Eighty million years ago, this part of Kansas was part of an inland sea. More recently – say the last 3.5 million years or so – the area was a savannah with trees. Soil samples suggest the wildlife refuge we call Cheyenne Bottoms has been a wetland for 100,000, says Pam Martin, an educator for Kansas Wildlife & Parks at the Kansas Wetlands Education Center.
Martin presented "A Glimpse into the Past at Cheyenne Bottoms," Wednesday at the Great Bend Noon Kiwanis meeting. Through the ages – the Blancan Age and the Pleistoncene Age to name two – the area has seen mammals come and go. Columbian mammoths, the North American lion, hunting hyenas and even rhinos lived here. "We had mastodons in North America until 8,000 years ago," Martin said.
Artist renditions of some animals appear to be from another world, Martin said. The 11-foot-long ground sloth could easily have been the inspiration for a Star Wars movie creature.
Some animals that date back to prehistoric times can still be found in Kansas, Martin said. "The pronghorn antelope that we have here today goes back at least four millions years," she said. "They are a living fossil."
The pronghorn, the world’s second-fastest running animal, evolved with the cheetah, which is considered faster. The pronghorn can actually come close to the 64 mph a cheetah is capable of, and it can run longer, Martin said. In fact, the cheetah also originated in North America, migrated to Africa when the continents were connected by a land bridge as wide as the state of Texas, and later became extinct on this continent, she said.
Another Kansas animal still around after four million years is the rare black-footed ferret. "We didn’t even know they existed until 1851," Martin said.
The largest mammals became extinct for reasons unknown, making way for elk, bison and mule deer, the gray wolf and the grizzly bear, as well as the cougar.
The oldest humans known to live in this area were the Clovis People – some 15,000 years ago.