Massachusetts Chooses an Official State Dinosaur
State Representative Jack P. Lewis, in partnership with the Boston Museum of Science and other members of the scientific community, announced at a virtual press conference on Feb. 4 that the dinosaur Podokesaurus holyokensis — also known as the swift-footed lizard of Holyoke — will be proposed to lawmakers as the official Massachusetts state dinosaur. Representative Lewis’s drive to establish a state dinosaur had gained massive support from educators, scientists, and citizens alike after Lewis announced the idea over Twitter.
For Representative Lewis, a primary goal of the state dinosaur project was to improve civic engagement and STEM education for Massachusetts citizens of all ages. Lewis said, “I was looking for an in, a bill that would allow me to have accessible conversations about the legislative process with both four-year-olds and 14-year-olds, in addition to 40-year-olds.” Lewis said that he hopes to educate citizens on the legislative process through this light-hearted bill. “Voting for which dinosaur you like is sort of like voting for which of the candidates on the ballot you want.”
Lewis spoke of his surprise and excitement over the widespread support for the project. “Paleontologists and people who worked in natural history museums, scientists, were all eager to explore what this project could mean for their own field of study,” Lewis said, “including everything from women in science and women in STEM, to better investments and support for STEM fields, to better understanding, prehistoric Massachusetts and the change of culture over time.”
Massachusetts citizens voted on two dinosaurs: Podokesaurus holyokensis and Anchisaurus polyzelus, which were described by Professor of Geology at Mount Holyoke College Mark McMenamin and Amherst College's Alfred Venne who works at the Beneski Museum. The two dinosaurs were the top — and only — picks for state dinosaur because, as Professor McMenamin said, “[they’re] the only game in town! There’s only two dinosaur skeletons that are known from the Hartford basin.” The winning dinosaur, Podokesaurus holyokensis, was around 3-6 ft long and 90 lbs, and could run roughly 9-12 mph.
Professor McMenamin went on to describe the winning dinosaur’s history, explaining that Podokesaurus holyokensis was discovered near Mount Holyoke, MA, and was significant as the first non-bird dinosaur to be named and described by a woman: Mignon Talbot. Talbot was a paleontologist and professor of geology from Holyoke College. Talbot’s discovery “was an incredible coup,” McMenamin said, “For a woman geoscientist to be publishing, in the American Journal of Science, a Yale University periodical in 1911—that was unheard of… It sort of shattered the glass ceiling for dinosaur science.”
Professor McMenamin is also looking forward to educating others on paleontology in Massachusetts, saying that having a state dinosaur is “exciting for science education, because it emphasizes that the remains of these creatures are right below our feet.” McMenamin hopes that this renewed excitement about paleontology will prompt the discovery of more dinosaur fossils in Massachusetts, saying, “I'm certain that there are many more dinosaurs to be discovered here in Massachusetts, particularly the Hartford basin… So I want people to have their eyes open. There's much more to be found and described here.”
Professor McMenamin isn’t the only person excited about the prospect of a state dinosaur with such a rich and inspiring history. The educator Nancy Stenberg showed the event to her students via virtual classroom and encouraged her students to vote on the state dinosaur. Stenberg used the dinosaur poll as a way to educate her students about science and the history of Massachusetts: “dinosaurs are something that the kids study in elementary school, and they also study the state… It fits in in so many different ways.” Stenberg also can’t wait to teach her students about Mignon Talbot, saying, “it's going to make a great follow-up lesson in March, for Women's History Month, because she's quite something!”
The MA state dinosaur facebook page and Museum of Science will continue posting updates about the progression of the state dinosaur bills (numbered HD 1392 and SD 698).