A curious fish tale from the Frost Museum of Science

The Curious Vault series uncovers unique items in the collection of The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. The latest edition explores an incredible Matryoshka doll of fish fossils — a 12-foot fish with a four-foot fish in its belly — and its journey from the Kansas plains to the Smithsonian to its home right here in Miami.

Eighty million years ago, a school of scaly Gillicus darted through the prehistoric seas that surged above modern day Kansas. Most likely searching for their next meal, Gillicus were predators, but not the top of the primitive marine food chain. There were far bigger fish found in the semi-tropical waters that during the Cretaceous period split North America right up the middle, from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic Circle—predators such as the Xiphactinus, (zy-FAK-tin-us) a species that would have swooped in to swallow a four-foot long Gillicus whole.

Xiphactinus in field
June 1925: Xiphactinus in field.The fossil was collected in three slabs. The curved tail was moved into the correct position.

To begin to understand the Xiphactinus, it helps to know it was a fish (and fish seems like such an inadequate term for a creature that could be up to 17-feet long) that swam and battled it out with primeval sharks and mosasaurs. There is no simpler statement to inspire awe. It was effectively an enormous sea going piranha with a protrusive fangs and massive frame. Eighty million years ago the Xiphactinus cruised stealthily throughout the Western Interior Seaway, an apex predator in an unforgiving ancient sea. Imagine the fish moving, gliding, with its beastly bulldog over bite of two-inch teeth gnarled from years of prowling the teeming primordial seas. Whizzing by goes a four-foot Gillicus. The perfect meal: or so it seemed.

A Xiphactinus sits on permanent display at Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, its belly filled with the remnants of its last lunch. The Gillicus is perhaps most famous for being the fatal final meal of the Xiphactinus, and there are a few rare specimen of Xiphactinius with remnants, or in some cases, wholly preserved fossil Gillicus inside them, a-fish-within-a-fish. It would seem the Xiphactinus had a taste for Gillicus, but an often-fatal taste, as proved by the fossil record, its tail was too harsh for its stomach and internal organs.

On display in Philadelphia at the National Sesquicentennial Exposition.
On display in Philadelphia at the National Sesquicentennial Exposition.

In 1925, eons after that ill-fated feast, the Museum’s Xiphactinus was first collected. It’s emancipator from the rock was George Sternberg, a Dust Bowl fisherman, (as crazy as that sounds) and son of the great fossil finder Charles Hazelius Sternberg, who did much of his early work during a period sometimes referred to as the Bone Wars. Turn of the century Americans were quite fascinated by bones of primeval creatures; it was big business and perfect ink for the newspapermen of the day.

The Xiphactinus took a long and crazy trip to end up in the Curious Vault. Laboring in the hot Kansas sun, George Sternberg poured plaster around the bone material, safely jacketing it so it could be moved. Almost immediately, it was bought by good old Uncle Sam who then shipped it east for exhibition at Philadelphia’s Sesqui-Centennial International Exposition of 1926, a huge world’s fair in honor of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The next photographic trace we have of the framed1,200 pound fish documents it hanging in the legendary “Hall of Extinct Monsters,” certainly one of the best named exhibit halls ever, in what is today the National Museum of Natural History, a part of the Smithsonian. Here, surrounded by the epic reconstructed bones of dinosaurs, it surely inspired entire generations of angling inclined visitors.

In 1965 the fish was transferred to the Miami branch of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). In 1973, Carol Richards, a museum guild member who was married to then NOAA Director Bill Richards arranged for it to be gifted to the Museum, where it has sat, fondly loved by visitors but not quite fully understood, for the last 40 years.

Sold To U.S. National Museum, March 1926. The fossil was purchased with National Sesquicentennial Exposition Fund to celebrate 150th anniversary signing Declaration of Independence. (University Archives, Fort Hays State University, Hays, KS)

Much of this information came to the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science by the way of Charles Bonner and Barbara Shelton, who are two well-known and colorful Kansas dino-fish-wranglers and the cheery proprietors of Keystone Gallery in Scott City, Kansas. Chuck and Barbara form the team, under the direction of Dr. Matt Friedman of Oxford University, who are facilitating the 2015 restoration of the Xiphactinus. For a month they carefully scraped away extra plaster and paint, what must have been a “quick and dirty” preparation, most probably a rush to make the deadline for exhibition in Philadelphia.

Strangely enough, Chuck and Barbara live only a few miles from the place Sternberg unearthed the Xiphactinus nearly 90 years ago, and where the fish itself died nearly 80 million years ago. The chalky Kansas terrain is remarkably well suited for fossilization.

Installing Diplodocus with Xiphactinus in Background in the “Hall of Extinct Monsters.” (Smithsonian Historical Photo)

After driving down from Kansas, Chuck and Barbara set up their workspace within the Museum galleries where curious visitors could see their progress. Scratching into the plaster encasement, Chuck (wearing a t-shirt with a mosasaur on it)excitedly worked the head of the beast, convinced that the jawbone could be better defined. Due to its shape, there was some disorder, but Chuck confirmed his suspicions about the jaw and each day a little more was revealed. He learned that near all the teeth were plaster replicas, but this is not unusual; erosion both exposes the fossil in the Kansas chalk but it also forces loose teeth away from the skull, scattering them to different parts of the fossil bed.

Chuck further worked the head while Barbara diligently focused on the ribs and the Gillicus specimen within the stomach. By reading his field notes we know Sternberg thought the Xiphactinus’ ruinous meal to be four feet, yet Barbara was able to confirm it was spread closer to six-feet throughout the body cavity of the Xiphactinus. Her process also revealed some fragile bone from the plaster that was previously unseen. Delicate rib bones suffer a similar fate to the teeth; Chuck and Barbara brought plenty of miscellaneous bone-bits from the same kind of fish to patch together the skeleton. They scraped and smoothed the specimen bringing a magnificent luster to the fish previously unseen.

There are only about a half dozen Xiphactinus specimens that are known to have a fish inside of them, making this fish-within-a-fish specimen particularly rare. It is nearly complete, as many don’t endure the ravages of time, disrupted by the elements or haphazard bone collectors. The lengthy and impressive provenance—particularly the link to the Sternberg family, as well as the Smithsonian—strengthens its rarity and importance. The newly cleaned and rehabilitated Xiphactinus will make yet another move soon, and will have a prominent place in the new Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science facility on Biscayne Bay where it will be a poignant symbol of change over time and the endurance of life on Earth.

The Gillicus will be there too, immortalized through partial digestion, with perhaps the last laugh, ultimately responsible for a fascinating eighty million year journey.

Special thanks to Chuck Bonner and Barbara Shelton for the historical photographs. All other photos by Mark Diamond. The Curious Vault is an online cabinet of curiosities featuring objects from the collection of The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science, presented by writer Nathaniel Sandler and Kevin Arrow, Art & Collections Manager.