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Clay Coppedge
Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

What we know about
the state dinosaur

by Clay Coppedge

We don't know everything there is to know about the dinosaurs that once roamed in what we now know as Texas, a place we wouldn't recognize if we went back in time 65 million years ago to when much of the state was part of a shallow sea.

That scientists can figure out anything about something that lived that long ago is remarkable, and we shouldn't hold it against them if they get a couple of things wrong along the way. One of the things some good paleontologists got wrong is the identity of the Texas state dinosaur.

This goes back to 1938, when Roland T. Bird of the American Museum of Natural History visited the Paluxy River near Glen Rose and identified a set of double tracks showing a meat-eating carnosaur chasing an herbivorous sauropod.

We don't know if the sauropod escaped the carnosaur because no one has ever found any skeletal remains, but the intended victim left behind huge saucer-like depressions with its hind feet and smaller tracks, much like horseshoes, with the front legs. These were the first sauropod tracks that anybody in the world had ever identified. It was a big deal. Dinosaur Valley State Park near Glen Rose, where tracks are still visible in the Paluxy River bed, takes its name from these ancient adversaries.

Glen Rose, TX - Dinosaur Valley State Park -  Dinosaur Tracks
Dinosaur Tracks on the Banks of the Paluxy River
Photo courtesy William Beauchamp, July 2009

We also don't know for sure how the tracks have been preserved for all these millions of years. One theory is that a violent storm blew across the shoreline a few days before the dinosaurs left their footprints on the land, creating a series of lime-laden mudflats. The shore turned to stone, leaving behind the rocks we see in the park today, including the ones with the dinosaur prints. Maybe it happened just that way. We don't know for sure.

The American Museum of Natural History put some of the tracks on view, and the Texas Memorial Museum on the University of Texas campus displayed some others. Paleontologists initially identified the tracks as belonging to an herbivorous dino name Pleurocoeleus, a mild-mannered vegetarian giant about 50 feet long and tipping the scales at 20 tons, give or take a ton or two. In 1997, the state legislature passed a resolution designating Pleurocoeleus as the state dinosaur.

One thing we do know - now - is that the dinosaurs running away from the sauropod weren't Pleurocoeleus. Nope. The former state dinosaur of Texas was actually a resident of Maryland and never made it to Texas.

The changing of the guard in the Texas dinosaur hierarchy started in 2007, when Peter Rose, then at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, disputed the long-held identity of the Paluxy River sauropod. Rose took a close look at sauropod bones at the Jones Ranch near Glen Rose and determined that the bones he found there didn't match the Pleurocoeleus bones first found in Maryland in the late 1800s.

Rose surmised that the bones belonged to a completely new genus and species, and he renamed the Paluxy River sauropods Paluxysaurus jonesi in honor of the river and the Jones Ranch. He saw the original identification as an honest mistake.

"At the time sauropod tracks and bones were first discovered in Texas, only Pleurocoeleus was known from North America for this particular time period," Rose told LiveScience in 2009. "In 1974, Wann Langston, Jr. described some sauropod fossils from Central Texas that he determined to be similar enough to those from Maryland that he referred them to genus Pleurocoeleus."

In January of 2009, State Rep. Charles Geren (R-Fort Worth), acting on behalf of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, introduced a resolution to name the Paluxysaurus the new state dinosaur. Representatives Mike Hamilton and Mark Homer showed up in dinosaur suits to make some kind of point, though Hamilton compromised the cause by mixing up the words "extinct" and "instinct."

Representative Dan Gattis opposed the bill and cited international fourth-grade spelling bee and grammar rules, claiming "the author can't even spell or pronounce all the words in his resolution." The resolution passed by a vote of 132-1, and Texas ended up with a new state dinosaur.

That much we know.

Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" July 1, 2018column

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    113 million year old dinosaur tracks
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