Plight of the Pleurocoeleusby
don't usually think of dinosaurs when we think of Texas.
We might think about the state's officially designated large mammal, the Longhorn,
or the state small mammal, the armadillo. We know that the state bird is the mockingbird,
the state tree is the pecan and the horned lizard (or horny toad, as most of us
call it) is the state reptile. Rock hounds might even know that the state stone
is petrified palm wood. Seldom is heard a word, discouraging or otherwise, about
the state dinosaur, the Pleurocoeleus.
Whether or not Texas actually
needs a state dinosaur is open to debate, but the Pleurocoeleus (Brachiosaur sauropod)
was so designated by the state legislature 1997. It’s our dinosaur, by golly,
and we're Texans so we're going to be proud of it, even if it wasn't what you
might call ferocious. You might think that Texas
would have adopted a carnivore, but our dinosaur was a strict vegetarian. At least
it was big — about 50 feet long and it weighed in at about 20 tons. Paleontologists
tell us that despite its size, our dinosaur was decidedly mild-mannered. Fight
or flight? The Pleurocoeleus probably didn’t have to give the matter a lot of
We can watch and listen to mockingbirds, pick pecans and we
know a Longhorn cow when he see one and an armadillo, which we can't always avoid
when they try to cross the road. The Pleurocoeleus hasn't been seen in these parts
for, oh, about 65 million years, give or take a few million years either way.
But we have proof that they lived here.
at the appropriately named Dinosaur
Valley State Park, on the banks of the Paluxy River and in the riverbed itself,
are some remarkably well preserved Pleurocoeleus tracks. These are some of the
best dinosaur tracks in the world, which is why paleontologists love the park
and have ever since Roland T. Bird of the American Museum of Natural History visited
the site in 1938. Bird realized that a set of double tracks showed a herbivorous
sauropod —most likely our boy, the Pleurocoeleus — being chased by a meat-eating
This was the first time sauropod tracks had been discovered
anywhere in the world, which caused no small amount of excitement back in New
York. The Glen
Rose tracks were duly sent to New York and displayed at the American Museum
of Natural History. The Pleurocoeleus obviously couldn't get away from the site
fast enough on that particular day, but since then its tracks have been scattered
hither and yon, to the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin
and, unfortunately, into the private residences of many amateurs, or vandals,
depending on how you look at these things.
The dinocaur tracks are a
major wonder but it’s a small wonder that any tracks are left here at all. People
complain that all the “good” tracks have been removed from the Paluxy River valley.
A woman in Glen
Rose told me that a lot of area families have a quarried dinosaur track or
two in their homes. “You usually see them on people’s living room wall,” she said.
It took a special set of circumstances to preserve the tracks for all these
millions of years. Scientists believe that a violent storm blew across the shoreline
a few days before the tracks were made and created a series of sand and lime-laden
mudflats. A herd of Pleurocoeleus came ambling across the sticky and still-wet
mud in search of a primordal salad, followed in interested pursuit by the carnosaurs
looking for some fresh sauropods; the Pleurocoeleus qualified.
to their pacifistic nature, the Pleurocoeleus tried to run away but we don't know
if they won that particular footrace or not. No intact skeleton remains were ever
found, just huge saucer-like depressions from their hind feet and smaller tracks,
much like horseshoes, from their front legs.
The primal, existential
struggle for food and survival was preserved in stone when the seashore turned
to stone, leaving behind the rocks we see in the park today, including the ones
with the dinosaur prints.
in Texas have never collected dinosaur fossils like
we have collected, say, arrowheads, but the state has had its fair share of fossilized
dinosaur discoveries over the years due to a quirk of ancient geography dating
back to when much of what is now Texas was covered
any an ancient sea.
As the sea level rose, the land was covered with
ocean silt. Sediments on the bottom of the ocean preserved things that lived in
the ocean. At lower sea levels, things that lived on land were preserved in sediments
left in streams and rivers, like the Paluxy.
As a result, dinosaur discoveries
in Texas have included both the marine and terrestrial,
along with the ones that flew over land and sea. While having a state dinosaur
might seem like a trivial thing — it is — and maybe even a waste of legislative
time, it’s not a bad idea to take official note of ancient Texas.
As Texans, we have always prided ourselves on our connection to the
wild, whether it’s wild Comanches or wild animals or wild land. And wildness is
wildness, whether it’s slinking across your pasture tonight or it lived millions
of years ago and you’re literally walking in its footsteps.
© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
March 17 ,
Dinosaur Valley State Park
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