Our land before time
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.
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.