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No bones about it: Students seek a Washington state dinosaur designation

Austin Jenkins
Northwest News Network
Students are asking Washington lawmakers to name Suciasaurus rex the state dinosaur.

If Washington students get their way, the state soon will have an official dinosaur.

You’ve probably heard of state flowers or state trees. In addition to such flora, Washington soon could have more state fauna – a dinosaur. A bill in the Washington House could pave the way for the prehistoric state symbol.

The ongoing quest to name a state dinosaur began in Amy Cole’s fourth grade classroom in 2019. Cole again supported a bill to designate the state dino during a public hearing Wednesday in the House Committee on State Government and Tribal Relations.

In 2019 As a first-year teacher at Elmhurst Elementary School in Parkland, Washington, Cole began a lesson on how government works.

“We talked about the importance of voting and being registered to vote,” Cole said at a public hearing for House Bill 1020. “And then in our textbook, there was one tiny, quick fact about a Massachusetts classroom that petitioned for the ladybug to be their state insect.”

Inspiration struck.

“I saw those wheels start turning,” Cole said of her students, “and I ran with it.”

Partially in honor of Cole’s dino-decorated classroom, the students decided to petition lawmakers to name Suciasaurus rex as Washington’s state dinosaur.

In 2012, paleontologists with the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle accidentally unearthed a 17-inch femur bone at Sucia Island State Park in the San Juan Islands. Scientists couldn’t determine exactly which dinosaur the left leg bone belonged to; however, they believed it likely was a theropod dinosaur, a type of carnivorous dino that includes the Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor.

Even though scientists couldn’t attach the femur to a specific type of dinosaur, they nicknamed the discovery Suciasaurus rex after the island on which scientists found it. As of now, Suciasaurus rex remains the first and only dinosaur discovered in Washington state.

This dinosaur likely roamed the earth 80 million years ago, which is at least 12 million years before the T. rex arrived, said Jason Zolle, staff counsel for the Office of Program Research for the state House of Representatives.

To picture the S. rex, imagine a T. rex but about half the size, he said during a staff report at the committee hearing.

At the hearing, several students from a sixth-grade civics class at Blaine Middle School testified in support of naming a state dino. One major reason: no other dinosaur has been discovered in Washington.

“I think the Suciasaurus rex should be the Washington state dinosaur because it’s the only dinosaur found in Washington state,” six-grader Meeka Franks said during her public comments. “For me, it would be cool to have a state dinosaur. They’re huge and amazing creatures.”

According to the bill, there is a reason scientists haven’t discovered other dinosaurs in Washington. The state is near an active tectonic plate.

While the exact origins of the fossil remain controversial, some scientists believe Suciasaurus rex might have lived between Baja California in Mexico and Northern California. The dinosaur femur was fossilized in a rock formation called the Cedar District Formation. Part of that land mass likely broke off during the late Cretaceous period, at least 60 billion years ago, and migrated to the area where the San Juan Islands are now.

While some people might scoff at what they think is a silly bill, it actually has great significance, said bill sponsor Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland.

“Our youth are engaging with our state Legislature,” Morgan said at the hearing. “This is our form of recognition and appreciation for the hard work, preparation, creativity, and the drive of these students.”

Naming a state dinosaur would amplify the student’s voices, she said.

Twelve other states and the District of Columbia have named official dinosaurs. Washington already has a state fossil, the Columbian mammoth, and a state bird, the willow goldfinch, also known as the American goldfinch. Birds also belong to the same group of theropod dinosaurs, Zolle said.

Cole said her original fourth grade students still reach out to her, asking about the fate of the state dinosaur bill.

At the hearing, Athena Tauscher, now in eighth grade, said she was one of those original students.

“Why I want it to pass is because allowing it to pass would help students all over Washington understand that if you put your mind to it, then you can actually do it,” Athena said, of getting the state Legislature to approve the dino designation.

Courtney Flatt is a Richland-based multi-media correspondent for Northwest Public Broadcasting and the Northwest News Network focusing on environmental, natural resources and energy issues in the Northwest.