This week is Earth Science Week, with National Fossil Day on Wednesday. The Museum of Discovery is holding its second annual National Fossil Day event on Saturday, the 17th, between 10 am and 3 pm. So in honor of the week and in preparation for the museum event on Saturday, I thought I would briefly talk about what I consider the three most famous fossils found in Arkansas. You may notice this list is exclusively vertebrates. That is because of the rather large bias in popularity vertebrates have over invertebrates. Vertebrates are much less common in Arkansas than invertebrates, but they get almost all the press. Let me know in the comments section if you have any other contenders.
The first contender for Arkansas’s most famous fossil is Arkansaurus, the only dinosaur to have been found in the state. Found in 1972 in Sevier County, the only bones found comprised the front half of one foot. Despite considerable searching, nothing else has ever been found. The lack of diagnostic bones has made it impossible to determine exactly what kind of dinosaur it was. All that can really be said is that it is some kind of coelurosaur, a type of theropod, but not a tyrannosaurid, ornithomimid, or any other more derived form related to birds. We can also say it was a medium-sized dinosaur, meaning it wasn’t terribly small, as the front half of the foot measures just over two feet long. A statue was made by Vance Pleasant, which was recently seen at the Museum of Discovery as part of a dinosaur exhibit. How accurate is it? It’s a reasonable estimate based on what we know right now, which is not much, except that the real animal probably had some form of feathers not seen on the statue. The fossils are currently housed at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
My vote for the Arkansas fossil that is more widely known outside the state better than inside it is Ozarcus, a primitive shark found by the paleontologists Royal and Gene Mapes in the Ozark Mountains near Leslie. The reason for the fame of this fossil is that it is the oldest known shark fossil that preserves the gill supports, known as the branchial basket. These normally do not preserve because they are made of cartilage, much like most of the rest of the shark skeleton. The gill supports here indicated that both sharks and osteichthyans, or bony fish, evolved from an ancestor that looked more like bony fish than it did the cartilaginous sharks, meaning that the original sharks were not primitive to bony fish, but possibly evolved after the appearance of bony fish. Due to this, Ozarcus got international coverage and became well known to paleontologists. The fossil currently resides at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
The last contender for Arkansas’s most famous fossil is the Hazen Mammoth, the only mammoth known from the state. Found in 1965, it consisted of the skull, tusks, and some vertebra. There was a lot more of the skeleton found, but unfortunately, the bones were very soft and were severely damaged or destroyed before they could be collected. The bones were identified as Mammuthus columbi, or the Columbian Mammoth, a less hairy version of the more commonly known woolly mammoth, indicating warmer temperatures than found in areas in which the woolly mammoth is known. Even though only one mammoth has been found in Arkansas, upwards of two dozen mastodons have been found. Mastodons were smaller cousins of the mammoths and preferred forest habitats over the grassy plains in which the mammoths lived. This provides evidence that much like today, the state was mostly forested during the Pleistocene Period in which they lived. Today, the mammoth is a resident of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
So what would you call the most famous fossil of Arkansas?