Almost every state has a state fossils, but not South Carolina. Inspired by a letter from an 8-year-old girl, a pair of legislators in South Carolina are addressing its paleontological neglect by trying to honour the woolly mammoth. Alas, it isn't that easy.
Before getting into the painfully-predictable sticking point for South Carolina, this is a great excuse to coo over the awesomeness of palaeontology and the entire concept of a state fossil, and that's exactly what I'm going to do.
The choice of a woolly mammoth isn't all that creative: four states are already honouring some species of mammoth or close relative. The official state fossil for Michigan is the most creative as the Mastodon (Mammut americanum), a relative of the mammoth with shorter legs, longer body, and bulkier muscles. The other three states picked mammoths outright, with Alaska going for the wooly mammoth (Mammuthus primigenius), Washington state going for the Columbian Mammoth, and Nebraska honouring the "Whoops, maybe this isn't actually a distinct species after all..." Archidiskodon imperator. That's okay, Nebraska, it appears that the woolly and Columbian mammoths might have been interbreeding to produce the all-American Mammuthus jeffersonii!
The woolly mammoth (left) was taller and hairier, and had more curved tusks than the mastodon (right).
California picked a saber-toothed cat (Smilodon californicus) as their fossil, but their state is home to by far the cutest of all the mammoths. Off the California coast on the Channel Islands lived a species pygmy mammoths half the size of their more common brethren. During the last ice age 20,000 to 40,000 years ago, sea levels were lower and the Channel Islands were a mere 10 kilometers off-shore of Santa Barbara. Assumably strong swimmers like modern elephants, this was a short swim for ancient mammoths drawn by the delicious smell of ripening fruit. Once on the island and safe from predators, their colossal size was no longer necessary for survival. Paired with limited resources and ever-shrinking land as the Ice Age ended and sea levels rose, evolution favoured smaller and smaller mammoths. While Mammuthus primigenius stood 3 meters the shoulder, Mammuthus exilis were half the size at barely 1 to 2 meters.
A pygmy mammoth fossil uncovered on Santa Rosa Island in 1994. Photography credit: National Parks Service
South Carolina has choices besides the woolly mammoth to honour its unique fossil history. They have Paleozoic trilobites near Batesburg in the southwest, although that would be a mildly dull choice with three states currently honouring the iconic critters.
The Mesozoic fossils are almost entirely marine species. While I can't imagine legislators holding up a tube worm as a state-symbol, the marine fossils include a few dinosaur teeth that washed off-shore. They even have a cretaceous Thescelosaurus neglectus, a plant-eating dinosaur that no other state has laid claim to honouring. Or they could be the first state to pick an ammonite, those delightful index-fossil cephalopods so useful for relative dating of geologic time.
Giant ground sloths are far more intimidating than their modern cousins. Photography credit: Ryan Somma
But the Cenozoic is where South Carolina's fossils really shine, including sharks, crocodilians, and toothed whales. The state is even home to the largest collection of saber-kittens outside California's La Brea tar pits. They even have giant ground sloths, the crazy prehistoric beastie that stood even taller than mammoths! Don't try to tell me that wouldn't be an incredible state fossil.
All that said, the mammoth isn't a bad choice, and the proto-palaeontologist's reasoning is a mixture of accurate and awesome: one of the first discoveries vertebrae fossils in North America was slaves digging up mammoth teeth in a South Carolinian swamp.
A lack of creativity isn't the real problem for South Carolina. Representative Robert L. Ridgeway, III put forward:
A BILL TO AMEND THE CODE OF LAWS OF SOUTH CAROLINA, 1976, BY ADDING SECTION 1-1-691 SO AS TO PROVIDE THAT THE WOOLY MAMMOTH IS DESIGNATED AS THE OFFICIAL STATE FOSSIL OF SOUTH CAROLINA.
Nice, simple, and effective if not a particularly creative choice of fossil. The House passed the bill 94 to 3, so off it went to the senate. Senator Kevin L. Johnson backed the bill, and the next sentence should be about how it was passed and third grader Olivia McConnell could bask in the joy her state's new fossil.
But no, it can't be that simple.
In South Carolina, a single senator can block a bill from consideration. Cindi Ross Scoppe writing for local newspaper The State has the story of what happened next:
[The bill] got delayed on Tuesday, when Sen. Kevin Bryant wanted to amend the bill by designating language from the Genesis creation story as "the official state passage from an ancient historical text" and Sen. Joel Lourie pointed out that that was out of order and Sen. Mike Fair objected to the whole thing.
When Senator Bryant's original amendment was ruled off-topic, he adjusted it to add on to the bill's mammoth-text, "as created on the Sixth Day with the beasts of the field."
For now, the bill is on hold.
Head, meet desk.
Thanks to Observation Deck contributor RemediosVaro for pulling this story into view. Top image credit Mika McKinnon. Want more stories about fuzzy creatures in planetary science? Here's an inflatable polar bear that snuck into NASA hanger, and a fawn that was rescued at ALMA Observatory. Before you laugh about South Carolina too much, take a look at the national House of Representatives Committee on Science.