February is National Dinosaur Month, and I’m just as excited as any T-Rex loving 10-year-old. There’s something mysterious and magnificent about dinosaurs that fascinate the young and old alike. So I started wondering about our state’s fossil record. Wyoming’s official state dinosaur is a Triceratops. Humble Iowa gets the Tyrannosaurus Rex! Could Washington claim the mighty Dienonychus, with its razor sharp toe claws? Or delicate winged Archeopteryx?
But I was disappointed. The one and only dinosaur bone found in Washington is a slice of a femur, too small to even identify the species, although scientists know it was in the same order of hunting dinos like the T-Rex and Velocoraptor. What’s more, it, like many of us, is a transplant to Washington. The bone was found on Sucia Island, which at the time of the dinosaur’s life 80 million years ago, was probably off the coast of what is now California.
So where are all the Washington dinosaurs?
Well, when vertebrates first crawled onto land 350 million years ago, Washington’s coastline was near present-day Pullman, on the east edge of Washington. Over the next several hundred million years, as Pangaea broke up, the North American continent drifted westward while a small plate offshore drifted northward. The two plates often collided, and islands piles up on the shoreline. One of the most violent episodes caused the ocean floor to slide under the continent’s crust, lifting what is now western Washington out of the sea.
Such activity! Earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, floods, and fire so consumed our state during the dinosaur era that this measly little femur bone is their only trace so far. Even sea-dwelling dinos didn’t leave their bones behind. Imagine the 63-foot Shastasaurus, the largest marine reptile ever found. It lived in the Pacific, near our coastline, and died off 210 million years ago. Since then its bones would have likely been crushed by the dramatic upheavals, subductions, and volcanic eruptions that typified most of Washington’s existence. Then over the last 2 million years, advancing and retreating glaciers ground up everything in their path. And to top it off, a lake 2,000 feet deep in Montana periodically broke its glacial dam and flooded many of the western states. It’s a wonder any fossil record has survived!
It’s difficult to present such a long and convoluted history, but it’s important to teach children that the world changes. This understanding deepens our respect for Earth, and awakens us to the niche we fill. We evolved to live in this time, in this place. The dinosaurs had their own niche to fill, in their own times. A lonely femur lay on a low coastline for 80 million years as the tide ebbed in and out. If the seas were only a little higher, we may have never found Washington’s only dinosaur bone at all.
During the month of February KidsQuest will be displaying ArchLUG’s fantastic Dinotopia building project.
Contributed by Daniela Garvue