Is a 17-inch fossil enough to inspire Washington's state dinosaur?

Suciasaurus rex is on the legislative docket again — but experts are wondering about the true origins of the partial femur found on Sucia Island.

two men comparing the size of dinosaur bones.

Dr. Christian Sidor, The Burke Museum's curator of vertebrate paleontology, and Brandon Peecook, a former UW graduate student who's now the Curator of Paleontology at Idaho State University, show the size and placement of the fossil fragment compared to the cast of a Daspletosaurus femur in 2015. (Courtesy of the Burke Museum)

Mystery and questions surround the effort to name Suciasaurus rex the state dinosaur.

Even though the verdant hills of the Pacific Northwest appear perfect for a prehistoric beast, paleontologists have never found a full set of dinosaur bones in Washington. What they have found is a chunk of a 17-inch femur on Sucia Island in 2012. In a rock deposited from the ocean, not land, the fossil is an outlier, an irregularity for the region.

In 2019, these mysteries drove a fourth-grade class at Elmhurst Elementary School in Tacoma to reach out to Rep. Melanie Morgan, D-Parkland, about the potential of a state dinosaur. Now, on the legislative docket for the fifth year in a row, Suciasaurus rex is once again being proposed as Washington’s state dinosaur in House Bill 1020.

“Today, they are in eighth grade, still very much involved trying to get the bill passed,” Morgan said. “When they approached me in 2019, our session was already completed. But I had dropped the bill anyway because they had done their due diligence in doing their research. They went the extra mile, they contacted their state legislator.”

Researchers from the Burke Museum at the University of Washington found the dinosaur bone. It is still unclear if Suciasaurus rex is a unique species, with “Suciasaurus” serving as a placeholder name. So far it is the only dinosaur fossil discovered in Washington. 

“They’re rocks that were deposited in a marine setting 80 million years ago,” said Dr. Katherine Anderson, vertebrate paleontology collections manager at the Burke Museum. “Through tectonic activity, they migrated north and ended up at [what is now] Sucia Island.” 

It took nearly a year to remove the extremely hard rock the fossil was embedded in and glue it back together. (Courtesy of the Burke Museum)

“The question of, ‘How do we have a dinosaur, which is a land animal, in a marine rock?’ is interesting. It's a known thing with dinosaurs and other modern creatures called a ‘bloat and float.’ So when an animal dies, they bloat up, and then they can get carried out into the ocean, where they're eventually deposited.”

Morgan emphasized the educational benefits, and the potential to inspire further civic engagement, of House Bill 1020, which passed the House on Feb. 20 and has been referred to the Senate Committee on State Government & Elections.

While the Suciasaurus fossil itself, discovered at Sucia Park, is stored at the Burke Museum, the State Parks and Recreation Commission created a cast of the fossil, which has provided learning opportunities for curious students. 

“Right before schools were shut down in 2020 with the pandemic, we went and took that cast to Amy Cole’s class at Elmhurst Elementary,” said Lisa Lantz, stewardship manager at the Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission. “This was a year after that original proposal, and [they had] the opportunity to learn a little bit more about that.”

Rep. Morgan also believes that the bill’s origins – an elementary school classroom – could be monumental in pushing more Washington youth to contact their legislators about topics that matter to them. 

“This is engagement by youth, where we know that youth will be the next wave of our voters,” Morgan said. “And so it’s extremely important that they understand their state Legislature, not just about what they see in movies, or [what] they hear on TV or read in the newspaper, but actually having that firsthand experience of meeting your state representative, proposing a bill, testifying on that bill.”

Some could argue that because the fossil is a mere remnant of a thigh, it may not merit the honor of becoming a full-fledged state dinosaur. However, Anderson agrees that community engagement opportunities, both educational and governmental, would make the bill worthwhile. 

“What's unique about this specimen is that it captures a paleontological story about this dinosaur, but it also captures a really interesting aspect of the geology of the state of Washington,” Anderson said.

Amy Cole, whose class brought the bill to Rep. Morgan, said during a hearing that those students have stayed in touch with her about the proposal. “I get emails from former students all the time about the dinosaur bill. … Even though they’re … entering high school, they are still engaged in this process.”

Past versions of the bill stalled in the Senate in 2020 and 2022. Regardless, Morgan is hopeful about the bill’s chances this year. If House Bill 1020 passes, Washington will become the 16th state with an official dinosaur. “This is the only bill that I see that has had that amount of engagement from our youth in terms of a state something out of their research that they proposed,” Morgan said. “Hopefully it will be a state dinosaur in April, and signed by the governor in May.”

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About the Authors & Contributors

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Joshua Lee

Joshua Lee is a Seattle freelance writer, who is also a contributor to the Crosscut bill tracker.