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Wikimedia Commons

8 Official State Dinosaurs

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

Most states have a collection of symbols their citizens have chosen to represent their collective identity: flags, flowers, and birds are popular categories of these. A few states have gone the extra mile and claimed a bit of prehistory as their own, naming official state fossils. However, these eight states have distinctly designated official state dinosaurs, honoring the living, breathing, occasionally flesh-ravaging creatures that once roamed their land.

1. Colorado: Stegosaurus armatus


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This plant-eating “armored roof lizard” was a massive collection of physical awkwardness. With its long tail and short legs, the stegosaurus struggled to coordinate the movements of its own body. Its head was also disproportionately small, with a brain the size of a dog’s to match—possibly the smallest of all dinosaurs known to date. At least it had those massive spikes to compensate.

2. Maryland: Astrodon johnstoni


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Another herbivore like Colorado’s stegosaurus, Maryland’s state dinosaur may be the only species discovered by a chemist and named by a dentist. While in the field researching for Maryland’s first geologic map, Philip Tyson, noted by his formal title as the State Agricultural Chemist, found two unusual tooth fossils in the clay of Prince George’s County. He turned them over to local dentist Christopher Johnston for futher investigation, and the doctor promptly cross-sectioned one to find a star pattern within, hence the dinosaur’s name: “star-tooth.”

3. Missouri: Hypsibema missouriensis


Wikimedia Commons; exhibit from the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History

The Hypsibema missouriensis, as its name suggests, is one of a kind—fossils discovered in 1942 at the Chronister Dinosaur Site were the first dinosaur remains found in the state of Missouri, and although others followed, none matched those of the original Hypsibema. It has since been classified as a hadrosaur, a “duck-billed dinosaur.” The Smithsonian Museum bought the dinosaur’s thirteen vertebrae from the landowner, who dug them up in the process of installing a cistern, for $50; she used the money to buy a cow.

4. New Jersey: Hadrosaurus foulkii


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In 1858, visiting fossil hobbyist William Parker Foulke and paleontologist Joseph Leidy unearthed the first nearly-complete dinosaur skeleton in Haddonfield, New Jersey. In 1868, visitors were invited to view the bones on display at the Academy of Sciences in Philadelphia, granting the remains the secondary distinction of being the first dinosaur skeleton mounted for public exhibition (above). The display was so popular, drawing in more than three times the museum’s usual crowd within the first few years alone, that the institution relocated to a larger facility. In 1879, Foulke’s namesake duck-billed dinosaur went international: Edinburgh’s Royal Scottish Museum acquired a copy of the skeleton, which became Europe’s first dinosaur exhibit. Today, visitors from all over the world can learn about the Hadrosaurus simply by visiting its website.

5. Oklahoma: Acrocanthosaurus atokensis


Flickr user cryptonaut; from the permanent collection of the North Carolina Museum of Sciences

Oklahoma’s state dinosaur is new on the scene, only obtaining official state adoption in June 2006—though its existence dates to the Early Cretaceous period. A. atokensis is the only named species within its genus, its scientific designation paying homage to Atoka County, where its fossil specimens were discovered. “Acrocanthosaurus” translates to “high-spined lizard,” noting the distinctive neural spines projecting from the dinosaur’s vertebrae, but its claws were the feature to fear: measuring up to six inches long, they were designed to grip its prey and tear flesh from bone. Yikes.

6. Texas: Paluxysaurus jonesi


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The Lone Star State’s official dinosaur has gone through quite the identity crisis in recent years. In 1997, Governor George W. Bush signed Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 57, which cited evidence of tracks and bones found primarily within modern state lines to declare the Pleurocoelus species “indigenous to Texas” and one of the family. The Bush dinosaur legacy was aborted no more than seven years later, when graduate student Peter Rose identified the so-called “Pleurocoelus” fossils as an entirely new species, Paluxysaurus jonesi, named for the town and ranch where the bones were originally discovered. Governor Rick Perry signed House Concurrent Resolution No. 16 to make the change official in 2009.

Paluxysaurus jonesi is a member of genus Sauroposeidon, or “earthquake god lizard.” With its neck extended, it could reach up to 56 feet tall, making it the tallest known dinosaur, and one of the heaviest as well, at approximately 56 tons—the equivalent of about 25,000 Big Texan steaks.

7. Washington, D.C.: Capitalsaurus


Tim Krepp

Okay, D.C. isn’t a state, and Capitalsaurus is just a nickname for its official dinosaur, but we’ll make an exception out of respect to the scientists who spent so long struggling to name the bone fragments unearthed by construction workers at the intersection of First and F Streets SE. The fossils were identified straightaway as some kind of theropod, or “beast-footed,” dinosaur; however, a more specific classification proved difficult. In 1990, after almost a century of various researchers’ attempts to establish the dinosaur’s genus and scientific name, paleontologist Peter Kranz unofficially referred to the remains in a news article as those of the “Capitalsaurus”—and it stuck, albeit off the scientific record. The District of Columbia now commemorates every January 28th as “Capitalsaurus Day.”

8. Wyoming: Triceratops


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A year after the release of the film adaptation of Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, Wyoming claimed the “three-horned face” as one of its own. A 1994 statute declared, “A state dinosaur shall be designated by election in accordance with the law. The results of the election naming the state dinosaur shall be filed with the secretary of state.” The “election” in question was a poll of elementary school children, who may have voted out of sympathy for Spielberg’s sick triceratops.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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16 Playful Facts About Otters
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These adorable aquatic mammals are clever, chatty, and oddly aromatic.

1. THERE ARE 13 SPECIES OF OTTERS, AND JUST ABOUT ALL OF THEM ARE DECREASING.

Only one otter species seems to be thriving, and that's the North American River Otter. The other 12 otter species were recently identified by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as having decreasing populations, and five otter species are already on the endangered list. Among the endangered are the sea otters along the California coast, which are threatened by "environmental pollutants and disease agents." Others, like the marine otters of South America, have had their numbers reduced because of poaching, as well as environmental concerns.

2. ZOROASTRIANS THOUGHT THE OTTERS TO BE NEARLY SACRED CREATURES.

This ancient monotheistic religion considered otters to be the dogs of the river or sea and had strict rules forbidding the killing of otters. It was thought that otters helped keep water purified by eating already dead creatures that might contaminate the water source if they were allowed rot. They would also hold ceremonies for otters found dead in the wild.

3. OTTERS HAVE VERY DISTINCTIVE POOP, AND THAT SCAT HAS ITS OWN NAME.

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Otters use their dung—known as spraint—to mark territory and communicate with other otters. The mammals like to keep things organized within their communities and will designate certain areas to be used as latrines. Spraint scents can vary, but often are (relatively) pleasant—one expert described them as not "dissimilar to jasmine tea." Spraint composition is unique to each otter, and the creatures can identify each other by the smells. Scientists suspect otters may even be able to determine the sex, age, and reproductive status of the spraint dropper just from a quick whiff. And since otters have superb metabolisms and must eat up to 15 percent of their body weight each day, there's a lot of spraint to go around.

4. OTTER MOMS ARE TOTALLY GAME FOR ADOPTION.

In 2001, a female otter at the Monterey Bay Aquarium gave birth to a stillborn pup on the same day a stranded pup was discovered in the wild nearby. The aquarium staff had previously tried raising pups themselves but found that hand-raised otters became too attached to humans to be released back into the wild. So instead, they dropped the pup in with the female otter, and she immediately went into mom mode. The aquarium has since devised a system of hand-rearing pups for the first 6-8 weeks—mostly for bottle feeding purposes—before handing the pups off to female otters for raising. At six months, the pups are released back into the wild with generally strong results.

5. THEY HAVE THE THICKEST FUR OF ANY MAMMAL IN THE ANIMAL KINGDOM.

Otters can have up to one million hairs per square inch. There are two layers of fur—an undercoat and then longer hairs that we can see. The layers manage to trap air next to the otter's skin, which keeps the otters dry and warm and also helps with buoyancy. Otter pups have so much air trapped in there, they actually can’t dive under water, even if they want to.

6. AN OTTER IS SOMETIMES ONLY AS GOOD AS HIS TOOLS.

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Otters love to eat shelled animals, like clams, but they aren't equipped with the strength to open their food without some help. Therefore, they are big on tools and will often use rocks to help crack into dinner. While they hunt for food underwater, they’ll often store a rock in the skin under their arms for later use.

7. OTTERS ARE POPULAR IN NATIVE AMERICAN CULTURE, BUT FOR VARYING REASONS.

Some tribes consider the otter to be a lucky animal and a symbol of "loyalty and honesty." But some, particularly in present-day Canada and Alaska, viewed the river otter "with awe and dread" and associated the creatures with the undead and drowning. They forbid eating the creatures and were offended when colonial Europeans began hunting the river otters and selling their furs.

8. GIANT OTTERS ARE SUPER CHATTY.

In 2014, a study of giant otters found that the river-dwellers have 22 distinct noises they make for different situations. On top of that, pups have 11 of their own calls that they intersperse with "infant babbling." Among the most notable calls: a "hum graduation" used to tell otters to change directions and a "Hah!" shout when a threat is nearby.

9. OTTERS AND HUMANS CAN COLLABORATE.

In Bangladesh, otters help fisherman maximize their haul. For centuries, fisherman have been training otters to act as herders and chase large schools of fish into the nets.

10. DRONES MAY HELP SCIENTISTS BETTER STUDY OTTERS IN THE WILD.

Keeping an eye on otters in the wild is a tricky task. In the past, observers have usually set up telescopes on shore to try and monitor otters at sea while on land. Otters won't act naturally with humans nearby, and using a telescope on a boat can get tricky in the rollicking ocean. But now, scientists are using unmanned drones with cameras to get an aerial look at otters in their element, making it easier to monitor the creatures as they dive for food and go about their day.

11. SEE A GROUP OF OTTERS? THAT'S A ROMP. OR A BEVY.

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Or a family or a raft. Otter groups go by a few different monikers, all of which are fairly unique to that crew. Generally, a group of otters on land will go by a romp, while a group hanging in the water is called a raft.

12. OTTERS ARE BIG ON PLAY TIME, AND MAKING SLIDES IS AMONG THEIR FAVORITE GAMES.

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Otter families are usually limited to pups and their mothers, and that duo will spend most of their time either feeding or sleeping. In the downtime, though, otters love to play and will often build themselves slides along the banks of rivers.

13. CALIFORNIA SEA OTTERS DIVIDE THEMSELVES IN DIET GUILDS.

Once thought to be gone from the area completely, southern sea otters—known as California sea otters—have been making a comeback in recent years. But with their numbers hovering around just a few thousand, researchers have kept a close eye on the population and their studies have revealed an interesting social structure. The otters, which need to consume 25 percent to 35 percent of their body weight every day in order to maintain their blubber stores and keep themselves warm in the cool waters, are divided into three "dietary guilds": Deep-diving otters that dine on abalone, urchins, and Dungeness crab; medium divers who subsist on clams, worms, and smaller shellfish; and those that stay in shallower waters, feeding on black snails.

14. THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO SET FOOT IN ALASKA WAS ALSO THE FIRST TO DESCRIBE SEA OTTERS.

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Georg Wilhelm Steller was the first to scientifically describe numerous new animals on the 1741 explorative voyage from Russia. Aboard the St. Peter, Steller and other 18th-century explorers crash-landed on mainland Alaska after getting separated from its sister ship. Steller was the first European to set foot on the icy land. Over the course of a rough Alaskan winter, he meticulously documented many species, and while some have since gone extinct (like a sea-cow he described that was hunted into extinction), the adorable otter was among his initial discoveries.

15. BABY OTTERS ARE BUOYANT, BUT THEY CAN'T SWIM ON THEIR OWN.

A mother will often wrap the babies in kelp to keep them in one place while she hunts. Or, she might rely on human resources and otter ingenuity to find a makeshift “playpen” for her pup.

16. THEIR BEHAVIOR ISN'T ALWAYS ADORABLE.

Like many animals, otters sometimes behave in ways that aren't exactly within the bounds of what humans would consider morally acceptable. Even if you find them otherwise adorable, otters' mating habits will no doubt make your stomach turn.

Male otters' mating techniques are violent. They bite their female partner's face during copulation to keep her from slipping away, leaving her with substantial facial wounds. It's not uncommon for female otters to die as a result of these aggressive encounters, either through drowning or from their wounds becoming infected. Male otters have also been known to violently copulate with other species—most notably, baby seals [PDF]. The behavior doesn't stop when the seals die from the trauma. Otters have been known to guard and have sex with the bodies of their victims for up to seven days after they've died.

Scientists hypothesize that these seemingly counterproductive mating habits might be the result of a population imbalance. In California's Monterey Bay, where scientists observed otters trying to copulate with the week-old bodies of dead baby seals, there are far more male otters than females. Facing a lack of female partners, male otters may be engaging in what researchers call "misdirected sexual activity." The area in the bay where the scientists observed the most otter-on-seal mating sessions was also where there was a high population of transient male otters, ones that, unlike more dominant males, don't have an established territory filled with potential mates. In the absence of females of their own kind, then, they turned their typical sexual responses toward the seals. Nature, unfortunately, isn't always pretty.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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