HAYS — “Every fossil tells a story,” say the identification cards hanging with each of the fossils on exhibit in “Prairie Ocean: Long Time, No Sea” at the Sternberg Museum of Natural History.

The exhibit opened Friday, the work of Logan County native Chuck Bonner and his friend, Ray Troll, once a Kansan himself.

A mixture of art and fossils, the exhibit of 20-some fossils is a sample of the ancient life that lived in western Kansas some 80 million years ago. The Cretaceous represents a geologic period when marine creatures, most of them gigantic, but some tiny, thrived in a vast inland sea whose shallow waters extended from the Gulf up through Canada.

“This general area was covered for a very long time by an inland sea,” Bonner explained, ultimately leaving the giant creatures fossilized in layers of earth.

“The chalk is very soft, so they’ve been finding fossils since the 1870s out here,” he said.

Bonner discovered and unearthed most of the fossils on display from rocks in Gove and Logan counties. He prepared and identified them, some with the help of his wife, Barbara Shelton.

Each fossil’s story isn’t always what you expect, he pointed out Thursday as he and Troll and Shelton put the finishing touches on the exhibit.

“Like this clam with the fish in it,” he said, strolling to a big, flat circular fossil and pointing to the smaller tiny circles raised up on its surface.

“Because of the silty bottoms of the inland sea, the oysters would attach themselves to the clams,” he said. “Sometimes you find fish inside the clams. The fish were trapped in the clam for some reason.”

Then there’s the ammonite fossil, discovered in the fence-post layer from the Greenhorn Limestone formation of the Great Plains.

“This one has a quirky story,” Bonner said. “This was a thin layer of Greenhorn that I had as a patio and we had ice laid all over the ground, and it popped loose this round thing, and I got kind of upset because it messed up the patio. Well, I turned it over and here’s an ammonite. Every fossil tells a story, but sometimes a fossil finds you.”

The owner with his wife of Keystone Gallery in Scott City, Bonner also identifies as a field paleontologist.

He grew up hunting fossils with his dad, Marion Bonner, who discovered the short-necked plesiosaur on display for years now at the Sternberg. It was that fossil that led the elder Bonner and his family to form a life-long friendship with one of the museum’s namesakes, George Sternberg.

The fossils he finds, said Bonner, are what he considers found objects that he incorporates into his art work.

One mosasaur on display tells the story of death, “How he curled up and died,” said Bonner.

Another mosasaur fossil has ancient squids in her thoracic area, and it’s assumed that’s probably what killed her, he said.