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Our land before time


Graphic recreation of the Podokesaurus holyokensi

Artistic recreation of the Podokesaurus holyokensis based on figures in original description and skeletal diagrams of the related Coelophysis, such as in the 2016 book The Princeton Field Guide to Dinosaurs by Gregory S. Paul

As of Monday, May 2, 2022, Massachusetts has an official state dinosaur: Podokesaurus holyokensis. Discovered by Mignon Talbot in 1910 near Mount Holyoke College, this mid-Jurassic, bipedal, hollow-boned dinosaur has made significant contributions to the anatomical study and classifications of theropods.

P. holyokensis fast facts:
•    Timeline: 180–195 million years ago
•    Length: 3–6 feet 
•    Weight: 90 pounds
•    Speed: 9–12 miles per hour 
•    Diet: Carnivore

To this day, paleontologists have only found one fossilized P. holyokensis skeleton, and all of the P. holyokensis fossils you see today are actually casts. The original specimen was unfortunately destroyed in a fire in the Mount Holyoke College library back in 1917. It’s a good thing Talbot was a forward thinker and made the cast when she did, or the articulation of this dinosaur’s bones may have been lost to history forever.

The campaign to establish a state dinosaur was started by State Representative Jack Lewis, who reached out to local paleontologists and biologists for their opinions on the best candidates. UMass Amherst Professor Emerita Margery Coombs was among those asked for their expert opinions, and she is pleased with the outcome. I sat down with Coombs to hear more about P. holyokensis, local paleontological research, and what makes this area unique in the field. 

What was the process for choosing the new state dinosaur?

Rep. Jack Lewis polled local paleontologists, including me, and we came up with two possible candidates, Podokesaurus holyokensis and Anchisaurus polyzelus. He then had a big vote online that everyone could participate in and to get kids interested—that’s all been a lot of fun, and educational too. Each candidate had certain advantages and, of course, some disadvantages, but Podokesaurus won, and I personally think it was the better of the two choices.

Students measuring the distance between dinosaur tracks

Students of Professor Emerita Margery Coombs measuring the distance between dinosaur footprints at a local dinosaur trackway

What makes this region notable for paleontological research?

The preserved tracks in the area offer much to study. Steven Gatesy from Brown spent his sabbatical here researching how tracks form, and Paul Olsen from Columbia has been a frequent visitor. I should mention that some of the trackways are not made by dinosaurs but are insect trails and things like that. Several former students of mine did their undergraduate research projects on tracks, and a few (most notably Patrick Getty ’04, ’07MS) continued this work in their later careers. [Editor’s note: The late Patrick Getty used the trackways to theorize  about not only the movements and behaviors of prehistoric animals but also their abundancy.]

Where can people find local tracks or fossils?

In this area, the main fossils we find are tracks. Actual fossilized bones are rare in Massachusetts. The best place for people to see tracks locally is the area off of Route 5 in Holyoke. It belongs to the Trustees of Reservations, so it is open to the public. When I was teaching my vertebrate paleontology course, we would take a field trip there to collect data on the trackways, then use formulas to see how fast the dinosaurs might have been moving. There is also Dinoland in South Hadley, owned by the Nash family.

Dinosaur enthusiasts can also find remnants of the prehistoric life in the Pioneer Valley at the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. UMass Amherst also houses the Osborn Fossil Collection, which displays fossilized plants, land animals, and a 200-million-year-old dinosaur footprint. And, of course, a visit to the Springfield Science Museum’s Dinosaur Hall will provide information about prehistoric life from around the world.  

The collaboration of biologists and paleontologists from the Five Colleges has made western Massachusetts a perhaps surprising hub for ancient discovery, and researchers continue to add new information and perspectives to our understanding of these creatures—and the landscape—through local digs. If you’re in the area, why not take a dino-inspired drive and explore these hidden gems for yourself.