bytes) This picture shows a large (up to 5 feet tall),  flightless seabird called Hesperornis regalis swimming underwater to catch a small fish.   These birds still had teeth in their jaws, but probably behaved much like modern penguins.  Their fossils are much more common in Late Cretaceous marine deposits north of Kansas.  

BELOW: A SELECTION OF EARLIER DAN VARNER PALEO-ART - Dan wanted me to mention that these pictures are somewhat dated (especially in the shape of the mosasaur's tails) due to studies done on mosasaur caudal material after the paintings were finished.  I thought  they were still spectacular examples of his work.  A big "Thank You" to Jim Martin of the Museum of Geology at the South Dakota School of  Mines and Technology for the opportunity to photograph these pictures, and to Dan Varner for allowing me to put them on this webpage.

Here a large Tylosaurus is about to make lunch of a smaller mosasaur called Halisaurus sternbergi.  Like their modern relatives, the snakes, mosasaurs were capable of swallowing large prey whole because of the unique design of their skull and very flexible lower jaws. Note the dorsal lobe on the tail. 
Although Hesperornis was a large and very successful marine bird, it was no match for something as large (and hungry) as a Tylosaurus.  This picture is loosely based on the discovery in South Dakota of a Tylosaurus with fossilized stomach contents that included a fish (Bananogmius), a smaller mosasaur (Clidastes) and a bird (Hesperornis). Note the dorsal lobe on the tail. 
varn14a.jpg (2465 bytes) Mosasaurs probably fed mostly on fish, although some varieties were specialized to the point of feeding on soft bodied squid or even clams.  Here a Platecarpus grabs an unlucky Enchodus.... the "Saber Toothed Salmon" of the late Cretaceous seas.
varn15a.jpg (2577 bytes) Here a polycotylid plesiosaur bites at the front paddle of another member of the same species.  Like many of other Dan's works, this picture was based on an actual fossil.  A polycotylid specimen found in South Dakota had a broken plesiosaur tooth embedded in the bones of   the paddle.  How it got there is conjectural, but Dan's painting shows what could have happened.

Martin, J. E. and L. E. Kennedy. 1988. A plesiosaur from the Late Cretaceous (Campanian) Pierre Shale of South Dakota: A preliminary report, Proceedings South Dakota Academy of Science, 67:76-79.

This early version of the pliosaur Brachauchenius lucasi by Dan Varner was provided to me by Bruce Schumacher.
Here a pair of mosasaurs (Probably Mosasaurus conodon) feeding on Enchodus....A digital photo of this early painting by Dan Varner was provided to me by Bruce Schumacher.

Below are a selection of paintings by Dan Varner of Triassic and Jurassic marine reptiles (Added July 27, 2000).

varnr18a.jpg (2012 bytes) A pod of Cryptoclidus plesiosaurs (late Jurassic, Europe) cruises near the surface in search of prey. These animals reached lengths of about 4 meters. Large numbers of slender, inter-meshing teeth in their jaws made them very efficient in catching small fish and cephalopods.
varnr20a.jpg (2252 bytes) A nothosaur (early to late Triassic) prowls the shallow sea for food.  These semi-marine lizards reached lengths of about 3 meters.   Their remains are found in many places around the world, including China, Russia, Germany, the Netherlands and North Africa. Instead of paddles, Nothosaurs had webs between their long toes.  See a picture of the cast of small Nothosaur skeleton here.
varnr21a.jpg (1913 bytes) An early and very 'fish-like' crocodile (Geosaurus) swims in the shallow seas covering Germany in the Middle to Late Jurassic. Although not closely related to the ichthyosaurs,  the tails of member of the Metriorhynch family were adapted for swimming in the same way, even to the noticeable down bend in the posterior caudal vertebrae.
varnr19a.jpg (2357 bytes) Placodus, a placodont from the early to middle Triassic of Europe grubs for clams and other shellfish in the mud of a near-shore sea bottom.  While placodonts fed in the ocean, they probably spent a large portion of their lives on land.

All pictures are copyright ?Dan Varner; used with permission of Dan Varner


Suggested References:

Everhart, M. J., 1999. Evidence of feeding on mosasaurs by the late Cretaceous lamniform shark, Cretoxyrhina mantelli. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 17(suppl. to 3):43A-44A.

Everhart, M. J. 2005. Oceans of Kansas - A Natural History of the Western Interior Sea. Indiana University Press, 322 pp.

Everhart, M.J. 2008. Rare occurrence of a Globidens sp. (Reptilia; Mosasauridae) dentary in the Sharon Springs Member of the Pierre Shale (Middle Campanian) of Western Kansas. p. 23-29 in Farley G. H. and Choate, J.R. (eds.), Unlocking the Unknown; Papers Honoring Dr. Richard Zakrzewski, Fort Hays Studies, Special Issue No. 2, 153 p., Fort Hays State University, Hays, KS.

Everhart, M.J. 2011. Rediscovery of the Hesperornis regalis Marsh 1871 holotype locality indicates an earlier stratigraphic occurrence. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 114(1-2):59-68.

Martin, J.E. 2007. A new species of the durophagous mosasaur, Globidens (Squamata: Mosasauridae) from the Late Cretaceous Pierre Shale Group of central South Dakota, USA. Pages 167-176 in Martin, J. E. and Parris D. C. (eds.), The Geology and Paleontology of the Late Cretaceous Marine Deposits of the Dakotas. Geological Society of America, Special Paper 427.

Martin, J.E. 2007. A North American Hainosaurus (Squamata: Mosasauridae) from the Late Cretaceous of southern South Dakota. Pages 199-207 in Martin, J. E. and Parris D. C. (eds.), The Geology and Paleontology of the Late Cretaceous Marine Deposits of the Dakotas. Geological Society of America, Special Paper 427.

Martin, J.E. and Bjork, P.R. 1987. Gastric residues associated with a mosasaur from the late Cretaceous (Campanian) Pierre Shale in South Dakota, Dakoterra, 3:68-72.

Martin, J.E. and Cordes-Person, A. 2007.A new species of the diving bird, Baptornis (Ornithurae: Hesperornithiformes), from the lower Pierre Shale Group (Upper Cretaceous) of southwestern South Dakota. Pages 227-237 in Martin, J.E. and Parris D.C. (eds.), The Geology and Paleontology of the Late Cretaceous Marine Deposits of the Dakotas. Geological Society of America, Special Paper 427.

Martin, J.E. and Fox, J.E. 2007. Stomach contents of Globidens, a shell-crushing mosasaur (Squamata), from the Late Cretaceous Pierre Shale Group, Big Bend area of the Missouri River, central South Dakota. Pages 167-176 in Martin, J.E. and Parris D.C. (eds.), The Geology and Paleontology of the Late Cretaceous Marine Deposits of the Dakotas. Geological Society of America, Special Paper 427.

Martin, J.E. and Fox, J.E. 2004. Molluscs in the stomach contents of Globidens, a shell crushing mosasaur, from the Late Cretaceous Pierre Shale, Big Bend area of the Missouri River, central South Dakota. Geological Society of America, 2004 Rocky Mountain and Cordilleran Regions Joint Meeting, Abstracts with Programs, 36(4):80.

Martin, J.E. and Kennedy, L.E. 1988. A plesiosaur from the late Cretaceous (Campanian) Pierre Shale of South Dakota: A preliminary report, Proceedings South Dakota Academy of Science, 67:76-79.

Martin, J.E., Schumacher, B.A., Parris, D.C. and Grandstaff, B.S. 1998. Fossil vertebrates of the Niobrara Formation in South Dakota, Dakoterra 5:39-54.

Martin, J.E. and Varner, D.W. 1992. The occurrence of Hesperornis in the Late Cretaceous Niobrara Formation of South Dakota. Proceedings of the South Dakota Academy of Science 71:95-97.

Martin, J.E. and Varner, D.W. 1992. The highest stratigraphic occurrence of the fossil bird Baptornis. Proceedings of the South Dakota Academy of Science 71:167 (abstract).

Schumacher, B.A. 2008. On the skull of a pliosaur (Plesiosauria; Pliosauridae) from the Upper Cretaceous (Early Turonian) of the North American Western Interior. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 111(3-4):203-218.

Schumacher, B.A. 2011. A ?i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal">woollgari-zone mosasaur?(Squamata; Mosasauridae) from the Carlile Shale (Lower Middle Turonian) of central Kansas and the stratigraphic overlap of early mosasaurs and pliosaurid plesiosaurs. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 114(1-2):1-14.

Schumacher, B.A. 2008. On the skull of a pliosaur (Plesiosauria; Pliosauridae) from the Upper Cretaceous (Early Turonian) of the North American Western Interior. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 111(3-4):203-218.

Schumacher, B.A. 2011. A ?i style="mso-bidi-font-style: normal">woollgari-zone mosasaur?(Squamata; Mosasauridae) from the Carlile Shale (Lower Middle Turonian) of central Kansas and the stratigraphic overlap of early mosasaurs and pliosaurid plesiosaurs. Kansas Academy of Science, Transactions 114(1-2):1-14.

Schumacher, B.A. and M. J. Everhart. 2005. A stratigraphic and taxonomic review of plesiosaurs from the old 揊ort Benton Group?of central Kansas: A new assessment of old recordsPaludicola 5(2):33-54.

Schumacher, B.A. and Varner, D.W. 1996. Mosasaur caudal anatomy. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, 16(suppl. to 3):63A.

Schumacher, B.A. and Varner, D.W. 2007. Morphology and function of tailbends in mosasaurs. In Everhart M.J. (ed.), Second mosasaur meeting, Abstract Booklet and Field Guide, pp 41?2.


 

 

 

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