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8 Official State Dinosaurs

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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


Wikimedia Commons

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


Wikimedia Commons

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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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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