The Weird Stories Behind America’s Official State Fossils – The Atlantic

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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.)

The Weird Stories Behind America’s Official State Fossils – The Atlantic