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This Fresno County dinosaur could be California’s next ‘rock’ star

Meet California's official state dinosaur. And it's from Fresno County

Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill to designate fossils found in Fresno County as the official state dinosaur. The fossils, discovered nearly 80 years ago, are now in a Los Angeles County museum.
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Gov. Jerry Brown has signed a bill to designate fossils found in Fresno County as the official state dinosaur. The fossils, discovered nearly 80 years ago, are now in a Los Angeles County museum.

A dinosaur whose fossilized remains were discovered nearly 80 years ago by scientists in western Fresno County after being hidden in rock for tens of millions of years is on the verge of literally becoming a “rock” star in California.

Only two specimens of the plant-eating, duck-billed Augustynolophus – it’s pronounced “AW-gus-TEEN-oh-low-fuss” – have ever been found, both in the Panoche Hills west of Interstate 5. Both sets of bones were dug out of layers of rock that once lay at the bottom of the ancient Pacific Ocean. Over millions of years, those layers were shoved to the surface by tectonic forces and folded into the hills that flank Interstate 5 along the west side of the San Joaquin Valley.

Chiappe field work
Paleontologist Luis Chiappe is the director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where the only two known specimens of the dinosaur Augustynolophus – discovered in Fresno County in 1939 and 1940 – are preserved. NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OF LOS ANGELES COUNTY Special to The Bee

Now, 66 million years after its death, Augustynolophus morrisi may become California’s official “state dinosaur” under a bill working its way through the state Legislature in Sacramento.

“This dinosaur is only known in California,” said paleontologist Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, where the two specimens are part of the collection. “That’s one of the reasons why we feel that if California wants to have a state dinosaur, this is your guy.”

Paleontologists say the designation of Augustynolophus as the state dinosaur will be important because of the rarity of finding land-dwelling dinosaurs in California, much of which was under water during the late Cretaceous period when big dinosaurs last roamed the earth. Students are likely to be more excited about science education in the Valley when they know that dinosaur remains can be found so close to home.

This dinosaur is only known in California. That’s one of the reasons why we feel that if California wants to have a state dinosaur, this is your guy.

Paleontologist Luis Chiappe, director of the Dinosaur Institute at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

“If you’re going to name a state dinosaur after a fossil from Fresno County – a dinosaur found locally – it’s going to get kids really excited, which is one of the things we wish to achieve,” said Robert Dundas, a paleontologist who teaches at Fresno State.

But in a part of California that often perceives itself as being bypassed in Sacramento by Bay Area and Southern California lawmakers, cynics may be excused for thinking that designating a state dinosaur is essentially throwing Fresno County a (fossilized) bone. The author of the legislation, however, doesn’t see it that way.

“I would say the people of Fresno County should be proud that they’re one of the only areas in which bones of this dinosaur have been found,” said Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, who authored Assembly Bill 1540. “Augustynolophus morrisi is going to do Fresno proud.”

Yes votes in the Assembly on AB 1540 to designate a state dinosaur included Juan Arambula, D-Fresno; Frank Bigelow, R-O’Neals; Devin Mathis, R-Visalia; Rudy Salas, D-Bakersfield; Adam Gray, D-Merced; Anna Caballero, D-Salinas (district includes San Benito County on the west side of the Panoche Hills). Not voting: Jim Patterson, R-Fresno.

AB 1540, introduced in the Assembly in mid-February, proposes to add Augustynolophus morrisi to a long list of official California “emblems” that include the state flower (the golden poppy), the state bird (the California Valley quail), and the state fish (the California golden trout). In an atmosphere in which bipartisan agreement can be difficult to find, Bloom’s bill passed the Assembly on a 57-0 vote in April (23 members didn’t bother voting). Now the bill is awaiting action in the state Senate.

“This is certainly not the most important issue that the Legislature will address this year,” Bloom told The Bee. “But when I introduced it on the Assembly floor, I said it was the most important dinosaur bill that the Assembly would address.”

The would-be state dinosaur has his own Twitter handle (@Augustynolophus), and a Facebook page, both part of the social media campaign to win over the public and the Legislature.

Museum display
A partially reconstructed skull and tail of Augustynolophus, discovered in the Panoche Hills of western Fresno County in 1939, are on display in the Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. The skull is about 3 feet long, and scientists believe the dinosaur measured about 30 feet from nose to tail. Also in the case is the skull of a marine reptile called a mososaur, also found in the western Fresno County hills. TIM SHEEHAN tsheehan@fresnobee.com

The partially reconstructed skull and tail from one of the Augustynolophus specimens are on display behind protective glass in the popular Dinosaur Hall of the museum in Los Angeles. Based on the size of the skull at about 3 feet long, and the 6-foot length of the tail, Chiappe estimates the dinosaur measured about 30 feet long. Its fossilized teeth, which bear a resemblance to the wheel burr of a coffee grinder, indicate that it was a plant-eater, in contrast to more famous meat-eating dinosaurs like Tyrannosaurus rex that lived during the same geologic period around 66 million years ago, Chiappe said.

Something special

Scientists from the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena knew they’d found something special in the summer of 1939 when they unearthed the long-buried bones of a duck-billed dinosaur in the Panoche Hills. The following year, a second, smaller skeleton was discovered and excavated a few miles away.

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What makes Augustynolophus significant is that no examples of its broader family of land-dwelling hadrosaurs, or duck-billed dinosaurs, had ever been found so far west. “Discovery of these reptiles in this far western area is of considerable scientific interest and possesses great significance  ,” wrote Chester Stock, the noted California paleontologist who led the Caltech teams that excavated the two skeletons.

Chester Stock Caltech
Chester Stock, a paleontologist with the California Institute of Technology, led expeditions to the Panoche Hills in 1939 and 1940 to excavate two fossilized skeletons of the dinosaur Augustynolophus. COURTESY OF THE ARCHIVES, CALIFORNIA INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY Special to The Bee

The two dinosaurs were both found in what is called the Moreno Formation, a segment of exposed marine sediments that date to the period just before the mass extinction of large dinosaurs at the end of the Cretaceous period. As Stock and his team continued their excavations in the hills, they came upon more fossils: another predatory sea creature called a mosasaur, and the two hadrosaurs that went through several classifications before being credited in 2014 by Chiappe and three other scientists as Augustynolophus morrisi.

After comparing the Panoche Hills specimens to other hadrosaurs in the Los Angeles museum’s collection and in museums in New York, Russia and Canada, all it took was a nasal bone to lead experts to conclude that the differences were enough to create an entire new genus for the dinosaurs. The genus name Augustynolophus recognizes Gretchen Augustyn, a major supporter of the Los Angeles museum’s Dinosaur Institute; the species classification morrisi recognizes paleontologist William J. Morrisi, who first identified the dinosaur as a distinct new species in 1973.

The larger of the Augustynolophus skeletons, excavated in 1939, included portions of the dinosaur’s skull and jaws, teeth, vertebrae, and bones from its front arms, hind legs, and feet. The smaller one, recovered in 1940, was believed to be a juvenile based on a skull that was about half the size of the first animal; the skeleton also had fragmentary portions of its arms and legs.

Unlike some other duck-billed dinosaurs that had large “helmets” on their heads, “Augustynolophus had a little crest projecting, like a little horn that sticks up from its skull,” Chiappe said. It and other duckbills were dinosaurs that typically walked on all fours because of their size and weight, but “from time to time they could have walked on two legs,” he added. They are believed to have been herd animals, and fossilized skin impressions of other duckbills suggest that Augustynolophus had reptilian skin more like a beaded lizard – think of the bumpy scales of a Gila monster, for example – than smooth snake-like scales.

Augustynolophus’ scientific significance also derives from the relative rarity of any land-dwelling dinosaurs here. “California has never really been known for dinosaurs,” Chiappe said. “The main reason is that dinosaurs live on land  and California for the most part during the age of dinosaurs was underwater.”

Even Augustynolophus was found in marine rocks. “It means the dinosaur died near the shore where it presumably lived, and then the carcasses of these two specimens were washed into the ocean where they sunk and were buried in the marine sediments where they were found,” Chiappe said.

Over eons, geologic forces pushed and pulled land masses; parts of California that are now west of the San Andreas Fault, a few miles west of the Panoche Hills, were much farther south than they are now.

Augustynolophus is a California dinosaur today because it was found in California,” Chiappe said.

Educational potential

The geologic changes that time and tectonics have wrought on California are difficult to grasp because of the human scale of time. “The same forces that formed the coastal ranges are lifting up the sediments that at some points were at the bottom of the ocean, and with that they lift up the fossils that were formed there,” Chiappe said. “When you walk on the Panoche Hills, you’re walking on the ancient ocean of California. You’re finding seashells, you’re finding remains of fish, you’re finding marine reptiles and, once in a while – and a lot more rare because it was not the environment in which they lived – you find a dinosaur like Augustynolophus.”

Panoche outcrop
The Panoche Hills of western Fresno County are punctuated by rocky outcroppings, some of which contain fossils of ancient animals from tens of millions of years ago. TIM SHEEHAN tsheehan@fresnobee.com

That makes the Panoche Hills a fertile hunting ground for fossils, said Dundas, the Fresno State professor. “One of the things that’s really interesting about the Moreno Formation is that it preserves some very high-quality remains of marine reptiles such as plesiosaurs and mosasaurs, and also a handful of dinosaur specimens, which are quite rare in the state of California,” Dundas said.

Children are almost universally fascinated by dinosaurs, and perhaps this is a small way of helping to underscore the need to spark that interest.

Assemblyman Richard Bloom, D-Santa Monica, author of AB 1540

Dundas said the areas where Augustynolophus and other fossils have been recovered are federal lands under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management. “With respect to vertebrate fossils, you must have a permit to actually pick up and collect any fossil remains on federal lands in the United States,” Dundas said.

In addition to occasional expeditions by the Los Angeles museum, researchers from the UC Berkeley and from the Bureau of Land Management itself conduct digs in the hills looking not just for fossilized animals, but also plants.

“Obviously people are excited about the dinosaurs, and to some extent they’re excited about the marine reptiles,” Dundas said. “But the fossil plants are frankly just as interesting from a scientific perspective because it’s giving us a sense of what some of the plants were like along the coastline to the east” of where the dinosaur fossils were found.

Robert Dundas Fresno State
Robert Dundas, a paleontology professor at Fresno State, talks about the scientific importance of fossil-bearing rock layers from the Moreno Formation in the Panoche Hills of western Fresno County. TIM SHEEHAN tsheehan@fresnobee.com

Augustynolophus also offers the potential for invigorating interest in science for youngsters in the Valley and in California. That was the big reason Bloom introduced the bill in the first place.

“Children are almost universally fascinated by dinosaurs, and perhaps this is a small way of helping to underscore the need to spark that interest,” Bloom said. “I’m fascinated by them too.  For me, this was an opportunity to geek out on a topic that interested me. Little did I know that other (Assembly) members were also strongly interested in the topic.”

Jerry Valadez, director of the Central Valley Science Project at Fresno State, also noted the natural affinity that kids have for fossils and dinosaurs. “Fossils are interesting to kids, but what is difficult for kids to get is the idea of time,” Valadez said. That is why the study of fossils and geology go hand in hand. Designating a state dinosaur, especially one discovered in Fresno County, he added, “could be a great opportunity (for Valley teachers) to bring context to the classroom where this would be taught.”

Rocks and fossils are among the learning standards adopted several years ago by the state Board of Education, Valadez said. “But science has been neglected for more than a decade” as education funds have been steered to initiatives to improve reading and mathematics scores. California, he added, ranks 47th out of 50 states in science education achievement – a sore spot that “is one of our biggest frustrations.”

“We want fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders especially to be exposed to rocks and fossils and the geology of California,” Valadez said. “That’s been missing in California for a long time.”

Museum teeth
A close-up of the lower jaw of Augustynolophus on display in the Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles shows the plant-eating dinosaur’s teeth. TIM SHEEHAN tsheehan@fresnobee.com

At the Dinosaur Hall in the Los Angeles museum, having Augustynolophus as the potential state dinosaur on display “is inspirational. It’s fun. It’s a vehicle for engaging kids and people of all ages into the nature of science. It highlights the richness of our wildlife going back 66 million years ago,” Chiappe said. “It can provide impetus for all sorts of cool programs around this dinosaur that are educational.”

“Those are all real good reasons to identify this dinosaur as the California state dinosaur, if you really want to have one,” Chiappe added. “Of course you can live without one, but what’s not to like about having one?”

Official state stuff

The duck-billed dinosaur Augustynolophus morrisi, whose fossilized remains have only been found in Fresno County, is only the latest in a long line of things considered for California official state designation. Existing state designations include:

State flower: Golden poppy

State gemstone: Benitoite

State bird: California Valley quail

State lichen: Lace lichen

State tree: California redwood (both coast redwood and giant sequoia)

State prehistoric artifact: Chipped Stone Bear

State theater: Pasadena Playhouse

State marine fish: Garibaldi

State fish: California golden trout

State soil: San Joaquin soil

State song: “I Love You California”

State fife and drum band: California Consolidated Drum Band

State animal: California grizzly bear

State tartan: Based on the family tartan of John Muir

State motto: “Eureka”

State pet: Shelter pet

State historical society: California Historical Society

State tall ship: “Californian”

State mineral: Native gold

State grass: Nassella pulchra (purple needlegrass)

State nickname: Golden State

State Silver Rush ghost town: Calico

State reptile: Desert tortoise

State marine reptile: Pacific leatherback sea turtle

State insect: California dogface butterfly

State amphibian: California red-legged frog

State fossil: Sabre-tooth cat

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