A bone to pick for Missouri

Thursday, February 19, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In recent years, Missouri lawmakers have established an official state grass, grape and horse. On Wednesday, they took the first step toward designating an official state dinosaur.

When 7-year-old Keir McIntosh of Jefferson City learned legislation had been filed to make the hadrosaur the official state dinosaur of Missouri, his first question was: Which one?

It turns out, unbeknownst to the sponsor of the bill, House Speaker Pro Tem Rod Jetton, there are numerous varieties of the hadrosaur, which was a plant-eating animal with a duck-like bill and approximately 1,000 small teeth.

Testifying before the House Conservation and Natural Resources Committee on Wednesday, McIntosh suggested Jetton, R-Marble Hill, get more specific with his bill and pick parasaurolophus as the official state dinosaur.

"Missouri should have a distinct dinosaur because kids would think it was neat," said McIntosh, who read a book about dinosaurs while waiting his turn to testify before lawmakers.

In the end, the committee went with Hypsibema missouriensis as its choice. The panel voted 18-0 with two abstentions to send the bill to the full House.

To St. Louis paleontologist Guy Darrough, who also testified before lawmakers Wednesday, the choice makes perfect sense. Hypsibema missouriensis is unique to Missouri, Darrough said.

Hypsibema missouriensis dates to the late Cretaceous period, which some scientists place about 67 million years ago. Darrough said the quadruped would have been about 35 feet long from nose to tail, 10 feet tall at its back and weighed about as much as an elephant.

Only Bollinger County

The discovery of Hypsibema missouriensis in Bollinger County -- the only known site in Missouri containing dinosaur bones -- was a case of pure serendipity.

In 1942, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey just happened to be walking down a ravine in rural Bollinger County when he came across some folks digging a well, as Darrough tells the story.

The geologist noticed fossils among the dig debris that he immediately recognized as dinosaur remains. He reported the find to the Smithsonian Institution, which agreed to purchase the bones from the woman who owned the farm near Glenallen where the discovery was made.

"They made a deal where the bones would go to the Smithsonian and she would get a check for $50 so she could buy a cow," Darrough said.

The 13 vertebrate that formed a dinosaur's tail were briefly studied, but the species to which they belonged was misidentified. The bones then went virtually ignored for several decades.

Paleontologists returned to the site about 15 years ago, and it has since been subject to ongoing excavation.

And the type of dinosaur initially discovered is now known to be a member of the hadrosaur family.

Because of the soft sediment found in Missouri, dinosaur remains have long since eroded away in most areas of the state, Darrough said. That the Glenallen site has been preserved is "pretty much a miracle," he said.

Tourism diamonds

Many of the fossils discovered at the site are on display at the Bollinger County Museum of Natural History.

Museum president Eva Dunn said a wealth of tourists from all over the country are drawn to the museum to see the dinosaurs.

"Every bone they take out of that dig is like diamonds to our state," Dunn said.

Establishing an official state dinosaur would raise awareness of the find and increase tourism for Bollinger County and Missouri, Dunn said.

The site has yielded more than hadrosaurs, including teeth of more famous dinosaurs such as Tyrannosaurus rex. Fossilized vegetation and the remains of prehistoric fish, crocodiles and other animals have also been uncovered.

"Every time we dig, we find something nobody has ever seen or discovered before," Darrough said. "We hope to eventually discover an entire skeleton."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

mpowers@semissourian.com

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