The Weird Stories Behind America's Official State Fossils

From fights with creationists to dinosaurs that might not exist

Just so California (James St. John / Flickr)

Yesterday, I wrote about the Tully monster, an improbably odd extinct animal with hammerhead eyes, a squid-like body, and a lobster-claw snout. Although the creature has been a mystery for 50 years, it has spent 27 of those as the official state fossil of Illinois. It’s a good choice—it was first found in Illinois, seems to have been abundant there, and has never been found anywhere else. It’s about as Illinois as deep-dish, snow, and Ferris Bueller.

The Tully monster is in good company. Since the 1960s, most US states have elected their own official fossils, often after fierce campaigns by students (as in Tennessee, Missouri, Pennsylvania), teachers (Vermont), and politicians (California). Even states where evolution is a touchy subject in classrooms have chosen animals and plants that lived thousands or millions of years ago for their avatars.

Many states, including Missouri, Oklahoma, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico,  and Texas went for locally discovered dinosaurs. Colorado called dibs on Stegosaurus and fairly so, since the plate-backed dinosaur was first found there. It could well have picked Triceratops too but the three-horned creature eventually went to South Dakota and Wyoming. (All three states deserve credit for avoiding the gauche, populist choice of Tyrannosaurus.)

Montana chose the duck-billed Maiasaura, whose fossilised nests, eggs, and hatchlings told us that some dinosaurs cared for their young. Utah anointed the 28-foot-long predator Allosaurus in 1988; a great pick, but if it had waited for five years, it might well have picked Utahraptor, a super-sized relative of Velociraptor.

And DC picked ‘Capitalsaurus.’ The name isn’t official: it first appeared in a 1990 Washingtonian article and has never been published in a scientific journal. Since the animal is only known from a pair of vertebrae, it could easily turn out to be another already-named dinosaur. But that hasn’t stopped Capitalsaurus from getting state recognition, a street sign, and a theme song. It’s a triumph of catchy branding over rigorous standards—perhaps, the perfect state fossil.

Tim Krepp / Flickr

Connecticut’s choice, Eubrontes, is interesting because it’s not a dinosaur—it’s the outline of one. Aside from bones, dinosaurs also left behind footprints, tracks, and other signs of their presence. These “trace fossils” are often hard to assign to a particular species, so they have their own classification scheme—a kind of shadow taxonomy, a way of ordering negative space. In this case, the name “Eubrontes” refers to a set of fossilised tracks made around 200 million years ago, by some kind of predator stomping through Connecticut. (Massachussetts also adopted a set of dinosaur tracks as its state fossil.)

It’s not all about dinosaurs, either. Both Alabama and Mississippi selected Basilosaurus, a fearsome, 20-meter, toothed whale that still had a pair of small hind limbs. Nevada got Shonisaurus, a 40-foot, dolphin-esque, marine reptile that died in large numbers at one particular site, for reasons that are still unclear. And West Virginia picked the giant ground sloth Megalonyx, a… er… giant sloth that lived on the ground.

Other states went full hipster with their choices, electing obscure members of the prehistoric menagerie, like a squid-like belemnite (Delaware), the American zebra (Idaho), a nondescript, extinct fish (Wyoming), an intimidating sea scorpion (New York), an almost plant-like sea lily (Missouri), and ancient shellfish (Tennessee and Virginia).

California, in the early 1970s, chose between two candidates, each backed by a rival politician. One argued for trilobites, a highly successful group of woodlouse-like marine animals. The other backed Smilodon fatalis, the saber-toothed cat, a frequent resident of the La Brea tar pits at Los Angeles. Choosing the trilobite would have given California the country’s oldest state fossil. Choosing the cat would have given it a fossil with huge, scary teeth. They chose the cat. (Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin all picked trilobites.)

But why choose? In 2014, Kansas, in a fit of either greed or indecisiveness, opted for two iconic not-dinosaurs: the flying Pteranodon with its crested head and 20-foot wingspan, and the aquatic Tylosaurus, a 45-foot flippered relative of monitor lizards. These huge creatures would have dominated the skies and seas of Cretaceous Kansas, sandwiching the land-lubbing dinosaurs between them.

Five states— Alaska, Michigan, Nebraska, South Carolina, and Washington—picked mammoths or mastodons, those trunked and tusked relatives of elephants. Nebraska was first, on its 100th birthday in 1967. It has a strong claim: it was home to three species of mammoth, a pair of battling mammoths that died with tusks locked in combat, and the world’s largest mammoth fossil, Archie. (Discovered by chickens, Archie was later immortalized in a life-size statue that University of Nebraska students hi-five for luck.)

Brett Neilsen / Flickr

South Carolina was the latest state to join Team Mammoth, and not without some difficulty. Chagrined by the state’s lack of an official fossil, 8-year-old paleo-enthusiast Olivia McConnell wrote to local lawmakers, nominating the Columbia mammoth. Their bill was delayed for months by creationist senators, who wanted to include amendments that referred to the book of Genesis, but eventually passed in May 2014. (McConnell has since written a book about her experience.)

Vermont’s state fossil—please, no Bernie jokes—is the only one that belongs to an animal that still lives: the white beluga whale. “Charlotte” was found by railroad workers in 1849, in a farmer’s field, some 200 miles and two mountain ranges away from the nearest ocean. Her existence helped to show that New England was once covered in glaciers, whose retreat allowed the Atlantic to flood the area with marine water. Having reshaped our understanding of geology, Charlotte later survived fire and flood, and was named as Vermont’s state fossil in 1993. (She was later demoted to state marine fossil, while a mammoth tooth took the terrestrial spot.)

Some strayed outside the animal kingdom. Arizona picked a conifer tree that thrived over 200 million years ago; its massive trunks have since swapped brown wood for rainbow-colored rock, and can be found in the Petrified Forest National Monument. Louisiana, North Dakota, Texas, and Washington went in a similar direction with petrified wood from other trees.

Maine’s state fossil, a primitive plant called Pertica, lived around 400 million years ago when animals and plants began colonizing the land in earnest. At 3 meters tall, it would have been one of the tallest things on the planet, but was later dwarfed by far loftier species like the 45-meter dawn redwood—Oregon’s state fossil. The redwood’s an odd choice, since a few thousand living individuals were found in China in 1944, and seeds have since been distributed throughout the world. And since Oregon only designated the redwood as their chosen fossil in 2005, they can’t even claim that they heard of it before anyone else.

Still, their choice makes loads of sense compared to Georgia, which picked the shark tooth. Not the tooth of any particular species or genus of shark, like the monstrous megalodon, as chosen by North Carolina. Nope, just a generic “shark tooth.” That’s like picking “dinosaur leg” as your state fossil, or “bird” as your state animal. It’s even worse because shark jaws are conveyor belts that continually jettison old teeth, and so fossil teeth are extremely common. Georgia is the kid that didn’t really understand the assignment. (Kentucky was even less specific when it chose brachiopods, a large group of animals that look like clams but aren’t; that’s like choosing “molluscs” or “back-boned animals”.)

At least Georgia and Kentucky are in the game. Seven states have so far failed to choose a state fossil altogether. It feels churlish to shame them, but let’s say that their names rhyme with Arkansas, Hawaii, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.

Florida narrowly escaped this fate by designating agatized coral as the official state stone, and thus accidentally getting a state fossil in the process. Good work, Florida Man.