A cast of a fossil (bottom) of a femur belonging to a theropod dinosaur, nicknamed Suciasaurus rex, is shown of a complete theropod femur fossil. The bone fragment measures 42 centimeters long and 22 centimeters wide. (Burke Museum)

A cast of a fossil (bottom) of a femur belonging to a theropod dinosaur, nicknamed Suciasaurus rex, is shown of a complete theropod femur fossil. The bone fragment measures 42 centimeters long and 22 centimeters wide. (Burke Museum)

Editorial: Naming a state dinosaur worth state lawmakers’ time

Kids are learning about dinosaurs and about how government works and sometimes requires persistence.

By The Herald Editorial Board

Suciasaurus rex has a leg up — OK, a femur — on other dinosaurs that might have fought tooth and claw to be named the Washington state dinosaur; there simply are no other dinosaur fossils known that could challenge S. rex for the honor.

But that doesn’t mean that the theropod — believed to be an ancestor of its better known and far younger cousin, Tyrannosaurus rex — hasn’t heard opposition to the proposal, first made two years ago by an elementary school class in Parkland near Tacoma.

Let’s dig down into S. rex’s history a bit: Researchers with the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture in Seattle discovered a fossilized chunk of a dinosaur femur on Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands in 2012. In all, it’s about 17 inches by 8 and a half inches, of what would have been a 4-foot long femur for the two-legged dinosaur from the Cretaceous period.

And that’s about all that has been discovered thus far. Still the discovery allowed researchers to identify it as an 80-million-year-old predator. The relatively small portion of fossil means that scientists can’t determine its genus and species, so Suciasaurus rex remains a nickname rather than an official dinosaur name.

S. rex is an immigrant of sorts, which explains why it was found on Sucia Island, researchers, including Christian Sidor, a University of Washington professor and Burke Museum staffer recently told a state House committee considering the state dinosaur proposal. Plate tectonics moved what became Sucia Island up the West Coast from somewhere between Baja California and Northern California to its present location some tens of millions of year ago.

Fossilized dinosaur bones are hard to come by in Washington state because of the state’s active geology, development and — in the case of Eastern Washington, which might have been prime dinosaur-hunting grounds — the Missoula floods at the end of the last ice age some 15,000 years ago, which scoured much of Eastern Washington.

Fast-forward 15,000 years to 2019 and Elmhurst Elementary School in Parkland, where Amy Cole’s fourth-grade class, studying the workings of state government, heard about another group of students who had proposed a state insect to lawmakers in Olympia. Students at Crestwood Elementary School in Kent in 1997 were successful in their campaign to see the green darner dragonfly named as the state insect, joining other such state symbols including the orca whale as state marine mammal, steelhead trout as state fish and Columbian mammoth as state fossil.

Knowing their teacher’s fondness for dinosaurs, the students proposed finding a state dinosaur and through research learned of the Sucia Island discovery. Students got some of their first lessons in the workings in government when their proposed legislation during the 2019 legislative session went nowhere, but then passed the House 91-7 in 2020, only to go without a hearing and without further action before the state Senate last year.

Cole’s former students, now sixth graders, have brought the legislation back courtesy of sponsor, Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Tacoma, with two of the students testifying earlier last month before the House committee on state government and tribal relations, which later voted its approval.

Dinosaurs ruled the world for millions of years, but they might not be a match for anthropocene-era politics.

S. rex’s naming to the state symbols list faces opposition from House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, who told KING-TV news recently that there are other pieces of legislation that should be getting priority over the dinosaur bill. Prior to this year’s session, legislative leaders had asked lawmakers to limit the number of bills they proposed this year because of the constraints on time forced by pandemic restrictions and the shift to online hearings and legislative sessions.

“I can think of an awful lot of bills getting hearings, including the state dinosaur and gun bills there were not part of that list,” Wilcox told the TV station.

Morgan defended her decision to bring the bill back before lawmakers, even during a session crunched for time.

“Too many people out there think government is inaccessible to them and that is an example of an inequitable system. I’m bringing this bill forward on behalf of those young, passionate students, amplifying their voices, because that’s the job of a state legislator,” she said.

Yes, there are many needs demanding the attention of lawmakers — including provision of funding to school districts to help students catch up after the effects of covid restrictions on learning — but the time and effort invested in House Bill 1067 has been minimal. The House government committee spent all of 20 minutes taking testimony on the bill, hardly a brachiosaurus-sized demand on lawmakers’ time.

And there is value in students learning — not only about dinosaurs — but in how government works and how even good ideas sometimes demand repeated efforts to win passage.

Jaylynn Diaz, who was part of the Elmhurst fourth-grade class two years ago, told the committee that she was impressed with just how much scientists could learn from a fossil “when there aren’t many dinosaur bones in our great state.”

That there is much more to learn about Suciasaurus rex — perhaps by future paleontologists now in the state’s public schools — makes the San Juan Islands fossil a fitting choice for state dinosaur.

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