Kansas sisters find ancient grizzly bear skull along Arkansas River

Posted: Updated:
Photos courtesy of Ashley Watt Photos courtesy of Ashley Watt
Kansas Dept. of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism Kansas Dept. of Wildlife, Parks & Tourism

A recent kayaking trip down the Arkansas River in south-central Kansas took a fascinating turn for two sisters when they found a massive bear skull.

The Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism reports that Ashley and Erin Watt found the grizzly bear skull in mid-August. It was protruding from a sandbar. The exact location was not disclosed. 

"When they pulled it from the sand and saw the large teeth of a carnivore, they knew they had something special," the KDWPT said on its website. "With a little research, Ashley and Erin determined they had likely found a bear skull."

Their exciting discovery was shared on Facebook, and that caught the eye of Game Warden Chris Stout. 

"Stout shared the photos with colleagues, and they eventually reached Sternberg Museum of Natural History paleontologists Dr. Reese Barrick and Mike Everhart who provided insight into the significance of the finding."

Barrick and Everhart verified the sisters’ suspicions that this was a bear skull. Its large size (about 16 inches long by 8.5 inches wide) and fossilized appearance led them to believe the bear skull is believed to have been deposited into the Arkansas River sands and maintained there until it was displaced by this year’s historic floods.

"The bear skull was washed out of the same river sediments that routinely produce the skulls and bones of the American bison, some of which could date back as far as the last Ice Age,” said Everhart, who serves as the Adjunct Curator of Paleontology at the Sternberg Museum. “Whether it is hundreds or thousands of years old, the skull gives us a better insight into the richness of life on the plains before Western man."

Kansas wildlife officials say grizzly bears are native to Kansas and are thought to have occurred throughout most of the state, but history suggests the species was likely extirpated by the middle 1800s.

"Perhaps the most likely scenario is that this skull did belong to the modern species. Though old enough to have partially fossilized, the skull is in excellent condition; except for the loss of a few minor teeth, it is largely intact and minimally worn."

Officials say although there are several historical accounts of grizzly bears in Kansas, the sisters' find could be the first physical evidence of their former presence, pending species verification.

“It’s been pretty amazing not only discovering the skull but also the crowdsourcing used to determine how truly exceptional this find is,” said Ashley. “We can’t wait to see what further information can be uncovered about this incredible animal.”

Ashley, a former agriculture teacher at Oxford Jr/Sr High School, and Erin, an Animal Science student at West Texas A&M University, have donated the specimen to the Sternberg Museum in Hays.

Check out these photos from across KAKEland snapped by our viewers, staff and local officials. Do you have pictures to share with us? Email them to news@kake.com.